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The 'black' controversies rocking the art world

Late Russian artist Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square painting and sculptor Anish Kapoor's monopoly on Vantablack is trending in global news rooms; we find out why.

by Georgina MaddoxPublished on : Oct 30, 2019

Black is often considered the colour of mystery, of obfuscation, of hiding. It also indicates the absence of light, and in art, black on black has always been a source of intrigue. The absence of light leads to a kind of blindness – momentarily - and evocation of the primal fear of the unknown. One that humankind has grappled with since the dawn of time. In the First Age of Light, night was feared and the discovery of fire was seen as one of the revolutionary stages of evolution that enabled humankind to surmount those fears of the dark and the absence of light and increase the hours of productivity into the night.

This was followed by The Second Age of Light, characterised by a wave of industrialisation, and the use of gas and electric public lighting. This led to excessive energy use, light pollution and over-illumination, underpinned by the lack of respect for the qualities of night. We are now in the ‘Third Age of Light’ where artificial light is re-evaluated, to a precious commodity, no longer taken for granted.

In visual and immersive art these three ages of light come into play in different ways, in which black is instrumental in evoking that primal fear of the unknown or the code of darkness and secrecy.

Recently, a kerfuffle over Kazimir Malevich had the Moscow art scene buzzing - to put in perspective and on a more serious note, Malevich’s renowned 1915 Suprematic Black Square painting came under sophisticated X-ray technology and revealed a mysterious inscription, which offers insights into the work’s cultural origins and meaning. Experts at the Tretyakov Gallery issued a public statement at a news conference in Moscow. The inscription consists of three barely visible words, in Russian, on the lower left edge of the white border that surrounds the black square itself. According to the experts, it seems to be part of the phrase “Negroes Battling at Night,” an apparent reference to an earlier painting by the French writer and humorist Alphonse Allais.

Researchers examine Kazimir Malevich’s Black Suprematic Square in Moscow | Black Suprematic Square | Kazimir Malevich | STIRworld
Researchers examine Kazimir Malevich’s Black Suprematic Square in Moscow Image Credit: Courtesy of artbeat blogs

“There is no doubt that the creation of Allais became the source of inspiration for Malevich,” Konstantin Akinsha, a Malevich expert, said in an email to the New York Times. Malevich belongs to the school of painting known as Suprematism, which is all about the supremacy of colour and shape in painting. However, this recent discovery reveals that Malevich’s work was not just a formalist study of colour but was hiding beneath its layers a strong political comment. While experts are still debating its impact upon the understanding of the artist’s approach to issues of race and colour, the investigation also revealed earlier layers of paint under the monochrome surface of cracked black paint. Experts already knew of the existence of other imagery underneath the black surface, but scanning revealed some further details.

“It was believed that this work was done spontaneously, but the results of our investigation reveal that the process of its creation was complex and took a long time,” Irina Vakar, the Tretyakov’s chief researcher of the Russian avant-garde, said at a news conference. “He knew a lot about what was going on in the art world.”  Others feel that the painting is in keeping with Malevich’s openly declared associations with Occult theories, which were intended to create "an altogether new and direct form of representation of the world of feeling". In the black square in his first Suprematist painting, he cryptically declared, "= feeling," while the white field "= the void beyond this feeling." Others see it as a more jocular comment on Allais’s already existing work.

Meanwhile, in Britain, a battle has been launched over artistic access to the world’s blackest of blacks. The battle raged between Stuart Semple and Anish Kapoor over who will have patent and access to the blackest of blacks. It appears that Semple took exception to Kapoor’s exclusive contract to use Vantablack, the world’s blackest black substance, and launched a project on to produce a super dark paint of his own, for which he was able to raise enough funds.

Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack Cow was created using the famed and controversial Vantablack paint | Anish Kapoor | STIRworld
Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack Cow was created using the famed and controversial Vantablack paint Image Credit: Courtesy of

The artist this year then launched Black 3.0 as “the blackest, the mattest paint in the known universe,” Semple said in the Kickstarter video for the new paint, which reportedly absorbs up to 99 percent of all light, compared to 99.96 percent for the original Vantablack. “It’s like a black hole or a void in a bottle,” he told news sources.  

Stuart Semple’s Black 3.0 paint is an answer to Anish Kapoor’s monopoly over Vantablack paint | Stuart Semple | STIRworld
Stuart Semple’s Black 3.0 paint is an answer to Anish Kapoor’s monopoly over Vantablack paint Image Credit: Courtesy of

Semple has been making his own pigments for personal use for the past 20 years. When he found out about Kapoor’s exclusive deal with Vantablack producers, Surrey NanoSystems, Semple was outraged. It also occurred to him that he hadn’t been offering others the chance to experiment with his custom-made art supplies. Now he has opened up the market with the express condition that the paint should not “get to it.” Talk about your artistic license!

What do you think?

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