Collective art, Pompidou Center and Palais de Tokyo

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Last week, on March 28, the Pompidou Centre opened an exhibition with the title: Chagall, Lissitzky, Malévitch: L’avant-Garde Russe à Vítebsk (1918-1922). The exhibit revolves around a revolutionary art school, Vitebsk Fine Arts School, and three key figures in the elaboration of their new artistic education and collaborative creativity: Marc Chagall, the institution’s founder, and two artists that Chagall invites as professors: El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich, creator of Suprematism. Works of the three painters, with works by other students and teachers of the school are exposed, while the Russian avant-garde is explored, especially the creation and development of Suprematism and the UNOVIS group (Followers of the New Art, by its initials in Russian).

The display tells us a story, Chagall, as commissioner of fine arts of Vitebsk, establishes a school in the search of revolutionary art. He invited Lissitzky, and then is convinced of bringing Malevich as a teacher. Malevich, with his grand charisma and teaching methods after his arrival in 1919, starts aligning students to his artistic movement, Suprematism.

Malevich created Suprematism (enhancing the supremacy of the “pure artistic feeling”), an artistic current that abandons realism, considered by the painter as a distraction of the transcendent experience that art is supposed to evoke, as a response to the search of new order after the Russian Revolution. This movement emphasizes geometric abstraction, giving forms individual independence, and disengaging completely from the ‘real world object’. In Vitebsk, together with other teachers and students, he formed UNOVIS, a group that looked to establish Suprematism in all its vital aspects. The group designed posters, magazines, signs and postcard; adhering to the communist ideal, every member shared the credit and responsibility of the work, signing with a black square. This way, Suprematism intervened in every aspect of social life, detaching itself from individuality, thus creating collective art.

The development of the movement is documented in the Pompidou exhibition, in which we can find displayed: Prouns (Project for the affirmation of the new) from Lissitzky –his personal take on Suprematism –, Malevich’s suprematist works, and decorations, installations, paintings and texts from the UNOVIS group. The Prouns, through geometric figures and, for the first time, architectural volumes in the suprematist plane, show non-objectivity; they show the imposing force of the two planes: the background and the form, and how this come to spatially represent new ways of life and human relationships, ever changing in the progress to a new socialist society.

Proun 1

In Malevich’s suprematist works, the “pure art” ideal is revealed, the search for the eternal and the detachment from reality; the exhibit shows “Suprematism of the spirit”, a masterpiece in which one Malevich’s famous squares is “crucified”, and in which Malevich manifests the “pure art religion”, through which he strives for infinity.

Suprématisme de lesprit

With the posters, postcards, wagon painting and propaganda, the social spectrum that Suprematism wanted to achieved is exemplified. The movement was a collective response to the post-revolutionary Russia, which detached from the individual and the material to achieve a pure art, a new art. Just as Marxism strived for the utopia, Suprematism strived for the purest art.

On the other hand, since February 16 an “investigation lab” is exhibited in the Palais de Tokyo: ”:  L’un et l’autr (one and the other) is an exhibition, a collective project created by to French artists of different generations: Kader Attia, born in 1970, and Jean-Jacques Lebel, 1936, and which attempts to show the greatest problems of our civilization.

The display consists on two installations, one of each artist, plus a selection of works by different artists, and as a counterpoint to the installations, a series of objects collected by both artists through the years. These objects transmit diverse discourses, both of reparations to the treated subjects, and deviation of these; according to the artists: “These objects reveal our humanity”, and it is in them where the significance of the exhibition converges.

The first installation: The culture of Fear: an invention of evil (2013), from Attia, shows the occidental obsession of categorizing, and adjoins the contemporary and colonial representations of the non-western being: the “Savage”. It proposes the genesis of the fear for the other, as an ideological construct created through the communication media. 

The culture of fear

The second installation: Soluble Poison. Scenes from the American occupation (Baghdad) (2013), from Lebel, displays a series of public photographs, taken in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by the torturers themselves between 2003 and 2005, of torture, humiliation, and rape. He arranges them in such a way that confronts the spectator with them, he forces him to watch. It denounces the crimes of imperialism and it makes us navigate through the horror of torture.

Both artists come together in the election of objects that compliment the exhibition, the objects that complete it, because through African busts, wooden statuettes, primitive weapons, poems, and other works of different artists, they manage to communicate what is sometimes lost in the so vital exhibition of terrible situations, the desire for redemption. Collectively they seek to reflect and make the viewer reflect on the great disheartens of current civilization. 

L_un et l_autr

The project is a collective act of resistance, the taking of an ethical stance before an ignominious and nihilist society. It responds to the times we live in: the stage of transition of power, the regression toward nationalist and the alt right, the rise of racism, and the society each time more used to violence and sadism; and it does so in a material way, a clear, straightforward and transcendent way, without the abstraction of concepts. It is a collective attempt of making the individual reflect, the problems are universal, but the solutions belong to the individual actor.

In this manner we find confluence in the collective art as a response to the social context, in two separate exhibitions, of diverging artistic themes and very different historical time. On the one hand, we have modern art, Russian avant-garde Suprematism –, which in response to the Russian Revolution, perfectly reflected its times. Suprematism, as well as revolution, became the beacon for those seeking a new order, a “new world whose issues arise from within our being” according to Lissitzky. This liberation of art was compared to the communist freeing of the working class, both, the suprematists thought, progressed towards perfection, artistic and social. This way we arrived into pure art, non-objective, non-material art, the representation of a universe without objects, total geometric abstraction. On the other hand, we have contemporary art, actual art, from two French men seeking to rebel against society and its ignominy, cruelty, and eternal return to war, through objects that evoke that that is impossible to communicate, and installations that are critic to the great problems of the world. A collective collaboration that replies to a world whose perfection ideals are in perversion. In opposing ways to that of Suprematism, with material, object-based art that is imbedded to the real world, Lebel and Attia don’t lay out the new order, but the thirst of destruction of the actual one. Because society has lost hope, and utopia is far away.

Art, in response to the world seeking a new order after the Russian Revolution, became in a way nihilistic, a “sermon of nothingness and destruction”, according to the critic Alexandre Benois, that in some way sought purity and absolutes through non-objectivity. However nowadays, Lebel and Attia found their artistic ideas in the objects, letting them communicate what they have seen, and they create vital art that responds to the destructive society, the nihilist society. One art seeks to get rid of humanity and the other wants to retain it, to find it. And so, we see the decadence of the human being in the last century, we see the decline of ideals and the loss of hope, but the purpose of art remains the same, the quest to explain, respond and reflect in some way the reality that surrounds us.

Mariana Osorio


  • “L’Un et l’Autre.” 16 Feb- 13 May 2018. Palais de Tokyo, París.
  • “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malévitch: L’avant-garde Russe à Vitebsk (1918-1922).” 28 Mar-16 Jul 2018. Centre Pompidou, París.




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