Malevich’s Black Square

Factum Foundation (Madrid) has worked with the Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow) since 2018 on a project involving the most iconic painting of the Russian avant-garde: Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. The first version of the painting, dating from 1915, has been comprehensively studied, but questions surrounding its conception and biography remain.

This short film was produced by the Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow) in 2019-20 and shows how high-resolution data – Lucida 3D, colour, x-ray and infrared – in the form of the 'digital facsimile' or data viewer is helping conservators to learn more about Malevich's famous 'Black Square' painting from 1915.

Factum Foundation’s high-resolution surface recordings in colour and 3D will add a further dimension to the already extensive body of research on the Black Square, helping both researchers and the general public to better understand this engimatic work. The data will also provide an accurate record of the current state of conservation of the painting, thus enabling conservators and restorers to monitor change on the fragile surface through time. The project is envisaged as an open and ambitious collaboration between the Tretyakov Gallery and Factum Foundation, a joint effort that may in future lead to further exciting research in the field of the Russian avant-garde.

Factum Foundation would like to sincerely thank Yulian Khalturin, Chief of the Research Department at the Tretyakov, and his colleagues at the gallery for their assistance and advice throughout the project.

The Black Square, 1915, in the Tretyakov's photography studio. Image © Tretyakov Gallery

The teams from Factum and the Tretyakov with Black Square, 1915. Image © Tretyakov Gallery

Recording and processing the data

In March 2018, a Factum Foundation team was in Moscow to record the two versions of the painting owned by the Tretyakov: Black Square, 1915 and Black Square, 1929. The team employed the Lucida 3D Scanner to capture the delicate craquelure on the surface of Black Square, 1915, as well as the more featureless surface of the 1929 version, painted by Malevich for a retrospective held at the Tretyakov Gallery in the same year. By that time, the 'original' 1915 painting had already begun to show signs of ageing and the artist was asked to create a 'reproduction' of his most famous work.

The Lucida is a laser scanner that was designed by Manuel Franquelo and Factum Arte as a safe non-contact technology for recording fine surface relief. It produces two types of data: a 3D file that can be outputted by printing or CNC milling and a 254 dpi image file for screen-based applications. Careful study of the surface texture of a painting can uncover detail invisible to the naked eye. It is hoped that in this case the 3D data may shed light on some of the more obscure questions surrounding the Black Square.

Panoramic photography – in which multiple overlapping photographs taken from a single point are merged to create a single, high-resolution image – was used to record colour data and resulted in files with resolutions up to 900dpi. The accuracy of the colour data is always ensured through digital colour checking with X-Rite colour management, but also by comparison to physical Pantone 'colour sticks'. These 'colour sticks' are carefully matched to colours on the painting and can be used to bring the digital colour file in even closer correspondence to the original painting at a later stage in post-processing.

The Tretyakov Gallery also provided recent high-resolution infrared and X-ray images of the paintings. Together with the colour, these were ‘mapped’ onto the 3D data to produce a layered archive of images at 254 dpi that can be viewed through an internet browser on any computer screen. With the browser, a user can view two types of data simultaneously – for example, data showing the bright colours visible beneath the cracks on Black Square, 1915, can be studied alongside the X-ray image that reveals the earlier works painted over by Malevich when he produced his Suprematist masterpiece.

Below are images of the Factum team recording the paintings, together with low-resolution images of the colour and 3D data for Black Square, 1915. The layered image archives are currently available only to researchers at the Tretyakov Gallery, but in coming months the Tretyakov and Factum will unveil more results from the recording.

Setting up the Lucida 3D Scanner for 3D recording of the Black Square, 1915. Image © Tretyakov Gallery

The Lucida in front of Black Square, 1915. Image © Tretyakov Gallery

Setting up for panoramic photography of Black Square, 1915. Image © Tretyakov Gallery

Colour recording of Black Square, 1915 (not shown at high-resolution). Colour data and image © Tretyakov Gallery

Lucida 3D recording of Black Square, 1915 (not shown at high-resolution). 3D data and image © Tretyakov Gallery

Carlos Bayod, Gabriel Scarpa and Eva Rosenthal recorded Malevich's Black Square for Factum Foundation.