The tendency for art to detach itself from any duty to reflect observed reality manifested itself in avant-garde art production almost from the beginnings of the Modern Movement in art. It is already present in pure form in Malevich’s drastically reductive Black Square, which consists of exactly that, a black square on a white ground.
It is interesting to note the way in which this work was exhibited when it was first put before the public. Shown in St. Petersburg, newly renamed Petrograd, in December 1915 in the Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10, it was hung high up in the corner of the room, across a corner. For a Russian audience, it was immediately apparent that it had been placed in the sacred spot that an icon of a saint would occupy in a traditional Russian home. In other words, it was an emanation of the sacred.
It is also interesting, however, to note further that recent technical research into the primary version of Malevich’s painting has revealed a handwritten caption on the white border surrounding the square. It seems – rather surprisingly – to read, “Negroes battling in a cave.” This, researchers say, may be a reference to an 1882 all-black painting with a similar title by the French dramatist and poet, Paul Bilhaud (1854-1933), which was exhibited in 1882 at the Paris Salon des Artistes Incohérents – a forum for satirical writers and artists. The image gained a wider circulation when it was appropriated in 1887 by another 19th century French humorist, Alphonse Allais (1854-1905), and published as one of a whole series of blankly monochrome images in a satirical illustrated book entitled Album primo-avrilesque (April Fool-ish Album).