Suprematism - History and Concepts
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 Russian 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.