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Ambivalence is the Word by Aubrey Prestwich

30 January 2023

Black Square on White Ground, Kaisimir Malevich, 1913 © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

‘Ambivalent’ is the new catch-all word wending its way through the halls of the Courtauld. In seminars, in lecture theatres, in all levels of BA study, in a diverse range of periods and geographies, the word has been uttered in every class I’ve been in for the first two weeks. What, then, is ambivalence, and why is it such a useful word to describe art? It can be trite and stereotypical to quote a dictionary in the exploration of terms, but Oxford says that ambivalence is ‘the condition of holding opposite feelings’. Love and hate, agony and ecstasy. Art can hold the beauty and terror of the world in its grip, and scholars can describe this emotional dissonance with the term. The complexity of experience inherent in living is reflected in art. Unresolved tensions, ideas, and ideals create a situation where those that seek to understand humanity cannot, and they navigate and interrogate this understanding in the visual plane. Take, for example, the work of early modernists: founding Bauhaus members, Soviet artists, and those navigating the aftermath of the war. Particularly, consider Kazimir Malevich and his formal experiments: shapes on white ground. Most famously, a black square. In presenting these forms as the Last Futurist Exhibition of Pictures, Malevich posits that pictures can be condensed into a single, meaningful end goal. The work held spiritual, political, and philosophical relevance. What was art to look like under the Soviet regime? A new era of collective spirit must have a new type of art, and Malevich suggests that this art should be his suprematism. Yet, the shapes and their simplicity bring about strong emotion: it is not the abstraction that is important. It is the replacement of previous representations: the black square on white ground replaces the icon; the comrade replaces the tsar. Ultimately, this abstraction could not favourably resolve the ambivalence of the new regime: socialist realism was the preferred solution. Malevich’s work is simply one sketch which uses this term. Ambivalence has also been used in lectures to describe the works of the Reformation in Spain and the Netherlands, the Enlightenment in England, and medieval church decorating schemes in eastern Europe. These topics are meaty, full intellectual meals that must be digested slowly. As lectures continue over the semester, I hope to explore these complexities. The term is useful, if overused, and I welcome its continued resonance.

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