Alexandra Hopf

The Peasants (en)

Interview with Gundula Wolter

The Peasants (after Malevich) - A sculptural echo
Published in the yearbook Netzwerk/Textil, 2022

GW: As you mentioned in your project outline for "Die Bauern - The Peasants - Крестьяне", you focus on specific "turning points in history" and explore them artistically. In your latest project, you delve into the years between 1928 and 1935, when Kazimir Malevich returned to figurative representations of peasants, albeit with a modified stylistic approach. What drew you to this ambiguous and controversially discussed 'second peasant cycle' by Malevich?

AH: Initially, I was captivated by the paintings themselves, the vibrant chromatic hues and gradients of the clothing that oscillated between non-objectivity and figuration. These peasants appeared solitary and faceless in the fields, yet their portrayal evoked the grandeur of Russian icons. I found this juxtaposition intriguing. How could the connection with nature embodied by the peasants and the modern technology of the time (the industrialization of agriculture) be interpreted in contemporary terms?
The theme of peasants permeates Malevich's entire body of work. Having grown up in Ukraine, he recounted in his autobiography how he felt a strong connection to the peasants from a young age. He admired their traditional attire, craftsmanship, and celebrations. However, the landscape changed dramatically under Stalin's rule. These were the years when agriculture was collectivised and socialist realism was enforced in art. The portrayal of peasants thus carried significant political undertones. Malevich's later depictions serve as a final tribute to the peasants whose culture and identity were shattered by forced collectivization.

GW: In 1912/13, Malevich developed 'Suprematism', the first thoroughly non-representational art based solely on sensations. With his prominent 'black square on a white background', the artist aimed to convey "the sensation of non-objectivity." What do you attribute to his shift away from non-representation towards the renewed depiction of working people around 1928?

AH: Following the Suprematist phase after 1919, Malevich dedicated himself almost exclusively to his theoretical work. Between 1919 and 1927, he abstained from painting and instead taught at various institutes. I wouldn't characterise this as a turning away, but rather as a personal evolution prompted by changing social and political conditions. He didn't perceive painting as merely representing social conditions; rather, he saw it as transcending historical boundaries, existing on the fringes of history. Simultaneously, for him, the further development of painting contained an inherent loss, as it was tethered to a modernity whose full realisation had been anticipated but not yet achieved. Thus, painting, for Malevich, was enmeshed in two contradictory narratives: on the one hand, its own inherent logic, which involved rejecting representation, and on the other, an embrace of the technological progress propelling it forward. In 1928, it was specifically the conflict between urban and rural life that led to the "metallization of the culture of rye" (note 1), signifying the technologization of agriculture.

Do you identify a "suprematist style" in Malevich's paintings of agricultural workers from 1928–1932? In this series, do you perceive a connection between the figurative representation of farm labourers and detached emotions, linking the concrete with the abstract?

AH: Malevich didn't actually use the term "abstraction," but rather that of "objectlessness." It describes a world contrasting the seemingly objective and measurable with perception. He articulated his thoughts on the non-objective world in a book of the same name published by the Bauhaus publishing house. However, the foreword of the book distanced itself from him because it identified with purpose-oriented constructivism. I am particularly intrigued by Malevich's depictions of peasants because in his paintings, he merges both worlds—the spiritual realm, reminiscent of the Russian icon, and the tangible world of the working man with its profound connection to nature.

GW: Your clothing objects, with their clear geometric contours, allude to Malevich's portrayals of peasants after 1928. In your work, you aim to transform the two-dimensional "block-like silhouettes" of his figures "into the sculptural." How do you accomplish this, and what is your intention behind it?

AH: I envisioned the figures stepping out of the paintings into real space while still retaining their appearance. I opted for simple cuts inspired by historical peasant clothing, such as tunics, waistcoats, and wide trousers, as well as the utilitarian garments of the Russian avant-garde, which have been referenced in fashion for decades. In Malevich's paintings, the block-like silhouettes possess a pronounced three-dimensionality, almost metallic in appearance due to chromatic shading. I digitally rasterized this painterly progression and printed it onto retroreflective fabric using a screen printing process. The grid patterns were individually hand-printed onto each pattern piece. The material's unique reflective properties imbue the figures with an almost ethereal,'metallic' sheen, evoking the impression of metal sculptures. Together, they symbolise the gradual disappearance of rural culture amidst the standardisation of individuals and their surroundings. This group of figures represents the first of two versions.

GW: As we are aware, 1928–29 marked the onset of the 'great upheaval', characterised by violence, terror, show trials, the collectivization of agriculture, and visions of a modern workers' and peasants' state. How does your work relate to the political context in which Malevich's 'second peasant cycle' was created?

AH: For the second iteration of this work, I utilised different materials, symbolising the erosion of the peasants' cultural identity. My publication, "Programme Booklet - The Peasants (1927)," created concurrently and integral to the overarching project, portrays them transformed into costumes for the play of the same title, "The Peasants (1927)." This play imagines a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kazimir Malevich, blurring the boundaries between their encounter's narrative, stage directions, and the actual play. The publication comprises fragments of the theatre text, historical source materials, costume photos, a pattern, and an insert. The play delves into the plight of peasants and their loss of traditional structures amid industrialization and forced collectivization during Stalinism. Against this historical backdrop and the hypothetical meeting of Brecht and Malevich, costumes crafted from both traditional and technical materials are juxtaposed. The sickle, symbolising communism, converges with the fist, symbolising resistance, and is integrated into the costume artefacts through free, ornamental compositions. By appropriating and reinterpreting these symbols, they challenge their conventional political connotations, forging a new realm of significance.

GW: Politically charged symbols play a central role in your project "The Peasants (after Malevich)," particularly the two most well-known and ambiguous ones—the sickle and the clenched fist. Why did you select these two historically highly ambivalent symbols, continually recontextualized throughout history?

AH: The sickle, originally, like the scythe, symbolised harvest, the passage of time, i.e., the annual cycle of harvest time and swift transience, and thus was a widespread memento mori symbol. The clenched or raised fist, on the other hand, has been claimed as a logo by various movements through specific coloration or additional elements, such as the Socialist International, the Black Power movement, the far-right White Power movement, as well as the women's movement, which associates the fist with the Venus symbol. All in all, the most contrasting groups have appropriated the fist. Contradictions in the form of overlays and shifts are thus part of constantly changing social dynamics and cultural processes, which find their expression in image and symbol.

GW: In your concept, you reference Adolf Loos and his provocative, still widely cited text "Ornament and Crime" (1908), stating that as soon as details carry meaning, "ornament is no longer mere decoration but an integral part of a broader sense." The use of politically charged symbols applied to the garments follows various patterns. What messages are intended to be conveyed through the different arrangements, sequences, and juxtapositions of these symbols? What does this contrast signify?

AH: The symbols were embossed onto retroreflective foil as motifs using both a laser cutter and a programmed cutting machine, then pressed deeply into the fabric using heat, causing the coarse jute and linen to amalgamate. The shiny foil and the dull natural material contrast, especially in the dark, where only the symbols glow. From a distance, the patterns evoke embroidery on peasant costumes or ornaments on liturgical garments. However, upon closer inspection, the ornaments do not form continuous patterns; they are fragmented, mirrored, and collaged. Thus, they elude clear readability, remaining ambiguous or cryptic. The past and the traditional are overwritten and reappear in modified form.

GW: Your clothing presentations are designed for display in a darkened room with minimal light. This creates a specific visual experience. What do you aim to achieve with this approach?

AH: The retroreflective materials (Note 2) reveal their full visibility in the dark. Initially, there is this fascinating reflection, in which the viewer is reflected dimly. The ornaments imprint themselves as afterimages on the retina and into memory, akin to flash photography. Like in my other works, the material carries layers of time.
In the publication "Program Booklet - The Peasants (1927)," the presentation takes place in a double sense within the imagination. In the final image, the peasants emerge from the cornfield, stepping out of their reality onto the stage, where they cultivate the (stage) ground. One wonders where the boundary between reality and fiction lies during the performance. This imaginary space is crucial. In an exhibition setting, the exhibits, like costumes or traditional attire, are installed in a historical museum. Together, they form a tableau, as described in the publication. As the viewer moves in the exhibition space, they trigger a sensor that sets the exhibits, reflecting in the dark like a mechanical ballet, into rotation. Programmed light is synchronised with the movement. A random generator will play through all the variations. Like in the museum, there are wall texts and texts on displays from the programme booklet—and also a film.

GW: The project presented here is part of a series of projects with political implications that you have realised in recent years. I refer specifically to the label and the installation "Maison Tatline," which showcased Vladimir Tatlin's coat, the first to be produced in series. In your recently published book "Becoming Siren" (Vexer Verlag 2020), you connect the cultural history of sirens with the Siren Suit, the legendary overall garment worn by women in England during World War II. What does the project "The Peasants" mean to you?

AH: I am interested in what a body "wears" in times of societal upheaval and how material bridges the gap between the past, present, and future. The trigger is always an image: a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, or a photograph. Material and form undergo processes against the backdrop of historical research, intertwining factual and imagined elements into a malleable fabric. The fabric or material behaves abruptly in relation to form and content. Similar to film, different times can coexist alongside the actual duration of the film through cutting and montage. Walter Benjamin writes in his "Arcades Project": "It is not that the past throws its light on the present or that the present throws its light on the past, but rather, the image is that wherein what has been comes together with the now in a flash of lightning." For me, Malevich's images of the peasants represent such a constellation.

Gundula Wolter holds a doctorate in art and fashion history and is a founding member of Netzwerk Mode Textil e.V.


Simon, Baier, Economy and Excess. Malevich and the survival of painting. In: Malevich, Kazimir. Kasimir Malevich: The World as Nonobjectivity. Ostfildern 2014, p. 76.
A retroreflector is a device that reflects incident electromagnetic waves largely in the direction from which they came, regardless of the direction of incidence and the orientation of the reflector. Retro-reflective foils are made from glass spheres. The microscopic spheres of optical glass are coated on one side with aluminum, arranged with the aluminum side facing downwards, and then bonded to the material to create a reflective surface that not only provides better visibility but also has the effect of a heat shield.
Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. by R. Tiedemann and Heinz Schweppenhäuser, vol. V, Frankfurt a. Main 1982, p. 578.