Articles and Features

Art Movement: Suprematism

By Shira Wolfe

Kazimir Malevich Suprematism
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915. Courtesy Tretyakov Gallery

“In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.” – Kazimir Malevich

During the period of the First World War, Russia was a hub for cutting-edge avant-garde art. Constructivism was established as an influential avant-garde art movement, while Natalia Goncharova and her partner Mikhail Larionov were embarking on their own experiments in art under the term “Everythingism.” At the same time, Kazimir Malevich was working on some of the most radical developments in abstract art of his time, and developing Suprematism. He was searching for the “supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts.” Malevich was deeply influenced by avant-garde poets and was interested in going against the rules of language and reason. He believed there were only delicate links between words, signs, and the objects they denote. This inspired him to see the possibilities of a totally abstract art and incited him to search for the barest essentials of art. This radical experiment came close to a type of mysticism, evident in his works like Black Square (1915), which became the centrepiece of Suprematist art.

What is Suprematism?

Suprematism was founded in Russia during the First World War. The Suprematists were interested in pure abstraction, and searched for the ‘zero degree’ of painting, the point beyond which the medium could not go without ceasing to be art. In order to achieve this point, simple motifs were used which best articulated the shape and the flat surface of the canvas. The square, circle, and cross became the group’s favourite motifs. Aside from these motifs, texture was an important quality for the Suprematists to work with. For Suprematist artists, the visual phenomena of the objective world were in themselves meaningless; what was instead significant was feeling.

Key period: 1913-1920s

Key regions: Soviet Union

Key words: pure abstraction, geometric shapes, pure feeling and perception, mysticism

Key artists: Kazimir Malevich, Kseniya Boguslavskaya, Ivan Klyun, Mikhail Menkov, Ivan Puni, Olga Rozanova, El Lissitzky

The Beginnings of Suprematism

The first works related to Suprematism were created by Malevich in 1913 while working on the background and costume sketches for the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun. At the time, Malevich was still heavily influenced by Cubo-Futurism, and Suprematism is in a way like a logical extension of Futurism’s preoccupation with movement and Cubism’s reduced forms and multiple perspectives.

In 1915, Malevich was joined by Russian artists Kseniya Boguslavskaya, Ivan Klyun, Mikhail Menkov, Ivan Puni and Olga Rozanova. Together, they formed the Suprematist group. They unveiled their new works at The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10 (1915-16), in which they showed pieces featuring an array of geometric shapes suspended above a background that was either white or light-coloured. These compositions held a specific sense of depth through the variety of shapes, sizes and angles depicted. The squares, circles and rectangles thus appeared to be moving in space. Alongside the exhibition, Malevich published a manifesto called From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism in Art. In it, he claimed to have transcended the boundaries of reality and to have crossed over into new awareness. The word “Suprematism” was coined to describe the movement, as one that would lead to the supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts.

Inspirations

One of the foremost inspirations for Malevich in his move towards Suprematism was avant-garde poetry and literary criticism. The Russian Formalists were an influential group of literary critics who opposed the idea that language is a simple and transparent means towards communication. For them, words were not necessarily easily linked to the objects they denoted. Words and art, then, could create a new, strange, and fresh perspective of the world. Suprematist artists aimed for the same thing – they wanted to remove the real world completely in order to get the viewer to contemplate the world instead through the transcendental experience evoked by a totally stripped-down, abstracted art. Furthermore, Malevich took inspiration from Russian folk art and the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.” – Kazimir Malevich

Kazimir Malevich Suprematism
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918. Courtesy MoMA
Kazimir Malevich Suprematism
Kazimir Malevich, Two-Dimensional Self-Portrait, 1915. Courtesy MoMA
Kazimir Malevich Suprematism
Kazimir Malevich, Mystic Suprematism, 1920-27. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Suprematism's Three Stages

Malevich divided Suprematism into three stages: “black,” “coloured,” and “white.” The movement started with the black stage and the ‘zero degree’ of painting, as exemplified by his Black Square (1915). The coloured stage, which was also referred to as Dynamic Suprematism, focused on the use of colour and shape in order to create the sensation of movement in space. In particular Ilya Chasnik, El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko explored this. El Lissitzky was deeply influenced by Malevich. Though he also worked a great deal in the Constructivist style, he also developed his own style of Suprematism called “Proun”. Finally, there is the white stage, which could be seen as the culmination of Suprematism. During the Tenth State Exhibition: Non-objective Creation and Suprematism in 1919, Malevich exhibited pieces from his white stage. His masterpiece was White on White (1918), with which he dispensed with form entirely and only represented the idea.

The Decline of Suprematism

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, attitudes towards art started changing. By the late 1920s, Social Realism had become the only accepted style and all avant-garde art was condemned by the Stalinists. Malevich himself stopped painting altogether between 1919 and 1927 in order to focus on his theoretical writings. He eventually returned to painting and even painted in the style of Social Realism, while always finding a way to add the signature mark of his own style and ideas. In his Self-Portrait (…), for example, he signed the canvas in the bottom-right corner with a little black square. Nonetheless, the movement’s heyday had come to an end

 

Kazimir Malevich Art
Kazimir Malevich, Self Portrait, 1933. Courtesy Arthive

The Influence of Suprematism

In the realm of abstract art, the influence of Suprematism was far-reaching. El Lissitzky used Suprematist concepts and forms, which played a role in developing the Constructivist movement. He was also instrumental in promoting Suprematism outside Russia, inspiring artists like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Malevich’s notion of transcendence in art can be seen in the Theosophy-inspired geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian. In 1936, the groundbreaking exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at the MoMA included several of Malevich’s Suprematist works, which greatly impacted American modernism. Today, echoes of Suprematism can still be detectied in contemporary architecture, for example in the recent “Suprematist” work of Zaha Hadid.

Zaha Hadid Suprematism
Zaha Hadid, Peak Series, 1983. Courtesy Arch Daily

Relevant sources to learn more:

Kazimir Malevich – The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism

MoMA

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