Cow and Violin: Superimposed Opposites

The absurd combination of a cow and a violin portrayed in a realistic manner is characteristic of structural displacements, while the differing scales of the objects portrayed ate inherent in formal displacements. The back of this picture bears an inscription added by Malevich that reads” “the illogical comparison between two forms–‘violin and cow’–as a moment of the struggle against logic, natural order, philistine meaning, and prejudice.”  Malevich’s objects are treated as mere forms devoid of any emotive content to denote that they ate meant to be viewed as concepts instead of being taken at face value.

In Kruchenykh’s opinion, the word korova (cow) is the best rhyme for the word teatr (theatre), their “a” and “o” sounds expressing the beauty of poetry and their threatening consonant “r” closely connecting them and causing them to rhyme. Kruchenykh broke up the utilitarian meanings of these words and found links between their verbal form and sound. His rhyme attacked the Russian theatre, “the bastion of artistic weakness,” in opposition to which, in 1913, the Futurists staged the tragedy Vladimir Mayakovsky, by Mayakovsky himself, together with the Victory over the Sun. In the tragedy, Mayakovsky declared, “I will reveal to you/by words/that are simple, like moo/our new souls, /which hoot, like the arcs of the street lamps.” Kruchenykh compared the Futurist primitive trans-rational “moo-language” to the cultural language of theatre and literature, of, at the social level, peasant values to noble culture, in order to undermine the conventional hierarchy of the concepts of “low” and “high.” Malevich’s picture expresses the same ideas by visually comparing a cow to a violin.

Malevich’s 1907-1908 Symbolist drawing Song for Blue Clouds, which represents a young nude woman playing a violin in a delicate landscape composed of rhythmic lines, displays an affinity between the shape of the nude and that of the violin. This affinity is a traditional artistic motif that has existed since antiquity. Pablo Picasso reinterpreted it in his Cubist paintings, for instance, the 1910 Girl with a Mandolin (New York, Museum of Modern Art). In the Cow and Violin, the nude is substituted by a cow to form a sarcastic analogy between animal and musical instrument. In the previously discussed Perfected Portrait, Malevich manifested, in Kruchenykh’s terms, “today’s virile soul.” In the Cow and Violin, the artist ridiculed the traditional notions of beauty, inspiration, imagination, spirituality, mysticism, and eroticism embodied in female imagery. The Cow and Violin’s anti-feminist connotation probably stemmed from Kruchenykh’s Victory over the Sun. In the opera, the Futurist heroes sing an anti-feminist tune, “We have locked up/The fat beauties in a house” and promise to defeat the sun associated by them with the fatal feminine powers that “give birth to passion.” After the heroes kill the sun, they sing, “We are warmed by the croaked udder of/The red dawn,” meaning that the “croaked udder” has displaced the feminine sun. Kruchenykh recollected that the opera did not use female characters in order “to prepare a masculine epoch that would replace the age of woman-like Apollos.” Kruchenykh’s gibe at the femininity of rationality and the sun god relates to his statement that traditional clear and logical language applies to womanhood. In Malevich’s painting, the feminine violin may hint at Apollo whose ancient Greek kithara was replaced with a violin in Western art tradition, and he is being confronted by the cow, an anti-feminist symbol of transrationalism. Burliuk and Kamensky also utilized the emblematic image of a cow. In 1914, Burliuk painted the animal on his forehead, sporting it during a public speech he made. In the 1914 poem Tango with Cows, Kamensky claimed, “I want to dance, one to one, /Tango with cows, /And to build the bridges/From the bull’s jealousy/To the girl’s tears.”

The fact that a small cow covers a larger violin is also popular in paintings sale, it suggests that the new values of trans-rationalism and primitivism eclipse the old values of rationalism and noble art or academism, as the Cubo-Futurists called previous styles. The new, however, does not defeat the old, and both images continue their contradictory coexistence, similar to the state between darkness and light in The Sketch for the Backdrop of the Second Act of the Opera “Victory over the Sun.” The Cow and Violin’s illogical juxtaposition of objects, one of which partially conceals the other, is also the compositional principle of the 1914 Englishman in Moscow that develops further the Perfected Portrait’s theme of a new hero, and formulates the concept of “partial eclipse.”

Englishman in Moscow and the Concept of “Partial Eclipse.” The key to the puzzle presented by Malevich in the Englishman in Moscow is the dominant words zatmenie (“eclipse”) on the upper right and chastichnoe (“partial”) in the lower portion of the painting. Malevich replaced the standard order of the words “partial eclipse” by the less useful “eclipse partial” to stress the word “eclipse,” which he divided into two parts as za-tmenie, depicting the dark za above the brighter tmenie. The prefix za now functions as a preposition that possesses several meanings, specifically “beyond,” “after,” “behind,” “the other side,” and “through”, while tmenie becomes a grammatically incorrect verbal form connected to the word t’ma or temnota (darkness) by the root tm (t’m, tem). Malevich’s morphological displacements produce new meanings, so that za tmenie now signifies “beyond darkness” or “after darkness,” suggesting the unknown that comes after the period of darkness. Though the word tmenie is associated with the dark, it is nevertheless rendered brightly, which produces a paradox of opposites–“light darkness.”

The expression zatemnit’ smysl signifies “to darken meaning,” of to make a concept unclear, incomprehensible, or mysterious. From this standpoint, za tmenie would denote “beyond the incomprehensible,” indicating that the work presents a trans-rational meaning that is unintelligible to the viewer who attempts to decipher it through common sense. The expressions zatmenie uma (“eclipse of the mind” or “madness”), temnyi um (“dark mind” or “unclear thinking”), and temnyi chelovek (“dark man,” “unlearned man,” of “mentally challenged man”) contrast with svetlyi um (“light” or “clear mind”), svet razuma (“light of reason”), and svet znania (“light of knowledge”). Malevich’s “beyond darkness,” therefore, implies a new light of trans-rational reason and knowledge.

The concept of “beyond darkness” corresponds to Kruchenykh’s “beyond mind” or zaum’, a grammatically incorrect noun composed of the prefix za (“beyond”) and the root um (“mind”) that form the standard verbs zaumit’sia (“to become reckless”), zaumnichat’ (“to surpass the limits of reasonable norms”), zaumstvovat’ (“to become entangled with unclear concepts”), as well as zaumnet’ (“to become more clever”). In Russian folklore, the fool always turns out to be the clever man who achieves his goal, and there is a Russian proverb that “for the fool, the law is not written.” Kruchenykh’s concept “beyond mind” is meant to signify the overstepping of intellectual norms, thusly pointing to a trans-rational way of thinking. Both Malevich’s “beyond darkness” and Kruchenykh’s “beyond mind” transform the rational into the trans-rational by the inversion of the signifying components of the binary structures of light and dark and reason and madness.

In the Englishman, Malevich divided the adjective chastichnoe (“partial”) into the syllables chas-tich-noe. This division is a morphological displacement that breaks the root chast to highlight the standard noun chas (“hour”), composing a syntactically incorrect combination with the upper word zatmenie (“eclipse”), i.e. zatmenie chas, the correct form being chas zatmeniia (“the hour of eclipse”). The term “partial eclipse” denotes the world’s state between darkness and light, a further elaboration on the square composed of the black and white triangles in the backdrop sketch for the opera Victory over the Sun. The concepts “beyond darkness,” “after darkness,” and “the hour of eclipse” allude to impending change in the world’s present state.

In the upper right of the Englishman, the yellow electric light coexists with the daylight denoted by the white clouds. The dominant yellow ray on the upper left is the single source of light illuminating the dark sky. The ray that emita from the Englishman’s black top hat characterizes him as a Futurist hero, recalling both the Italian Futurists’ admiration for electric light and Mayakovsky’s assertion in Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Me is the king of the lamps!”

As a result of the structural displacements present in the Englishman, the objects depicted lose their standard meaning, but find new ones. The spoon on the hero’s top hat refers to a particular event in Malevich’s life. On 8 February 1914, he and his friend, the artist Aleksei Morgunov, pinned red wooden peasant spoons to their lapels and crossed the Kuznetski Bridge in Moscow. The indignant public called them jesters and good candidates for admittance in a mental asylum. They were not the first to don scandalous Futurist fashions as these were initiated by Larionov and Goncharova who in September 1913 walked with painted faces in the streets of Moscow. Mayakovsky, Kamensky, and Burliuk adorned their costumes with a bunch of radishes. As Kliunkov explained, they parodied the so-called aesthetic artists and poets who wore chrysanthemums on the lapels of their coats in imitation of Oscar Wilde and English dandies. The Futurists consciously played the roles of jesters, fools, and madmen to declare their independence from conventional social and aesthetic norms. In 1914, Kruchenykh wrote, “[Mayakovsky] plays a fool, he scares the public when he represents madness; and in this, there is our (I am speaking about the Futurists, the so-called ‘Cubo-Futurists’) salvation! Madness will not touch us, although, as the imitators of madness, we will outshine both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche!”

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