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Suprematism
Kasimir Malevich 
(1878-1935)

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Suprematism is an art movement founded in 1913 by the Ukrainian born Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) in Moscow, as a parallel to Constructivism. Due to current copyright legislation Constructivist Art Works are not shown. In Malevich's own words Suprematism means "supremacy of forms", and is almost a study in abstract forms conceived in itself: non-objective and not related to anything except geometric shapes and colours. 

This revolutionary, nonobjective art, consisting of geometrical shapes flatly painted on the pure canvas surface, sought “to liberate art from the ballast of the representational world”, and his "White Square on a White Background" (Museum of Modern Art, New York City) embodied the movement’s principles. 

While not affiliated with the movement, the distinguished Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky showed the influence of Suprematism in the geometrization of his forms after 1920. This geometrical style, together with other abstract trends in Russian art, was transmitted by way of Kandinsky and the Russian artist El Lissitzky to Germany, particularly to the Bauhaus, in the early 1920s, and Suprematism, through its dissemination by the Bauhaus, deeply influenced the development of modern European art, architecture, and industrial design. 

Belarus 2003. Kasimir Malevich "Black Square". Belarus 2003. Souvenir Sheet with Kasimir Malevich's work "Black Square" as opposed to "Red Square".
Kasimir Malevich: "Black Square"., painted 1913.

Black Square, 1913

Kasimir Malevich: "Red Square", painted 1915. The alternative title of this painting is "A Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions".

Red Square, 1915
"A Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions"

In his first Suprematist work, a pencil drawing of a black square on a white field, all the elements of objective representation that had characterized his earlier Cubist-Futurist style, had been eliminated. Malevich explained that "the appropriate means of representation is always the one which gives fullest possible expression to feeling as such, and which ignores the familiar appearance of objects." Referring to his first Suprematist work, he identified the black square with feeling and the white background with expressing "the void beyond this feeling."

Although his early Suprematist compositions most likely date from 1913, they were not exhibited until 1915, the year he edited the Suprematist manifesto, with the assistance of several writers, most notably the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.  

In these first Suprematist works -- consisting of simple geometrical forms such as squares, circles, and crosses -- he limited his palette to black, white, red, green, and blue. By 1916-17 he was presenting more complex shapes (fragments of circles, tiny triangles); extending his colour range to include brown, pink, and mauve; increasing the complexity of spatial relationships; and introducing the illusion of the three-dimensional into his painting. His experiments culminated in the "White on White" paintings of 1917-18, in which colour was eliminated, and the faintly outlined square barely emerged from its background. Finally, at a one-man exhibition of his work in 1919, Malevich announced the end of the Suprematist movement. 

Belarus 2003. First Day Cover with the souvenir sheet "Black Square".

Belarus 2003. Close-up of the First Day Postmark.

Already in 1910 Malevich started to explore new forms of exprssion and was at that time acquainted with with Cubism, developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques. Within two years his work was clearly influenced by this new artistic movement, as shown in "The Reaper", painted 1912. At that time both landscapes and human beings were reduced to geometric shapes, and Malevich later moved on towards abstract, non-figurative art. 
In its large Europalia series, Belgium has issued on 12th September 2005 this stamp, showing "The Reaper" by Kasimir Malevich. The stamp has a tabs with a priority label attached on either the left or right selvedge, depending on which side of the pane of ten stamps it is located. 

The other stamp in this set is devoted to the Russian Symbolist painter Sergei Sudeikin (see Symbolism).  

  • Belgium 2005. "The Reaper" by Malevich (1912). 

Belgium 2005. Kasimir Malevich: "The Reaper", painted 1912.

It has been vividly discussed whether Malevich was the "Father of Pictograms". It is a fact that his painting "A Football Player depicted in Artistic Realism" (see below) may be associated with modern times pictograms. In their nature pictograms are "suprematist", since they show in a highly stylized form what is necessary to understand "the message".  

  • Modern pictogram, depicting an athlete. 

Pictogram "Athlete".

Kasimir Malevich: "A Football Player Depicted in Artistic Realism", painted 1915. (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam).

The original painting (44 x 69,9 cm) (left) is interesting, because it didn't matter to Malevich what was up or down on his paintings -- what is up and down in a square, an even-armed cross, a circle, a right-angled triangle? -- and he certainly had no pictograms on his mind when he did this painting in 1915.  

The painting has been shown on several international exhibitions in 1915, 1919/20, and 1927; at each occasion the display was different, with the big black square either at the top or the bottom or to right. 

  • Malevich 1915:  "A Football Player depicted in Artistic Realism".  (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam).

 

Deprived of the right to paint abstract pictures, Malevich nevertheless retained his main conception, and painted this self-portrait in 1933, depicting himself in a very traditional way -- the only way permitted by the Stalinist cultural policy (Socialist Realism) -- as "The Prince of Painting", strongly inspired by Albrecht Durer's self portrait from 1500, but signed the painting with a tiny black spot in a white square in the bottom right corner.   
 
Kasimir Malevich. Self-Portrait 1933. (State Museum, St. Petersburg).

 

The black Renaissance-background has been changed with a white background, by which Malevich refers to the "Cosmic Suprematism". He has depicted himself in a space of liberty, clad in an imaginary clothing of which the upper parts refer to the colours of Suprematism, and the lower parts may refer to the Renaissance.  Malevich does not look directly at the viewer, but is looking at a point in the "indefinite", which only he knows what is.  The viewer sees the artist "from below", while he is "above" the public.  His hand may hint at "a ruler commanding his people".  

Kasimir Malevich. Close-up of his signature.

Through the signature -- the black spot in a square in the bottom right corner of the painting -- the viewer is not permitted to forget that he is viewing a Suprematist art work.  

The painting belongs to the Russian State Museums in St. Petersburg.

  • Close-up of the signature. 

Malevich died from cancer on 15th May 1935 in Leningrad as an embittered man, and was buried in Nemtshinovka in the outskirts of Moscow. 

Sources:  

Contemporary artists and adherents of Malevich are (in alphabetical order). Note that these artists may not be shown online due to current copyright legislation.  

  • Alexander Archipenko

  • El Lissitzky

  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

  • Antoine Pevsner

  • Aleksandr Rodschenko

  • Vladimir Tatlin 

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