Summary of Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist 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."
Important Art and Artists of Suprematism
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."
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.
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.
Useful Resources on Suprematism
- The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922Our PickBy By Marian Burleigh-Motley, Camilla Gray
- The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946Our PickBy Victor Margolin
- 0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of PaintingBy Linda S Boersma
- Kazimir Malevich and Suprematism: 1878-1935By Gilles Neret
- Kazimir Malevich: SuprematismBy Nina Gurianova, Jean-Claude Marcade, Tatyana Mikhienko, Yevgenia Petrova, Vasilii Rakitin, Matthew Drutt, Kazimir Malevich
- Malevich on Suprematism: Six Essays 1915-1926By Kazimir Severinovich Malevich, Patricia Railing