Summary of Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Its name derived from Malevich's belief that Suprematist art would be superior to all the art of the past, and that it would lead to the "supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts." Heavily influenced by avant-garde poets, and an emerging movement in literary criticism, Malevich derived his interest in flouting the rules of language, in defying reason. He believed that there were only delicate links between words or signs and the objects they denote, and from this he saw the possibilities for a totally abstract art. And just as the poets and literary critics were interested in what constituted literature, Malevich came to be intrigued by the search for art's barest essentials. It was a radical and experimental project that at times came close to a strange mysticism. Although the Communist authorities later attacked the movement, its influence was pervasive in Russia in the early 1920s, and it was important in shaping Constructivism, just as it has been in inspiring abstract art to this day.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The Suprematists' interest in abstraction was fired by a search for the 'zero degree' of painting, the point beyond which the medium could not go without ceasing to be art. This encouraged the use of very simple motifs, since they best articulated the shape and flat surface of the canvases on which they were painted. (Ultimately, the square, circle, and cross became the group's favorite motifs.) It also encouraged many Suprematists to emphasize the surface texture of the paint on canvas, this texture being another essential quality of the medium of painting.
- Though much Suprematist art can seem highly austere and serious, there was a strong tone of absurdism running through the movement. One of Malevich's initial inspirations for the movement was zaum, or transrational poetry, of some of his contemporaries, something that led him to the idea of zaum painting.
- The Russian Formalists, an important and highly influential group of literary critics, who were Malevich's contemporaries, were opposed to the idea that language is a simple, transparent vehicle for communication. They pointed out that words weren't so easily linked to the objects they denoted. This fostered the idea that art could serve to make the world fresh and strange, art could make us look at the world in new ways. Suprematist abstract painting was aimed at doing much the same, by removing the real world entirely and leaving the viewer to contemplate what kind of picture of the world is offered by, for instance, a Black Square (c. 1915).
Overview of Suprematism
Saying "In 1913, trying desperately to liberate art from the ballast of the representational world, I sought refuge in the form of the square," Kasimir Malevich invented Suprematism. For him the elemental shape was, "The first step of pure creation."
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Progression of Art
Study for Decor of Victory Over the Sun
Malevich collaborated with Alexei Kruchenykh and Mikhail Matiushin on the decor for the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun (1913). This sketch for the backdrop of Act 2, Scene 5, foreshadows the development of Suprematism in its use of a geometric motif, though it doesn't prefigure any particular Suprematist piece. Without the use of color or shading, the square moves beyond a sense of Cubist space with its confrontational flatness. The black and white in this composition, which can signify presence from absence (creation), hints again at the birth of Malevich's new movement. The opera was a particularly appropriate place for the debut of Malevich's ideas, since the Futurist movement that inspired it was also important in shaping Suprematism. Just as Futurism aimed at a total renewal of Russian culture, so Suprematism claimed to supersede all art movements that had gone before it. Malevich's designs for the opera marked a major break with theatrical convention, since they were neither decorative nor did they illustrate a scene such as a landscape or a room. Their strange darkness also chimed with Mikhail Matiushin's belief that the opera was about "Victory, over the old accepted concept of the beautiful sun."
Pencil on paper - State Theatre Museum, St. Petersburg
Once described as Malevich's "living, royal infant," the Black Square has been seen as a major landmark in the history of abstract art, a point of both beginning and ending. Malevich would paint four versions of it between 1915 and the early 1930s, and it is said that the last version was carried behind his coffin during his funeral. Pared down from a design he painted for the Victory Over the Sun (1913), this first version depicts a purely black square against a thin border of white, further obscuring any sense of normal space or perspective. At the 0.10 exhibition in 1915, Malevich emphasized its status by hanging it across the corner of a room, emulating the Russian tradition for the placement of religious icons.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Suprematist Painting, Eight Red Rectangles
The three levels of Suprematism were described by Malevich as black, colored and white. Eight Red Rectangles is an example of the second, more dynamic phase, in which primary colors began to be used. The composition is somewhat ambiguous, since while on the one hand the rectangles can be read as floating in space, as if they were suspended on the wall, they can also be read as objects seen from above. Malevich appears to have read them in the latter way, since at one time he was fascinated by aerial photography. Indeed he later criticized this more dynamic phase of his Suprematist movement as 'aerial Suprematism,' since its compositions tended to echo pictures of the earth taken from the skies, and in this sense departed from his ambitions for a totally abstract, non-objective art. The uneven spacing and slight tilt of the juxtaposed shapes in Eight Red Rectangles, as well as the subtly different tones of red, infuse the composition with energy, allowing Malevich to experiment with his concept of "infinite" space.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge
This lithograph is one of El Lissitzky's most well-known works from his Suprematist period. It uses shape, positioning and color in keeping with the movement's principles, especially the "color" phase of the movement. The use of lettering and the pointillist shading, however, shows the evolution of his personal style. More interestingly, the poster reveals propagandistic intentions in its representation of the struggle between the revolutionary "reds" and the conservative "whites" in Russia. El Lissitzky described his own brand of Suprematism as Prounism, a derivation of 'proekt Unovisa' ('project for Unovis'), Unovis being the group that Malevich formed in Vitebsk in 1919, and which drew Lissitzky into the fold of the Suprematists.
Stedelijk Van Abbe-Museum, Eindhoven, Netherlands - Stedelijk Van Abbe-Museum, Eindhoven, Netherlands
Color Painting (Non-Objective Composition)
Rozanova was one of the first to apply her own personal interpretation to Suprematism. Her interest in fabrics led her to concentrate on textural effects, occasionally straying from the primary palette to use softer, more feminine colors. A fine colorist, Rozanova's ability to employ delicate tonal contrasts was a prelude to the style of Mark Rothko, as shown in the composition of Color Painting.
Oil on canvas - State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
White Square on White
Malevich repeatedly referred to "the white" as a representation of the transcendent state reached through Suprematism. This painting can be seen as the final, complete stage of his "transformation in the zero of form," since form has almost literally been reduced to nothing. The pure white of the canvas has negated any sense of traditional perspective, leaving the viewer to contemplate its "infinite" space. The picture is thus bled of color, the pure white making it easier to recognize the signs of the artist's work in the rich paint texture of the white square, texture being one of the basic qualities of painting as the Suprematists saw it. Painted some time after the Russian Revolution of 1917, one might read the White Square on White as an expression of Malevich's hopes for the creation of a new world under Communism, a world that might lead to spiritual, as well as material, freedom.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Beginnings of Suprematism
Suprematism was an art movement founded in Russia during the First World War. The first hints of it emerged in background and costume sketches that Kazimir Malevich designed in 1913 for Victory Over the Sun, a Futurist opera performed in St. Petersburg. While the drawings still have a clear relationship to Cubo-Futurism (a Russian art movement in which Malevich was prominently involved), the simple shapes that provide a visual foundation for Suprematism appear repeatedly. Rich color is also discarded in favor of black and white, which Malevich later used as a metaphor for creation in his writings. Of particular importance is the Black Square (c. 1915), which became the centerpiece of his new movement.
In 1915, the artists Kseniya Boguslavskaya, Ivan Klyun, Mikhail Menkov, Ivan Puni and Olga Rozanova joined with Kazimir Malevich to form the Suprematist group. Together, they unveiled their new work to the public at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10 (1915-16). Their works featured an array of geometric shapes suspended above a white or light-colored background. The variety of shapes, sizes and angles creates a sense of depth in these compositions, making the squares, circles and rectangles appear to be moving in space.
Suprematism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Suprematist painting abandoned realism, which Malevich considered a distraction from the transcendental experience that the art was meant to evoke. Suprematism can be seen as the logical conclusion of Futurism's interest in movement and Cubism's reduced forms and multiple perspectives. The square, which Malevich called "the face of a new art," represented the birth of his new movement, becoming a figurehead to which critics and others artists rallied in support of the new style. But many others accused it of nihilism: the artist and critic Alexandre Benois attacked it as a "sermon of nothingness and destruction."
Malevich published a manifesto to coincide with the 1915 exhibition, called From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism in Art. He claimed to have passed beyond the boundaries of reality into a new awareness. With this, the motifs in his paintings narrowed to include only the circle, square and rectangle. Critics have sometimes interpreted these motifs as references to mystical ideas, and some of Malevich's more florid pronouncements seem to offer support for this: of his use of the circle, he said, "I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things"; and he talked of the Black Square as "a living, royal infant." But, in fact, Malevich scorned symbolism: for him, the motifs were only building blocks, the most fundamental elements in painting, or, as he put it, "the zero of form."
Malevich divided the progression of Suprematism into three stages: "black," "colored," and "white." The black phase marked the beginnings of the movement, and the 'zero degree' of painting, as exemplified by Black Square. The colored stage, sometimes referred to as Dynamic Suprematism, focused on the use of color and shape to create the sensation of movement in space. This was pursued in depth by Ilya Chasnik, El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko; El Lissitzky was particularly influenced by Malevich and developed his own personal style of Suprematism, which he called 'Proun'. The culmination of Suprematism can be seen in the white stage, exhibited by Malevich during the Tenth State Exhibition: Non-objective Creation and Suprematism in 1919. His masterpiece, White on White (1918), dispensed with form entirely, representing only "the idea." This work provoked responses from other artists that led to new ventures, such as Alexander Rodchenko's Constructivist exploration of the roles of specific materials in his Black on Black series (1919).
Later Developments - After Suprematism
As time went on, the movement's spiritual undertones increasingly defined it, and although these put it in jeopardy following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the tolerant attitude of the early Communists ensured that its influence continued. By the late 1920s, however, attitudes had changed, and the movement lost much of its popularity at home, especially after being condemned by the Stalinists (Socialist Realism became the only allowed style). Between 1919 and 1927, Malevich stopped painting altogether to devote himself to his theoretical writings, and following a long hiatus, he even returned to representational painting.
Although Malevich's esoteric concepts prevented the movement itself from gaining widespread appeal, their implications have been far-reaching in the realm of abstract art. Indeed, his desire to create a transcendental art, one that can help viewers reach a higher understanding, is an aspiration one can trace in much later abstract art. It is present in the ideas Wassily Kandinsky outlines in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), as well as the Theosophy-inspired geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian.
The introduction of Suprematism to the West during a 1927 Berlin exhibition was well-received, sparking interest throughout Europe and the United States. Alfred Barr later brought several of Malevich's Suprematist works to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where they were included in Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), a groundbreaking exhibition that greatly influenced American modernism. Lissitzky played a key role in the promotion of Suprematism outside of Russia, having previously exhibited Proun works that left a deep impression on László Moholy-Nagy, and possibly even Kandinsky. El Lissitzky later used Suprematist forms and concepts to great effect in graphic design and architecture, which helped to shape the Constructionist movement. Today, these echoes are still seen in contemporary architecture, most famously in the recent "Suprematist" work of Zaha Hadid.