The Malevič Misprint: An Artist’s Approach to Film

Timothy C. Harte, Harvard University

In the fall of 1929 the Soviet film journal Kino i kul′tura published the article “Živopisnye zakony v problemax kino,” crediting the piece to V. Malevič. The initial “V.” was a curious misprint. Although the artist Kazimir Malevič never gained renown as a film scholar or theoretician, he did produce four articles on cinema between 1925 and 1929. Malevič’s articles, written at a time when Soviet film was evolving at breakneck speed, represented an artist eager to have a voice in the medium’s development. This 1929 article, despite the errant initial, encapsulated Kazimir Malevič’s vehement views on art and film, namely his desire to see cinema adopt non-objective painterly means to depict the medium’s inherent kinesthetic dynamism. It is this article, never republished in English and ignored for many years due to the misprint, that I want to explore here, both in terms of its critical stance on the work of the Soviet filmmakers Sergej Ejzenštejn and Dziga Vertov, as well as its analysis of cinema’s ability to depict speed, a common concern among avant-garde artists. Discussing Soviet cinema’s conspicuous desire to distinguish itself from easel work, Malevič saw film as having far more in common with the medium of painting than many wanted to admit. He did, however, emphasize that Ejzenštejn and Vertov were working within different painterly traditions. While Ejzenštejn adhered to the more conservative model of the nineteenth-century Russian “itinerants,” Vertov followed in the path of the Italian futurists. Vertov, Malevič argued, was one of the few Soviet filmmakers to explore new “kino-problems” associated with the painterly image, aesthetic issues comparable to the ones painters had faced in the first two decades of the century. Malevič claimed that in order to understand Vertov’s films Odinnadcatyj (1928) and Čelovek s kinoapparatom (1929), one “unconditionally” had to know the “futurism of Boccioni, Balla” as well as the “entire system of pictorial futurism.” Not surprisingly, Ejzenštejn later argued that Malevič’s likening of cinema to painting was faulty and based upon misconceptions of the medium. The issue, however, certainly merits critical attention today, and by juxtaposing sequences from several of Ejzenštejn and Vertov’s films, I intend to explore how Soviet cinema attempted to convey the kinesthetic flow of images that Malevič saw as integral to the emerging art form.