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Transcript of Episode 5: Hip to Be Square

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One of the most common attitudes toward modern and contemporary art, especially abstract art, is one of confusion. “I don’t get it,” people often say when standing in front of a canvas with a collection of colorful shapes. “Is it supposed to be something?” they ask. And it makes a lot of sense that these sorts of artworks breed confusion. It’s hard to connect to something that you don’t necessarily recognize. Pictures of things or people are generally pretty comprehensible to most viewers. But art that doesn’t depict anything can be absolutely maddening to look at, and it’s even more maddening when you are being told that this non-picture is in some way significant or that it is capital-G Great art.

I certainly can’t unravel all the obscure philosophies behind the great variety of abstract art that has been and continues to be produced, and I definitely can’t do it all in the space of one episode. But the artwork I’ve chosen for this episode is a wonderful case study of exactly the kinds of difficulties many viewers encounter when looking at abstract, non-representational art. Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square has been hailed by many, including the artist himself, as the “zero point” of painting; that is, the point at which traditional painting ended and a new type of artwork began, a simultaneous death and rebirth of an art form. It’s tempting to investigate this type of work in what art historians call “formal” terms, “formal” being the purely visual properties of an image or object, from color and shape to its dimensions and textures. But even a simple black square is, like a Transformer, “more than meets the eye.” How does someone even think of just painting a black square and calling it art? What’s the point, if any, of such an exercise? What could such an image possibly mean? And what use might we have for it now, when artists are doing so many different things other than abstraction? There’s a ton of stuff to unpack in this one black square—so let’s get to it!

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A description of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. Oil on linen, circa 1915.

The canvas is a 79.5 centimeter square. In the center of the canvas is a square painted entirely black. The black square in the center of the canvas measures approximately 57.5 centimeters on each side. The approximately ten centimeters of space between the edge of the black square and the edge of the canvas is painted white. Over time, the paint of the black square has begun to crack, and it is possible to discern hints of other colors through the pattern of cracks, providing visual evidence the black square was painted on top of an earlier artwork. There is no visible signature.

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Kazimir Malevich graduated from the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in 1903, right smack dab in the midst of a period of incredible innovation in European art.⁠1 Impressionism was giving way to other movements like Cubism, and traditional representational painting was no longer the fashionable thing. Malevich played around with a number of different styles in his early career, but he eventually became fairly established as a Futurist. Futurism was an artistic and intellectual movement that emphasized speed and modern technology, and especially revered the automobile. It explicitly rejected the past and flung itself headlong into the future, and in the process called into question everything that had previously been taken for granted in Western society.

But even as he allied himself with the Russian Futurists, it seemed that Malevich was searching for something even more innovative and ingenious. He developed an artistic philosophy called Suprematism, for which Black Square would serve as the foundational example. The timeline of when exactly Malevich first thought of Suprematism, and when exactly he first imagined the Black Square, has become muddied over time by Malevich’s own attempts to rewrite his biography. He wanted to control the narrative of how Suprematism came to be, to devise a creation myth for it. Malevich claimed that Black Square was initially created in 1913.⁠2 Scholars later determined that the painting should actually be dated to 1915, although it had a “prenatal” period of sorts that began in 1913.⁠3 Malevich’s alteration of dates resulted in a narrative that made Suprematism appear to have emerged more smoothly and more fully formed, rather than a concept that shifted and developed before it reached its mature state, like most ideas do.

Suprematism’s central concepts can, like many modern artistic concepts, tend toward the confusing and obscure. The Guggenheim Museum’s explanation of Suprematism is particularly simple and clear, so I will read an excerpt for you here:

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“For Malevich, the guiding principle of Suprematism was ‘the supremacy of pure sensation in creative art,’ best represented by the square, which he considered the most elementary, basic, and thus supreme formal element; but he increasingly combined the square with the circle, other geometric shapes, and even curved lines…Malevich, like other artists of his time, believed that the external world could no longer serve as the basis for art, which had, instead, to explore pure non-objective abstraction in the search for visual analogues to experience…”⁠4

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To put this in even simpler terms, Suprematism is based in the notion that the world around us is no longer useful as the basis for works of art, and because of that, artists need to explore abstract forms that are not supposed to represent anything in particular. Suprematism proposed that artists use only form and color to evoke sensation and experience, instead of framing those experiences through depicting scenes, people, or objects.

This was the theory that Malevich associated with Black Square, and this was the theory that he displayed to the Russian art world in 1915, at an exhibition entitled 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition. In that exhibition, Black Square was hung in the corner of the gallery, in a place similar to the place in Russian homes where families hung religious icons. In doing this, Malevich supplemented his written belief that Suprematism was the new path to follow with an association between Black Square, Suprematism’s core object, and Russian religious traditions. Black Square was an icon for a new age, an icon for modernity, deserving of just the same reverence as representations of saints or of Christ.

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Malevich returned repeatedly to the square after its 1915 debut, and ended up painting several versions of it over the course of his career. He clung to Suprematism as long as he could, but political developments in Russia, namely the rise of Joseph Stalin and the maturation of the Soviet state, eventually prevented him from working in his avant-garde style. As historian Tzvetan Todorov explains in an essay on the relationship between avant-garde movements and totalitarian governments, the Russian avant-garde of which Malevich was a part, and the ideals it advocated, eventually diverged from the reality of the world around them.⁠5 Where once politicians were supporters of Malevich and his fellow artistic innovators, by 1920 they were no longer so chummy, and the avant-gardes had to toe the party line or suffer the consequences.⁠6

After Stalin came to power in the 1930s, the Soviet government began to put its support behind artworks in a style that became known as socialist realism, which largely consisted of realistic, heroic depictions of citizens at work for the betterment of the state. Independent schools and movements were consolidated into unions for painters, writers, sculptors, and architects, and they produced work at the direction of the Communist Party.⁠7 Given these pressures, it’s unsurprising that near the end of his life, Malevich gave into this representational style promoted by the state.⁠8 After being arrested and interrogated in 1930, Malevich exhibited a number of works in a 1932 exhibition entitled 15 Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic.⁠9 Here he exhibited both Suprematist works—including a version of the Black Square—and representational paintings of Russian peasants, some of which he signed with a black square.⁠10 In a review of a Royal Academy exhibition on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017, art historian T.J. Clark writes about the contemporary re-creation of Malevich’s room in the 1932 Soviet exhibition, and contemplates the significance of the Black Square to the 1932 Soviet audience:

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“What, in 1932, did Malevich think the black square signified? It was, for him and his followers, undoubtedly (proudly) a shape—an abyss, a reality—that had prophesied [the revolution of] 1917…The black square was Bolshevism; but Bolshevism, they thought, if it was to become fully itself, had to agree to disappear into Suprematism’s gravitational collapse… [As Malevich stated in 1924] ‘Communism is already non-objective. Its problem is to make consciousness non-objective, to free the world from the attempts of men to grasp it as their own possession…Here’s where the new religion finds its international limit, the signs of which lie in Leninism, not Lenin.’”⁠11

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That last quote from Malevich is sort of typical of Malevich’s writing, and is just the kind of opaque statement that confuses many people when they try to get to grips with the philosophies of modernist artists. A clear takeaway from the excerpt as a whole, however, is that Malevich’s black square was to some extent symbolic of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism itself, an idea that becomes even more potent when Clark brings up the appearance of the black square in a photograph of Russian officers at a rally in 1917.⁠12 In the photograph, a number of soldiers stand in a group, some holding flags or banners. One of these banners, further back in the crowd of soldiers, appears to be a representation of the black square, complete with the white space surrounding it. Clark is uncertain about the date or subject of the photo, and seems surprised that the black square has appeared in this particular setting, as well he should be. It is one thing to characterize a painting as an emblem or icon of a political movement—it is another to find a picture of an army apparently using it as a banner.

When Malevich died in 1935, the black square became a more personal and morbid banner: it hung above his deathbed, was in his funeral procession, and was used as his grave marker.⁠13 The same year, the Soviet government declared socialist realism “the official artistic doctrine of the Soviet Union.”⁠14 Malevich’s art was banned from public view in the USSR until the Khrushchev regime of the 1960s, and was not actually put on display until the 1980s.⁠15 The few Malevich pieces that had made their way outside the Soviet Union during Malevich’s lifetime served to anchor both Malevich and his black square in the canon of European modernism. In their 1969 encyclopedic work The Avant-Garde in the Twentieth Century, French critics Pierre Cabanne and Pierre Restany called Malevich “one of the most important artists of the century and the least known, the only one with a true legend.”⁠16

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For such a simple form, Malevich’s Black Square seems to invite endless commentary and reference. Many authors’ characterizations of the work are rooted in things we associate with the color black. BBC Culture art critic Kelly Grovier uses the black square as an opportunity to trace the significance of the color black throughout history and cultures. Grovier calls black “where art begins,” an “anti-color,” “a shade we read more than feel.”⁠17 He notes its associations with death, with nothingness, with pre-existence, with spirituality and theatricality.⁠18  Black can serve as a backdrop, as a source of definition, as a device for obscuring something. It’s incredibly versatile: there’s a reason black suits and little black dresses seem to be appropriate for such a variety of occasions. But we also associate it with simplicity and clarity: something that’s “there in black and white” is obvious and incontrovertible. These multiple associations validate Malevich’s vision for the black square as the “zero of form,” a simultaneous end and beginning, an object manifesto of a new movement.

But the black square’s blackness is also frustrating for some, and Malevich’s work is sometimes perceived as having an inscrutability that is positively infuriating. Author Tatyana Tolstaya, in a Cultural Comment piece written for the New Yorker in 2015, characterized the black square this way:

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“…Malevich became the author of the most famous, most enigmatic, and most frightening painting known to man: ‘The Black Square.’ With an easy flick of the wrist, he once and for all drew an uncrossable line that demarcated the chasm between the old art and new art, between a man and his shadow, between a rose and a casket, between life and death, between God and the Devil. In his own words, he reduced everything to the ‘zero of form.’ Zero, for some reason, turned out to be a square, and this simple discovery is one of the most frightening events in art in all of its history of existence.”⁠19

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On top of this doomsaying, Tolstaya also pulls from the grab bag of old anti-modern-art insults that you can sometimes still hear echo in gallery halls. The Black Square could have been painted by “any child,” she says, “by any draftsman,” even “by a mentally disturbed person.”⁠20 Tolstaya makes no bones about it: she does NOT like this square. She also discusses how her colleagues on a Russian arts fund panel also hate the black square, and constantly have to sift through project proposals of artworks that capture the same “abomination of desolation” that she attributes to the square, a process that ends with the panel trying to “avoid making eye contact with one another,” after which they “silently shake hands and hurriedly walk home,” implying that there’s some shame in dealing with these sorts of artworks that nobody on the panel wishes to speak of.⁠21

The intensity of opinion in Tolstaya’s essay veers close to the realm of absurdity, but her strong opinions about the black square are reflective of the way many people feel about abstract art, though perhaps without the same doom and gloom and invocation of the Devil. Abstract art is polarizing, and Black Square in particular evokes polar opposites: black and white first and foremost, and then all the associations we have with that particular opposition, as Tolstaya enumerates in her essay. All these polarities exist simultaneously, it seems, which makes the square seem inscrutable and difficult to classify. This is one of the reasons it is particularly interesting that Stephen White and Ian McAllister’s 2003 analysis of Vladimir Putin and his political supporters would include this excerpt, which lists some ways in which Russian voters characterized Putin:

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“Putin had avoided a commitment to a particular political party, and more than half of those who were asked found it impossible to place him on the left, right or centre…In focus groups Putin was described as intelligent, competent, physically and psychologically healthy, a man who kept himself to himself, and who was honest and respected abroad…Both supporters and opponents agreed at the same time that the new president was difficult to assess, as he had risen to power through a series of appointments and without engaging in public controversy. Some described him as a ‘dark horse,’ ‘an unidentified object’ or even ‘a Malevich black square’, and there were other references to his cruelty, cunning and unpredictability.”⁠22

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That survey and focus group respondents would choose Malevich’s Black Square to describe Vladimir Putin is telling. Black Square seems to evoke so many different contrasts and concepts, all while maintaining an air of mystery. It references Russian tradition, in having originally been hung like a religious icon in a Russian home, but it also rejects tradition at its very core. It seems as though it can be all things to all people, which ties into one of White and McAllister’s main findings, encapsulated in this quote: “Putin was certainly ‘the people’s choice’, with a support base that was remarkably close to a cross-section of the entire society.”⁠23 End quote. The article refers to Black Square one other time: in cataloguing the ways in which Putin has built and maintained a cult of personality, White and McAllister refer to several portraits painted of Putin, one of which “showed Putin seated enigmatically below Malevich’s ‘Black Square’”.⁠24 The best image I could find of said portrait was via Getty Images, a photo which depicts artists Victoria Timofeeva and Dmitry Vrubel pulling back a white sheet to unveil the portrait in 2002.⁠25 The portrait, which is shot from a fair distance away, depicts Putin with this elbows on a table, one fist forward, and a forceful expression on his face, as though he is making some sort of decree or decision. He is set against a white background, and above him is Malevich’s Black Square, which is painted without shadow or dimension, so it’s unclear if the image is physically hung behind Putin or if the black square is sort of ethereally hanging over his head like an omen or a banner. Though White and McAllister’s article implies that the painting is celebratory, the picture itself challenges that notion somewhat, and a bit of a dig into Timofeeva and Vrubel’s body of work reveals a history of subversive, politically critical art, including the “Fraternal Kiss” mural from the Berlin Wall.⁠26 A 2017 Financial Times piece on Russian expatriates living in Berlin featured this quote from Timofeeva as to why she and Vrubel emigrated, quote: “Two themes have become taboo in Russian art—politics and religion…As an artist, how can you work in such conditions?”⁠27 End quote. It’s not exactly the type of statement one would expect to hear from an enthusiastic Putin supporter, and it serves to bolster the interpretation of the Putin-Black Square portrait as critical rather than celebratory.

The association between Putin and the Black Square becomes even more ominous in the face of recent developments in American politics, wherein criticism of Russian tampering with the U.S. Presidential Election in 2016 has prompted many public figures to characterize Putin, and Russians more generally, as sly, mysterious, evil tricksters. Donald Trump is sometimes characterized as having made some sort of Faustian bargain with Putin so he might be handed the presidency—Tatyana Tolstaya makes a point of characterizing the black square as the result of Malevich’s own Faustian bargain.⁠28 In both cases, the reality is much less literary and much more ordinary, but both Trump and Malevich attempted to construct their own narratives as to how they reached their political and artistic high points, respectively, and both narratives began to unravel as a result of diligent scrutiny and document-based research. Whether these parallels add anything to the interpretation of Black Square is unclear, but the conceptual baggage attached to Black Square, and thereby indirectly connected to the 2016 election through Putin, allows us a new and different lens through which to view U.S.-Russia relations, one grounded in the socio-political climate that gave birth to Black Square.

In addition to both early twentieth century and early twenty-first century political significance, recent investigations of the physical state of Black Square have revealed the work’s relevance to issues of race. X-ray analysis conducted in 2015 by the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which owns the original 1915 Black Square, revealed that, in addition to the earlier work on top of which Black Square was painted, there is a phrase written in the white border surrounding the black square, barely visible.⁠29 Experts determined the words to be part of the phrase “Negroes Battling at Night,” a reference to an 1897 cartoon by French writer Alphonse Allais.⁠30 Allais’s work was an entirely black rectangle, with French text underneath it that translates to “Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night.”⁠31 Art historians quoted by the New York Times and ArtNet on the occasion of the discovery seemed to avoid addressing the racist joke and instead focused on questions of international influence. Art historian and author Konstantin Akinsha was quoted in a New York Times article, quote: “There is no doubt that the creation of Allais became a source of inspiration for Malevich…Malevich used Allais’s prank, but turned it into the realm of high art. The discovery is also interesting because it demonstrated how closely Russian avant-garde representatives were following the developments in France.”⁠32 End quote. Yes, Malevich’s painting and Allais’s cartoon were created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when, to quote every apologist ever, “it was a different time, we didn’t know back then.” However, twenty-first reduction of the racist reference to a “prank” or “joke” reinforces the myth that abstract art is somehow removed or exempt from social critique. It’s a similar kind of revision of tone and language to the twenty-first century defense of the Confederate South as being concerned with “states’ rights,” rather than admitting that the primary right the Confederacy was concerned with protecting was the right to own slaves. Even though the phrase on Black Square was painted over, at some point Malevich’s conception of the work was not solely some bold vision of a new abstract art, but a reference to a bad, racist joke. Acknowledging that makes characterizations of the Black Square as profound, or ahead of its time, or revolutionary, seem pointless and almost outright incorrect in the face of such regressive humor. I am by no means suggesting that Black Square be tossed out of the art historical canon altogether, but as with any artwork, we should consider all its facets when preparing to proclaim its greatness.

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Black Square is a study in contradictions and confusion, from its visual expression of polar opposites in the form of white and black, to its associations with both the divine and the demonic, to the fact that it was proclaimed to be at the forefront of the development of abstraction and yet still bears traces of regression and is connected to authoritarianism. Malevich’s painting serves as an excellent point around which to center a variety of discussions: about art and its evolutions, about the connections between art, politics, and society…even about questions of taste, and whether or not it’s accessible or even likable. I sympathize with those viewers who have looked at Black Square and been mystified, frustrated, or even angered by its lack of indicators of meaning. Black Square seems to be as polarizing as the color contrast that comprises it. It is hailed as an abstract masterpiece, the catalyst for a new way of thinking about painting. Simultaneously, it is subject to a variety of critiques, from the thoughtful—“it is built on a racist joke and therefore is fundamentally flawed”—to the sophomoric—“my kid could do that!” Its history is also built on extremes, moving from the small Futurist exhibition to the global art historical stage, and from avant-garde icon status to Soviet storage unit to the headlining object in major exhibitions. A recent Los Angeles Times interview with Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin included a quote by Philbin that I think is particularly appropriate to apply to Black Square. In talking about the Hammer’s production of a video in which comedians Will Ferrell and Joel McHale walked around an exhibition and riffed on the works, Philbin said, quote: “This was a little controversial, because the curators said, ‘You’re making fun of the art.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m trying to find a way where people can find comfort with their discomfort.’”⁠33 End quote. I believe this idea of finding “comfort with discomfort” is essential to experiencing art in general, but it is particularly relevant to the study in contrasts that is Malevich’s Black Square. Those feelings of confusion, inadequacy, and frustration that so many people experience in relation to abstract art are something to be embraced. They are not feelings with which we are comfortable, but they are feelings deserving of exploration, especially when they are prompted by artistic experience. Plenty of people watch horror movies and thrillers and depressing historical dramas, and are more than happy to explore the darkness and discomfort that those pieces of media draw out of their audiences. Visual art in a museum can serve the same purpose, if not to the same extremes as, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Black Square and other artworks like it may never be the most popular attractions at museums and galleries, but they’re there whenever you feel the need to explore the confusing, the undefined, the controversial, or the unsettling.

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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, including links to images and citations, at You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, and while you’re there, why not rate and review us? It helps us out a lot. Follow us on Twitter at arthistory4all—that’s art history, number 4, all—for updates about the show and other fun art stuff.

This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast feed so you won’t miss future episodes, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.

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1 Guggenheim Collection Online, “Kazimir Malevich.”

2 Aleksandra Shatskikh, Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism, trans. Marian Schwartz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 1.

3 Shatskikh, 2.

4 Guggenheim Collection Online, “Suprematism.”

5 Tzvetan Todorov, “Avant-Gardes and Totalitarianism,” trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Daedalus 136, no. 1 (Winter 2007), 53.

6 Todorov, 55.

7 Todorov, 61-62.

8 Achim Borchardt-Hume notes that attributing Malevich’s stylistic shift purely to governmental pressure is somewhat reductive: Achim Borchardt-Hume, “An Icon for a Modern Age,” in Malevich, Tate Modern exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Publishing, 2014), 28-29.

9 T.J. Clark, “Reinstall the Footlights: T.J. Clark on the Art of the Russian Revolution,” London Review of Books 39, no. 22 (16 November 2017).

10 Clark, “Reinstall the Footlights.”

11 Clark, “Reinstall the Footlights.”

12 Clark, “Reinstall the Footlights.” A letter to the London Review of Books in December 2017 from one Petr Favorov claims “I have found the image included in a selection from a regimental album for the 39th Tomsk, Infantry regiment, where it is labelled ‘Officers on a rally, 1917’.”

13 Borchardt-Hume, 29.

14 Borchardt-Hume, 29.

15 Borchardt-Hume, 29.

16 Quoted in Tom McDonough, “The Mercurial Monochrome, or the Nihilation of Geometric Abstraction,” in Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015, Whitechapel Gallery exhibition catalogue (New York: Prestel, 2015), 243.

17 Kelly Grovier, “The Racist Message Hidden in a Masterpiece,” BBC, 12 March 2018.

18 Grovier, “The Racist Message.”

19 Tatyana Tolstaya, “The Square,” trans. Anya Migdal, The New Yorker, June 12, 2015.

20 Tolstaya, “The Square.”

21 Tolstaya, “The Square.”

22 Stephen White and Ian McAllister, “Putin and His Supporters,” Europe-Asia Studies 55, no. 3 (May 2003): 385-386.

23 White and McAllister, 384.

24 White and McAllister, 388.


26 Wikipedia contributors, “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,,_Help_Me_to_Survive_This_Deadly_Love&oldid=839082501 (accessed June 15, 2018).

27 Guy Chazan, “Auf wiedersehen, Putin: Berlin’s new Russian émigrés,” Financial Times, March 23, 2017.

28 Tolstaya, “The Square.”

29 Ivan Nechepurenko, “Examination Reveals a Mysterious Message on Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ Painting,” The New York Times, November 18, 2015.

30 Carey Dunne, “Art Historians Find Racist Joke Hidden Under Malevich’s ‘Black Square,’” Hyperallergic, November 13, 2015.

31 Dunne, “Racist Joke”.

32 Nechepurenko, “Mysterious Message.”

33 Jeffrey Fleishman, “Risk Taker: Ann Philbin and the art of the provocative thrive at the Hammer,” Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2018.


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“Cherry” by Nctrnm (via Licensed Under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License.

“Fantasy in B Minor, Op. 28,” by Alexander Scriabin, performed by Raul Manjarrez (via Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

Art History for All © 2018 Allyson Healey

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