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The Malevich aeroplane


To the director of the Tate Gallery, Millbank, London, 15 February 1980

Dear Mr Bowness:

I have long had a niggling doubt about the correct orientation of Malevich's "Aeroplane Flying" as reproduced in many publications, and my visit to the Tate "Abstraction" exhibition has not resolved the matter.

I have a copy of Kurt Rowland's "History of the Modern Movement" (an impulse-buy some years ago from the Tate shop), on page 5 which is printed a photograph that, though inadequately captioned, I assumed to be of exhibits at the Zero Ten exhibition of 1915.

The work in question appears on the bottom row of paintings on the left-hand side of the picture: with the black rectangles at the top. I think it reasonable to assume that this is how the artist intended it to be exhibited. While there is obviously some confusion about his intended title, since the 1915 catalogue does not include the word "aeroplane", there can be no doubt about the correct orientation of the painting.

So why is it hung "upside down" in your exhibition ?

Yours sincerely

Harry Turner

Illustration from the Kurt Rowland book

The letter was passed to Michael Compton, the Keeper of Exhibitions and Education @ the Tate Gallery, who was too busy to do a reply until 1st April, 1980. He said:

The picture, which was later given the title "aeroplane" is in the bottom row on the right of the Zero-Ten exhibition and it was hung with the black rectangles down. Mr. Comption assumed that H.T. was confusing the "Aeroplane Flying" picture [No. 321 in the Tate exhibition] with "Eight Red Rectangles" [No. 320 in the Tate exhibition], which is on the left in the photograph of the Zero Ten exhibition, and hung the same way as in the Tate exhibition. Further, Mr. Compton added that Malevich, and others, hung his paintings in different orientations on different occasions.

Illustration from the Tate Gallery catalogue

320. Suprematist Painting, Eight Red Rectangles (1915), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
321. Aeroplane Flying (1915), Museum of Modern Art, New York

To Michael Compton, the Tate Gallery, London, 11th April 1980

Dear Mr Compton:

Thank you for your letter of April 1 which, I regret, does not entirely make sense to me. There is no confusion in my mind between the two compositions 8 red rectangles and Aeroplane Flying ! Perhaps the prints attached will resolve any ambiguities you may have found in my original letter.

1. The painting in which I am interested is numbered 321 in the Abstraction exhibition catalogue and given the title Aeroplane Flying, although the text comments that it was not so titled in the original catalogue of the Zero Ten exhibition,

2. The photograph of the Suprematist works at the Zero Ten exhibition, which is reproduced in Kurt Rowland's book, definitely shows the same painting at the bottom left, in an orientation different to that adopted in the present exhibition and catalogue.

You mention that Malevich occasionally hung works in different orientations - I should be grateful if you would guide me to any documentation as to when the present orientation of the work became accepted, and also when the Aeroplane Flying title is known to have been bestowed on the painting.

Yours sincerely

Harry Turner

Mr. Compton wrote again on April 14th, informing H.T. that the photograph in the Rowland book is from a later exhibition than the Zero Ten exhibition of 1915 – the XXVI State Exhibition retrospective of Malevich.

A photograph from the Zero Ten exhibition published in a contemporary newspaper shows the "aeroplane" with the orange-brown rectangles to the upper left [as in No. 321 in the Tate catalogue]. But by the time of the XXVI State Exhibition, the picture had been reversed. Mr. Compton had no information on when the painting acquired its title.

Problem Solved!

H.T. also wrote to the MoMA in New York, the owner of the painting, on 11th April. We are still waiting for a reply . . .

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