Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Art of Athletics (5): Malevich and Matisse

I went to the Matisse and Malevich exhibitions at Tate Modern in London last weekend, both well worth seeing before they close. A number of great paintings related to running, sport and swimming too.

Kazmir Malevich, Running Man (1932)
 'The subject of the painting is often taken to be the murderous persecution of peasants by the Soviet government. Its mood is panic, desolation. (An alternative title is Feeling of Fear.) The man is racing across strips of ground. Abstract symbols abut him: two houses of red and white, between them the bloodied sword of violence. His face and hands are blackened. He flees towards or past a tall cross which is burnt, rotten.

This is all quite likely. But we should not gauge a picture just by its subject or its symbols. A figure has its own gist. If we look at the man in the Running Man – at its form, its action – we find another sense, less fearful. This is a light figure, light-footed. It does not make firm contact with the ground. It is not under gravity. It is held up mid-air, supported from above, as if by invisible strings. Or it is held up in mid-picture, supported simply by the fact that it is an image painted on a canvas.

It is a human form without weight. It is also a human anatomy without its leadership structure. A normal body has a nerve centre: the head is in command, the limbs its strenuous instruments. With the Running Man, the action is spread out, distributed equally throughout the figure. There is no trying. The body acts without strain.

But it still has energy. It is not a pinned-down pattern or a static diagram. It floats within the pictorial field but in its outflung limbs it has a wild, free momentum. At the same time, its head and torso stay quite upright, right in the middle of the picture, maintaining the figure's equilibrium. So within this image of terror, there is another ideal model of the human: weightless, strainless, flying, balanced. It shows a lifeform delivered from all pressures or inertia, external or internal – a scarecrow-marionette-immortal'

Malevich, Sportsmen

Malevich, Girl with a red pole

Malevich, Bather (1911)

Matisse, The Swimmer in the Tank (La Nageuse dans l'aquarium) 1947

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