OBSCENE ART goes on open display Sunday at the National Gallery. Kazimir Malevich's paintings and drawings are not only wholly without redeeming social value, they tend to disturb the peace, corrupt youth and endanger his country.
That is the considered judgment of one of the 20th century's most influential art critics, Joseph Stalin. The 170 works to be shown in the East Building were suppressed in the 1930s by Stalin's order, ending the career of one of the 20th century's most innovative artists. Probably the only reason Malevich (1878-1935) didn't end up in Siberia is that he died in bed before the thought police could get around to him.
Malevich's reputation outlived Stalin and the cold warriors who followed him because some of the Ukraine native's work had reached the West before the doctrine of Socialist Realism was decreed and a whole generation of artists was stifled.
But the body of Malevich's work, much of it seized from his family, was locked away in the vaults of several state art museums until the East-West thaw. An exhibition combining the Soviet and Western holdings toured Moscow, Leningrad and Amsterdam in 1988-89.
The National Gallery exhibit is based on that one, but has a wider selection of Malevich's paintings, drawings and architectural models. The assessment and dating of the works has been drastically revised in the light of objects and information only recently available to art historians. Some paintings are now thought to have been executed as much as 20 years later than previously believed.
Superlatives get slung around pretty carelessly in the art world, but this is a great exhibit. The power of Malevich's painting is almost a physical presence, reminiscent of the effect created by Picasso, before he began counterfeiting himself, or by Dali, before he bloated into a buffoon.
You don't have to like modern art to love Malevich, because, with equal skill and inspiration, he rings the changes on virtually every style from the old masters to the young abstract absurdists. It's hard to believe this is a one-man show and not the output of a collective of supremely talented artists. Malevich is, by turns, reverent, sly, mystical, witty, piercing, triste, droll, austere, wistful, affectionate, majestic . . . .
What is utterly absent is arrogance. To measure how far Malevich stands above most of his imitators, one need only descend from the exhibit to the gallery's hall of 20th-century painters, many of whom still are indulging in the sort of hard-edge abstraction Malevich invented, explored and abandoned. Not a few of the recent works seem sterile, defensive and dated, while Malevich -- who opened this Pandora's box with his "Black Square" in 1915, seems original, inviting and timeless. It's not surprising to learn from the catalogue that he was a gifted teacher.
Ironies abound in the exhibit. The Russian Revolution had few followers more loyal than Malevich. He shared the dream of the New Soviet Man, and enthusiastically designed structures meant to enhance the lives of workers while glorifying the state. His renderings of peasants border on iconography -- but not sentimentality -- and warmth glows from even his coollest abstractions.
Stalin starved millions of peasants and Cossacks to death and murdered millions more in prison camps, but to the horror of the holocaust in which the revolution devoured its children must be added the tragedy of many more millions of murdered minds and smothered souls. Through his melancholy later works we can see in excruciating detail how Malevich struggled to find styles and subjects acceptable both to the authorities and his artistic integrity.
He failed, of course. At the end Malevich returned to his point of beginning, producing classical portraits of himself and others, richly dressed in vaguely medieval costumes. But the postures and expressions, and most particularly the deadened eyes, are those of prisoners.
KAZIMIR MALEVICH, 1878-1935 -- From Sunday through Nov. 4 in the East Building, National Gallery of Art. Open 10 to 5:30 Monday through Saturday, 11 to 6:30 Sundays.