It hangs on a white wall in a spare black frame in the Museum of Modern Art at 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan. Kazimir Malevich painted it, probably in 1912, amidst Russia’s bloody and prolonged transition from imperial state to democratic republic. With Russia’s loss of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the coinciding strikes and the massacre of Bloody Sunday, the 26-year-old Ukrainian was left trying to make art in a country of violent chaos.
And then two years before World War I, six years before Nicholas II and his entire family were assassinated, at the age of 33 Malevich painted this. “Woman with Pails: Dynamic Arrangement”
Three years later, he would found the school of Suprematism. In 1915, filling canvases with geometric abstractions was a radical act.
And almost 100 years later, standing before his painting in New York City in September 2011, I started weeping.
Here was an artist who could not only work in a world gone mad, a world detonating around him–but who could defy convention. He not only lived in the tenuous, difficult beginnings of the twentieth century; he forged ahead, deeper into that unknown. Even tried to bring it into being.
And I wondered if I could ever find that much courage, as a writer. Just last Saturday I read one of my short stories at an open mic. I had no control over my voice, became out of breath, buried my face close against the page, which rattled in my trembling hands. Most of all I thought how selfish, how arrogant it was to stand up and take these people’s time.
What was I offering them? A story of two Marines trying to carry on back home after their experience of an atrocity in the field–of what value was that to anyone?
Why was I making them listen to me?
As a woman who was raised in a Mormon household where the father’s voice was the only one that mattered, I have yet to learn to value my own. To not fear the power and distinctness of my voice.
But I long to be as brave as Malevich was in his time. I long to not rush out of cafes when I don’t know what to say. Above all, I long to believe that my voice has the value that I encourage my students to believe theirs have.
I don’t know how to find my way to that place. I am a terribly shy human being. But there is nothing so remarkable in this.
We each have our fears, and the highest courage lies in confronting them and extending ourselves beyond them.
Faced again with this painting, I would probably still weep. But I am trying. I have signed up for an acting class. I have challenged myself to read at future open mics.
As Mark Twain wrote in Pudd’nhead Wilson, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear–not absence of fear.” Courage is in the determination. The perseverance.
Not the ease of things.