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Suprematism

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term coined in 1915 by Kazimir Malevich for a new system of art, explained in his booklet Ot kubizma i futurizma k suprematizmu: Novyy zhivopisnyy realizm (‘From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: the new realism in painting’). The term itself implied the supremacy of this new art in relation to the past. Malevich saw it as purely aesthetic and concerned only with form, free from any political or social meaning. He stressed the purity of shape, particularly of the square, and he regarded Suprematism as primarily an exploration of visual language comparable to contemporary developments in writing. Suprematist paintings were first displayed at the exhibition Poslednyaya futuristicheskaya vystavka kartin: 0.10 (‘The last Futurist exhibition of paintings: 0.10’) held in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) in December 1915; they comprised geometric forms which appeared to float against a white background. While Suprematism began before the Revolution of 1917, its influence, and the influence of Malevich’s radical approach to art, was pervasive in the early Soviet period.

Malevich traced the origins of Suprematism to his sets and costumes for the Russian Futurist opera Pobeda nad solntsem (‘Victory over the sun’), given in St Petersburg in December 1913. His designs reflected the complex synthesis of Russian and west European art that reached its height on the eve of World War I. The opera exemplified the collaboration of poets and painters that was a cardinal feature of Russian Futurism and reflected the strong irrational trend of pre-war Russian Futurist work. In September 1913 Malevich had collaborated with Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksey Kruchonykh and Yelena Guro (1877–1913) on the book Troye (‘The three’), in which Kruchonykh used the term zaum (‘transrational language’) to describe sound poetry. The radical analysis of poetic language provided a precedent for Malevich’s own reassessment of pictorial language, and he subsequently adopted the term zaum to describe his own work. In October 1913, with Ol’ga Rozanova, Malevich had illustrated Slovo kak takovoye (‘The word as such’; Moscow, 1913) by Kruchonykh and Khlebnikov, and this collaboration was at its closest with the production of Pobeda nad solntsem, for which Kruchonykh wrote the libretto and Mikhail Matyushin provided the music. Malevich’s costumes were stiff constructions, and some of the backdrops employed Cubist motifs reinterpreted to incorporate Russian Futurist ideas. One backdrop, however, consisted of a simple square divided diagonally into black and white areas surrounded by a rudimentary framing motif (designs in St Petersburg, Theat. Mus.).

For an unrealized production of Pobeda nad solntsem in 1915, Malevich proposed a black square as a backdrop. At the exhibition 0.10, the Black Square (1915; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.), painted on a square canvas surrounded by a margin of white, was hung across the corner of the separate room where works by Malevich and his followers were displayed; it was announced as the essential Suprematist work. On the one hand it was radically nihilistic and could be interpreted as a gesture of rejection, providing no narrative, theme, composition or picture space, apparently rejecting all pictorial conventions and offering a canvas of unprecedented blankness; on the other hand suspension across the corner of a room was a common way to display domestic icons, and by referring to this tradition its rejection of convention was not total. Followed by the Black Circle (one version after 1920; St Petersburg, Rus. Mus.) and the Black Cross (Paris, Pompidou), the Black Square can be related to an icon tradition that survived so strongly in Russia, using ancient forms that were increasingly admired by Russian artists seeking to exert their independence from western European traditions. A large exhibition of icons had been held in Moscow in 1913 to celebrate the Romanov dynasty, and in April of that year, also in Moscow, Mikhail Larionov exhibited icons and lubki (popular folk prints). In icon painting the illusion of pictorial space was minimal; figures were frequently centrally placed and frontally presented, the head of Christ sometimes set against a symmetrical cross, circular halo and square format.

Malevich declared that the Black Square constituted the ‘zero of form’, an end to old conventions and the origin of a new pictorial language. The forms of this language were strictly geometrical, but they rapidly evolved into increasingly complex paintings in which the geometrical elements employed richer colours and inhabited an ambiguous and complex pictorial space. Despite its reference to the icon tradition, the Black Square presented no recognizably Christian image, but for Malevich himself Suprematism remained a mystical experience associated with concepts of the Fourth dimension and the nature of time, as explored in the mystical speculations of pyotr Uspensky. Malevich entitled several Suprematist works in comparable terms, such as Pictorial Realism of a Footballer—Pictorial Masses in Four Dimensions (c. 1915; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.). During 1915 Malevich also produced paintings relying solely on the textural manipulation of white, a development also considered mystical by Aleksandr Rodchenko and other followers.

At 0.10 Malevich formed a Suprematist group, Supremus, with Ivan Puni (Jean Pougny), Mikhail Menkov, Ivan Klyun, Kseniya Boguslavskaya (1892–1972) and Ol’ga Rozanova; Nadezhda Udal’tsova also collaborated on the projected magazine Supremus. Malevich’s rejection of representational imagery was widely influential, and his study of the dynamics of geometrical form in pictorial space had an investigative element, as did the subsequent non-objective art pursued by Lyubov’ Popova, Gustav Klucis, Rodchenko, Klyun and El Lissitzky in particular. In the early years following the Revolution of 1917, Suprematism was widely explored, discussed and developed, dominating the avant-garde in Russia (for illustration see, for example, Pougny, jean). The pervasive influence of Malevich’s work was seen in particular at the exhibition X Gosudarstvennaya vystavka: Bespredmetnoe tvorchestvo i suprematizm (‘Tenth state exhibition: non-objective creation and Suprematism’), held in Moscow in 1919. Later that year Malevich moved to Vitebsk and formed the Unovis group, converting El Lissitzky to Suprematism and opening the way to Suprematist design. In 1922 Malevich moved, with his followers, to Inkhuk in Petrograd, where he worked on three-dimensional Suprematist works, his arkhitektony, studies in architectural form independent of specific commissions (see Malevich, Kazimir). Although it created a pictorial language that could be developed into designs ranging from posters to buildings and ceramics, for Malevich, Suprematism remained primarily a system of painting preceding specific utilitarian demands. When in 1921 Productivist artists and theorists at Inkhuk promoted utilitarian purposes for art and condemned easel painting, Malevich, who had appeared nihilistic with the Black Square, appeared to defend the supremacy of art over practicality and politics.

In 1922 El Lissitzky, who had worked closely with Malevich at Vitebsk, left Russia for western Europe. The re-establishment of diplomatic relations with western European countries ended eight years of cultural isolation and intense ferment for Russian artists, during which every aspect of artistic activity had been called into question in relation to the aims of Communism. In western Europe Suprematist works were assessed simply against developments in abstract art. Such an assessment was encouraged by El Lissitzky from the time of his arrival in Berlin in 1922, where he helped to install the Erste russische Kunstausstellung at the Van Diemen Galerie. Suprematism was well represented, and Lissitzky himself designed the catalogue cover. He continued to follow his own development of Suprematism, his Proun works, in Germany, while establishing contact with many groups of artists across Europe. He formed links with De Stijl in the Netherlands and with the Bauhaus in Germany, where his work particularly impressed László Moholy Nagy and possibly even Kandinsky. In Weimar he met Dadaists, including Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters and Hans Arp, and with Arp he published Die Kunstismen—Les ismes de l’art—The Isms of Art (Zurich, 1925), a survey of artistic groups including Suprematism. Lissitzky worked on exhibition displays and also published a series of designs for a puppet version of Pobeda nad solntsem (Hannover, 1923), before returning to the Soviet Union in 1925, the year in which the promotion of recent Soviet art reached its peak in the Soviet pavilion at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris.

Among Malevich’s closest Suprematist followers were Il’ya Chashnik (1902–29), Nikolay Suetin (1897–1954), Vera Yermolayeva (1893–1938) and Lev Yudin (1903–41), who were members of Unovis and who followed him to Petrograd in 1922. Yermolayeva developed a particular interest in folk art and children’s books. On becoming Rector of the Art Institute in Vitebsk she collaborated closely with Malevich, and she headed the colour laboratory at Inkhuk in 1923. Suetin and Chashnik applied Suprematist principles to porcelain design after moving to Petrograd and worked at the Lomonosov porcelain factory. From 1924 they also collaborated with Malevich on his arkhitektony. In 1925–6 Chashnik worked with Suetin and with the architect Aleksandr Nikolsky. Suetin, who became director of the Lomonosov porcelain factory (1932–52), designed Suprematist cups, saucers and other utilitarian ceramic objects as well as architecture. He painted the Suprematist black square on Malevich’s coffin in 1935.

Malevich himself made his only visit to the West in 1927, taking with him a substantial retrospective exhibition of his Suprematist canvases, which were to form the source of much interest in his work after his death, particularly after their installation at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In Warsaw, Malevich met artists of the Blok group, including Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro, who had both studied under him at Vitebsk. Their own movement, Unism, owed much to Malevich’s textured monochrome paintings. While Strzemiński produced heavily textured monochrome compositions, another member, Henryk Stażewski, explored simple geometric divisions of the canvas. Kobro made constructions that approached architectural forms in their planar division of space. Malevich’s only Western publication of Suprematist theory, Die gegenstandslose Welt, was published in Munich in 1928 as Bauhausbuch No. 11. Although Malevich later returned to representational painting, Suprematism had an undoubted impact on the development of abstract art in the Soviet Union and in Western Europe, an impact that has been increasingly studied since the 1950s.

John Milner
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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