For Kasimir Malevich, all paths seem to have led up to and away from this seminal abstraction - I'm trying so hard to avoid the 'i' word - which he claimed to have conceived in 1913, around the time of his geometric costumes for the futurist drama Victory over the Sun, and executed for the first time two years later. The above Black Square of 1915 is in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and it's too fragile to travel; the surface paint began to crack and so Malevich provided 'new' versions in 1923 and 1929, both in Tate Modern's stupendous exhibition (sorry, it closed at the end of October).
The cracking is surely part of the effect, intended or not: that I think of it as interference on a telly screen was fostered by its position in the December 1915 Last Exhibition of Futurist Paintings 0.10 where it took the place conventionally held by an icon in Orthodox homes. And that, of course, is a position often occupied by a TV screen now. We must count ourselves very lucky that a single photo exists of the 1915 layout
which allowed Tate Modern to locate nine out of the 12 paintings still in existence today in their rightful places. There are several classic Suprematist canvasses like this one.
Malevich's definition makes sense: to avoid counterfeiting nature, he avoids taking anything from it (though as we know nature also loves geometric shapes). 'Everything has disappeared; a mass of material is left from which a new form will be built'. Only a few years earlier, he was defining himself by reflecting other movements in art, as in this self-portrait of 1908-10
which makes a telling symmetry with the portraits of the last room. What could Malevich then do with Socialist Realism laying down its tenets in the early 1930s? Bizarrely, he depicted himself as a Renaissance Florentine.
Also symmetrically, the simplified peasants of 1911 recur in the late 1920s, when he was reconfiguring that style in an era when experimentation in art still remained free (the Twenties, as we know, were a fruitful era for avant-garde music, dance, literature and art in early Soviet Russia).
What fascinated me most of all was Malevich's response to the Revolution, draining his abstract shapes of colour and disappearing them in a sea of white. These seem like doves, the souls of an art which, Malevich wrote, 'died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it'.
Yet, of course, it didn't. Malevich must have been an inspiring teacher in Vitebsk and leader of the Champions of Art, UNOVIS, pictured below.
His pedagogic charts are works of art in their own right, placing Suprematist abstraction between religious and realistic art. And this period also saw a rebirth in art for the theatre, which is where the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition of designs from the fabulous Bakhrushin Museum in Moscow provides the continuity (or did, until the Malevich exhibition closed; the V&A's show is up for some time). Crammed into a space of odd angles attached to the tucked-away Theatre Museum, there are some revelations here if you find your way to see them (I went to the opening the other week, crowded with a zoo of Russians and Russianists and attendant tensions).
A few constructivist models like Lyubov Popova's above for Meyerhold's 1922 production of Crommelynck's The Magnificent Cuckold (wish there were more of these 3D efforts) show what the cue was for Yakulov when he designed Le pas d'acier for Diaghilev and Prokofiev in Paris. Geometric designs in the Victory over the Sun tradition have a very individual take from Varvara Stepanova in a costume for another Meyerhold special in the same year, Tarelkin's Death. 1922 seems to have been something of a milestone for both Meyerhold and Russian women artists.
I was also delighted to see in colour Alexander Rabinovich's most famous design for the hugely successful Moscow production of Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges so I take the liberty of putting up my one shot.
I'm going back soon to spend more time and I expect to see a bizarre error corrected: the Princess Turandot referred to in the info for several designs could not have been Puccini's because he hadn't composed his opera then; everyone with an interest in the era knows that his source, Carlo Gozzi, was hugely popular in 1920s Russia.
Back at Tate Modern, an invite to see Richard Tuttle's not terribly thrilling installation in the Turbine Hall meant free admission to both exhibitions. So without wilting I complemented Malevich with Sigmar Polke one floor below. Like The Bride and the Bachelors show at the Barbican, this was one to make you smile or laugh at Polke's freewheeling exuberance. The later canvases become wearying, the earlier ones sometimes feel amateurish but again the central rooms yielded me, at least, the most pleasure, especially because one image incorporates John Tenniel's illustration of Alice and the Caterpillar.
Polke went trippy in more ways than one in the 1970s, driving to Afghanistan and Pakistan where he shot long, boring films in opium dens (I can trump him for interest on that front: in Peshawar, we were led by a dodgy self-styled friend of a Mulk Prince we were to meet in Chitral to a very dimly-lit stable where consumptive men smoked opium between the backsides of cows. We didn't partake, I hasten to add, not so much primly as because the coughing was not encouraging). Here Polke has hand-tinted and treated one of his photos.
Hookahs and mushrooms are the predominant theme around this time.
I also liked the ambiguity of the Watchtower paintings made between 1984 and 1988
though the last five rooms oppressed with their large, splashy canvases (and remember I went round the Polke first, Malevich second, so it wasn't a case of gallery fatigue).
While we're still in a non-Russian intermezzo, a brief word about a production which felt a bit underwhelming compared to Belvoir Sydney's The Wild Duck, second only to Janet McTeer's Nora in A Doll's House for sheer Ibsen poleaxing in my experience (and this was a fairly radical re-write). I went with director Ian Rickson's brother Graham - one of the (few) generous spirits on The Arts Desk, and he's been turning in his Classical CDs column weekly without batting an eyelid for years now - to see said sibling's Electra. I directed the Sophocles play, too, at the Edinburgh Bedlam back in 1981 and though I know we couldn't hold a candle to most of these actors, the idea wasn't so different: monumental set with giant doorway, vaguely archaic-Greek setting suggested through contemporary costumes, three actresses sharing the Chorus.
Don't most of us love Kristin Scott Thomas(pictured above by Johan Persson) as a screen actress? As Agamemnon's crazed daughter, she was intelligent, various and convincing when in full pelt; but I just didn't feel the pain of this bright middle-class lady. You need to wonder how on earth a great Electra can play the role night after night, and here it was all too clear. Most impressive actress for me was the young Chrysothemis, Liz White, a born speaker of classical verse. Diana Quick gave us a lucid Clytemnestra, but the revelation of maternal suffering wasn't as moving as I think it can be. With a weak Orestes, the recognition scene was bungled: given an audience ready to laugh at anything, really skilled actors would know how to play it so that the laughter came one minute and stopped the next. Not a bad evening, but a bit on the small side.
Here's a pair who I imagine would make a stunning Electra and Clytemnestra - Birgitte Hjørt Sorensen and Dame Harriet Walter. Fans of Borgen will know Birgitte as the feisty reporter, and admire her superb vocal range. I was starstruck to see her sitting there in the Donmar R&R space after recording Harriet in chapters from Tolstoy's War and Peace for my Opera in Depth course on Prokofiev's opera. Harriet was delighted to have the above shot, too, because she and husband Guy, currently in America, are huge Borgen admirers, as of course am I. So, having propounded my 'Borgen Hamlet' idea for the second time in a week - the first was to Lone Britt Christiansen at a Danish Embassy Nielsen pow-wow - it struck me: Birgitte would be the perfect Cordelia to Harriet's Lear (which we have to have).
What a marvellous, quick and intelligent reader is our own great actress, who squeezed in our two sessions between Saturday matinee and evening performances as Shakespeare's Henry IV (I hope to go and see Phyllida Lloyd's second 'women's prison Shakespeare' at the end of the month). This time we were recording Natasha's crisis confrontation with Pierre and her appearance to the dying Andrey. Each time Harriet reached a crucial line, she'd stop and re-record it with even greater depth. I'm so proud of having offered this as an extra to Prokofiev's scenes, even if I'm no professional sound editor.
The translation we're using, by Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky, isn't the easiest, but certainly the most faithful in its attempts to mirror Tolstoy's dogged repetitions - and to reproduce all the French with footnote translations, as he did. I was only dipping in for the relevant scenes but fatally I turned back to the beginning and can feel a third reading of the entire novel imminent.
I was delighted with the excuse to read Leskov's short(ish) story The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Left-Hander of Tula and the Steel Flea in preparing the programme notes for the Mariinsky Theatre's Barbican concert performance of Shchedrin's latest opera Levsha. The story is a marvellous fantasy; the opera, though too long, has its magical moments, not least the high-frequency music that accompanies the coloratura-soprano flea - an inspired idea, and bewitchingly realised on Tuesday with brilliant singer-actress Kristina Alieva giving us her enigmatic smile for much of the action (pictured below by with Vladimir Moroz's Alexander I and Maria Maksakova's Princess Charlotte).
As expected with Shchedrin - and for all his inventiveness I have no idea who he really is as a composer - there are moments of bombast which Gergiev is all too ready to abet; I can still imagine the score being more lightly done. But it was worth breaking my year-long Gergiev embargo once only, and enduring the predictable one-hour delay while he made his way, with back trouble apparently, to the Barbican. The singers are all so well trained, the playing first-rate and above all the chorus, pandered to in the final orthodox burial ritual at odds with Leskov's satirical distance and reminding us that there are no choral singers in the world quite like the Russians. My treasurable Arts Desk colleague Alexandra Coghlan, whom I accompanied and who made the hour's time-killing pass very quickly, expands here.
So as an artist, Gergiev went some way to redeeming himself. As a human being, can he be redeemed from the Faustian pact with Putin? Not, in my eyes, until he explicitly rejects his two most pernicious publicly-stated equations: of homosexuality with paedophilia and the Ukrainian government with Nazis and Fascists who, had not his Beloved Leader ordered an immediate annexation, would, he says, have caused a massacre of thousands in Crimea (watch this interview with a Finnish journalist, which beggars belief. By the way, though the voice-over is Finnish, the interview is in English). To believe what he claims, he has to be stupid or lying.
Telling the truth was the topic of a very pithy discussion I dropped in on two Fridays ago before heading for The Wild Duck Hosted by the Legatum Institute, the excellent Anne Applebaum questioned American and Ukrainian diplomats as well as two journalists on The Menace of Unreality: Combatting Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century.
Michael Weiss of The Interpreter (second from the right) was especially impressive: he proposed a veracity rating for major news channels and sites, headed by the BBC and Al Jazeera, a kind of unofficial club giving marks out of ten for presenting the facts. By which standards Russia Today, to which I'm told Nigel Farage regularly contributes, would get a one. Weiss pointed out how the BBC's very western quest for giving all sides a voice wastes too much airtime on spreaders of palpable nonsense, as for instance in the matter of who shot down the passenger plane over Eastern Ukraine. By the same token, I suppose it would have been fairer to have a Russian voice in this debate, which was bound to be one-sided. But I wouldn't contest anything that was said in its course: we see the same thing happening on messageboards infiltrated, each and every one by 'disinformers' (and it's not a conspiracy theory). Here's 45 minutes' worth of the talk on YouTube.
Last night I trained it down to Winchester to hear the English Sixteen in a work I wouldn't care to hear from the Mariinsky, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 in Winchester Cathedral and from this visually if not acoustically wonderful location
was turned upside down by its dazzling invention. Had it not all been so sensational, Stephen Walsh would have had the green eye from me for attending the Mariinsky Chorus's Rachmaninov Vespers in Llandaff Cathedral; their infinite depths in Shchedrin's slightly synthetic Orthodox epilogue reminded me that there's no choral sound in the world quite like fully-trained Russian voices. I could potentially catch that touring concert in Birmingham on Saturday afternoon, as I'm up there to chair a 'Brunch with Brünnhildes' Sue Bullock (whom I know and like so much) and Catherine Foster, Bayreuth's Brünnhilde last year (whom I don't, yet - know, that is).
It wasn't too difficult to resist the offer of a ticket to the Mariinsky Siegfried later, part of an only half-sold Ring which looks hideous and didn't go down too well at the Royal Opera a couple of years ago. I'll also be on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters concurrent with the brunch, discussing the dire Covent Garden Idomeneo with Alexandra and Petroc Trelawny. It shouldn't be too much of a spoiler to say that Alexandra and I are singing from the same hymn sheet.