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X-Rays Unveil Hidden Paintings Beneath an Avant-Garde Classic

The brightly-colored cubist work below “Black Square” adds new dimensions to a masterpiece

(GEORGIOS KEFALAS/epa/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

At first glance, Kazimir Malevich's famous "Black Square" painting seems stark and simple. Just beneath the deep black paint, though, researchers have discovered signs of two earlier paintings made by the Russian artist—and they were colorful.

While preparing for its upcoming centenary, experts at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery were examining a version of the monochromatic painting with x-rays when they realized that "Black Square" was painted on top of two previously unknown works, the AFP reports. The researchers also uncovered an inscription in Malevich's handwriting beneath the painting's white border, which could help decipher its meaning.

"It was known that under the Black Square there was some underlying image," Yekaterina Voronina, an art researcher at Tretyakov, tells Russia-K, a state-run television network

According to Voronina, the hidden paintings appear to bridge the gap between Malevich's Cubist work and his later experiments with Suprematism, an art movement based around solid geometric forms such as "Black Square." The first painting appears to have done in a brightly-colored Cubo-Futurist style, then it was later painted over with what Voronina calls a "proto-Suprematist composition," Henri Neuendorf reports for ArtNet News.

Malevich began his career by painting figurative forms, but he eventually rejected Cubo-Futurism in favor of basic geometric shapes, such squares, circles and crosses. He claimed that art depicting nature "resembles something alive as much as skirts resemble a woman." Nonetheless, the newly-discovered inscription hidden beneath "Black Square" suggests that it was more than a manifesto for the Suprematist movement. It might have also been a response to an earlier artwork.

Underneath the border of white paint on the outside of "Black Square," researchers discovered an inscription that appears to read "Negroes battling in a cave." This could indicate that Malevich was replying to an earlier painting of a black square, which was created in 1897 by French writer and humorist Alphonse Allais. Allais titled his work "Combat des Negres dans une cave, pendant la nuit," or "Negroes fighting in a cellar at night," the AFP reports.

If the inscription’s interpretation is correct, it suggests that Malevich was influenced by many more artists than historians once believed. The gallery will present its findings at an exhibition later this week.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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