One hundred years ago, Russian artist Kazimir Malevich broke with the work he had been doing up until that point, and dedicated himself to simple colors and geometric forms. At 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition, he introduced his new conviction: that painting should move away from representation, in favor of “pure artistic feeling.”
This movement was called “suprematism,” and one of Malevich most famous paintings in this mode is Black Square, which is exactly what it sounds like—a black square of paint.
Over the last century, though, the paint of the square has cracked, revealing color beneath. It was clear that Malevich had blotted out some of his previous work as part of this new direction. And, for the painting’s centenary, the curators at the State Tretyakov Gallery, where the painting now hangs, decided to see what was underneath, as Hyperallergic writes.
They found not one but two paintings. One was in a “Cubo-Futurist” style, the curators told the Russian TV show Kultura, and the other was “proto-Suprematist.”
But the curators also found a bit of writing. The first word, they are sure, is “battle.” And although the rest isn’t as clear, they think that it reads “Battle of negroes in a dark cave.”
European audiences at the time would have considered this a joke. And not even an original one: in 1897, French humorist Alphonse Allais published a black square with the caption “Combat de Nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit”—“battle of negroes in a cave, during the night.”
The inscription under the paint of Black Square, then, more closely unites this iconic piece of work with the French precedent, both in conception and in bad taste.
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