Progression of Art
In The Reaper, Malevich explored the human figure through a pictorial vocabulary reminiscent of the work of the French Cubist Fernand Leger. The body and the dress of the peasant are rendered in conical and cylindrical forms adopted by Malevich from the Cubist school. The flat and vibrant palette of the painting derive from Post-Impressionism and later modernists, indicating Malevich's exposure to the dominating artistic styles of his time. The peasant theme, part of the more general modernist attraction to the "primitive" is reinterpreted from the traditional folk motif, known as Lubok, which was in vogue in popular prints and textile designs within the Russian avant-garde milieu. While still clearly figurative, this composition anticipates the move toward abstraction by the employment of abbreviated and stylized forms.
Oil on canvas - The Fine Arts Museum, Nizhnij Novgorod, Russia
Woman With Pails: Dynamic Arrangement
In this composition, also derived from Fernand Leger (through Paul Cézanne, who believed that all forms in nature could be reduced to the sphere, cylinder, and cone), Malevich moved more decisively toward abstraction by dissecting the figure and picture plane into a variety of interlocking geometric shapes. The figure is still identifiable, as are the pails that she carries; Malevich has not yet abandoned representation entirely. The general palette is comprised of cool colors dominated by blues and grays, though the accents of red, yellow, and ochre add to the visual dynamic of the composition, thus bringing us closer to the feeling that Malevich intended to communicate as indicated by the title. The few identifiably figurative elements, such as the figure's hand, seem to be lost inside the whirlpool of completely abstracted forms that structure the canvas.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Now badly cracked, the iconic Black Square was shown by Malevich in the 0.10 exhibition in Petrograd in 1915. This piece epitomized the theoretical principles of Suprematism developed by Malevich in his 1915 essay From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting. Although earlier Malevich had been influenced by Cubism, he believed that the Cubists had not taken abstraction far enough. Thus, here the purely abstract shape of the black square (painted before the white background) is the single pictorial element in the composition. Even though the painting seems simple, there are such subtleties as brushstrokes, fingerprints, and colors visible underneath the cracked black layer of paint. If nothing else, one can distinguish the visual weight of the black square, the sense of an "image" against a background, and the tension around the edges of the square. But according to Malevich, the perception of such forms should always be free of logic and reason, for the absolute truth can only be realized through pure feeling. For the artist, the square represented feelings, and the white, nothingness. Additionally, Malevich saw the black square as a kind of godlike presence, an icon - or even the godlike quality in himself. In fact, Black Square was to become the new holy image for non-representational art. Even at the exhibition it was hung in the corner where an Orthodox icon would traditionally be placed in the Russian home.
Oil on canvas - Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
As early as 1914, Malevich had become interested in the possibilities of flight (as had the Futurists) and the idea that the airplane might be a symbol for the awakening of the soul surrounded by the freedom of the infinite. Malevich was also interested in aerial photographs of landscapes, although he later backed away from this source of inspiration, feeling that it led him too far from his vision of a totally abstract art. However, at the time, in Airplane Flying Malevich was able to further explore the pictorial potential of pure abstraction. The rectangular and cubic shapes are arranged in a solid, architectonic composition. The yellow contrasts starkly with the black, while the red and blue lines add dynamic visual accents to the canvas. The whiteness of the background remains unobtrusive but contrasting, and has infused the interplay of colorful shapes with its energy. Malevich believed that emotional engagement was required from the viewer in order to appreciate the composition, which constituted one of the key principles of his theory of Suprematism. Indeed, Malevich wrote about expressing the feeling of the "sensation of flight, metallic sounds..." and other technological advances of the modern age. His abstract painting was meant to convey the concept (abstract idea) of the plane flying in space.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
White on White
Malevich repeatedly referred to "the white" as a representation of the transcendent state reached through Suprematism. White was the artist's symbol for the concept of the infinite as the white square dissolves its material being into the slightly warmer white of the infinite surrounding. 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 slight change in tonality, however, distinguishes the abstract shape from the background of the canvas, and encourages close viewing 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 work 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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York
In the late years of his life, Malevich returned to exploring the more conservative themes of his earlier work such as peasants and portraits. In fact, Malevich was forced to abandon his modernist style under Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. The artist's Suprematist goal of achieving a "blissful sense of liberating non-objectivity" did not square with the prescribed Social Realist style that was being dictated at the time. In the work pictured here, Malevich paints himself as a Renaissance artist, seriously posed in red and black against a neutral background, his gesture a reflection of that of the artist Albrecht Dürer in his renowned Self-Portrait (1500). Here, the unity of the mind and the hand of the artist, highlighted on the central axis, bears a slightly different meaning: his hand is open and willing, but suspended, as his mind broods over the closing down of artistic freedom under Stalin's rule. And yet, the artist has "signed" the painting with his own black square in the lower right corner.
Oil on canvas - Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia