Malevich, Kasimir: Red House (1932)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Faces: we can find them anywhere. We're deeply inclined to facial recognition, to perceiving faces in things and putting faces on things. The world for us is full of eyes, noses and mouths, imagined or appended, from the Man in the Moon to the snarling snout of a fighter plane.

But facial experience isn't only a matter of facial features. We give faces to things that have no physiognomy. They simply have a front. Coins have faces, clocks have faces, buildings have façades. That is, they hold the possibility of a face-to-face relationship. You can divide the world up like this. Some things have an established front, a face that can face us' some things don't.

Pictures, for example, have faces. You can look at a building from the front and the side, but when you're viewing a picture you only look at it front-on. A conservator may be interested in the all-round physical condition of a painting. From a viewer it demands face-to-face attention.

But pictures also depict things that have faces: not just human faces, but any of those other things that can face us. And sometimes these things will be depicted so that their faces are turned directly towards the viewer. So a picture can involve us in a twofold facial relationship. Always, it asks us to look at it face on. Sometimes, as well, it shows us something face on.

Kasimir Malevich's Red House is a simple picture. It shows a red house with a black roof, a house that might have been painted by a child, in a landscape of horizontal stripes.

Admittedly, when you try to describe the scene in more detail, uncertainties arise. As with a child's picture, you find yourself asking: what's that meant to be? The clues are minimal, and you can't be sure. Take the stripey background. Is it a receding view of the world, or the world shown in cross-section?

Look at the stripes in the lower part of the picture, from the strong black stripe downwards. You could see them as strips of land, coming towards you from a horizon. Or you could see them as layers of soil, going downwards through the ground.

Likewise, in the upper part, the fluctuating stripes of blue/white can be seen as layers of cloudy sky - with the wide central white band maybe "empty" air between ground and sky. Equally, or more plausibly, you could see these blue and white stripes as a tipped-up view of the sea, stretching away into the distance.

Actually, these background uncertainties are not very important. Red House is a picture that knows one big thing: its power is in the red house itself. It's in the way that this red house is so strongly present, the way that - though it has no features - it insistently stands and faces us.

The house is almost just a flat, red shape. Not quite, though. It has a landscape setting, so that we don't see it as just a shape. We see it as a house standing in a space, which might therefore be turned some other way, but is in fact turned directly to face us. However you read the background, this house stands with its façade facing front.

At the same time, of course, it is a plain oblong. The front-on façade of the house becomes a rectangular red shape, lying flat on the surface of the canvas. Forget about the house now. As you stand to face the canvas, this red, flat, painted oblong faces you. It is the focus for your face-to-face with the picture itself.

Malevich does two more things to fix this oblong in the canvas around it. He makes the proportions just about identical to the proportions of the picture as a whole. The oblong is a miniature of the whole canvas. It is also centred in it - or rather, the margins between the left, right and bottom edges of the oblong, and those of the picture, are of equal width. The red oblong is firmly lodged in the lower part of the frame.

This width can't be repeated in the margin at the top - not if the internal oblong and the picture are to keep the same proportions. Perfect, all-the-way-round centring would only be possible in a square within a square. Squares here would be a bad idea. Red House needs to be an oblong within an oblong, and specifically an upright oblong - because that way, the house and the picture don't just offer a face-off with the viewer, they also imitate the viewer's standing posture. They stand and face you, as you stand and face them.

Pure confrontation: that's the simple impact of Red House. It has no face, but it faces us hard. OK, maybe there's a hint of physiognomy, in the black roof that's rather like a piece of hair. Maybe the way the house sits on the ground has a suggestion of head and shoulders. Maybe the three white dots/windows are a little eye-like. But still, an image that has no gaze at all can do the traditional trick, and seem to follow you round the room.