Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)
RUSSIAN MODERN ART
Malevich was the inventor of Suprematism, a form of abstract art derived in part from Cubism, which eclipsed the Rayonism (1912-14) of Mikhail Larionov and his partner Natalia Goncharova, and coexisted with Vladimir Tatlin's Constructivism (c.1917-21), during the early period of the Russian Revolution. In 1918, Malevich's quest for artistic meaning in abstract art reached a dead-end with his painting White on White, which consisted of a white square on a white ground. Although he continued his "political-art career" for several years, his style of avant-garde art was disliked by the Soviet authorities who preferred the more politically correct style of Socialist Realism. Now, however, Malevich is considered to be the most important avant-garde Russian painter in the era of modern art. At Sotheby's, in November 2008, a Suprematist-style painting by Malevich became the most valuable painting in the history of Russian art, making him one of the greatest abstract painters in Europe.
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Youth and Training
In 1911, his works appeared in the second exhibition of the Soyuz Molodyozhi group (Union of Youth) in St. Petersburg, along with Vladimir Tatlin. In 1912, Malevich showed his paintings of peasant subjects at the "Donkey's Tail" exhibition in Moscow.
The most recent of these Taking in the
Rye (1912; Stedelijk Museum,
Amsterdam) showed a turning away from the crudely graphic manner that
had linked him to Larionov, towards massive, tubular forms owing something
to Picasso's paintings of 1908-9.
The culmination of "alogism" was the production in St Petersburg in December 1913 of the opera "Victory over the Sun" with a libretto by Kruchenykh, music by Matyushin, and designs by Malevich. The title suggests a disturbing reversal of established values. The cancellation of the sun and its imprisonment in a box, achieved by the hero, can be equated with the partially deleted Mona Lisa in a painting of 1914. Malevich's 1913 designs included a curtain with a black square, which for him symbolized the zero, full of the new potentialities that arose from the passing of the old order.
Thus began Malevich's exploration of his new and revolutionary form of art - known as Suprematism. A form of concrete art founded on Utopian ideals, Suprematist art was both politically revolutionary (it expressed limitless confidence in the ability of engineers to create a new "Soviet" world) and artistically revolutionary (it eliminated all representational or naturalistic imagery). While he was developing it he found time in 1914 to exhibit his works in the Salon des Independants in Paris, along with other Russian artists including Alexander Archipenko, Aleksandra Ekster and Vadim Meller.
The first Suprematist exhibition ("0.10", Zero-Ten) took place in St Petersburg, in December 1915, and featured thirty-five abstract works by Malevich, including a host of rectangles, triangles and circles, many in vivid colours. Its centrepiece, based on his Opera designs of 1913, was the painting Black Square on White Ground (1913, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg), which was to acquire the significance of an icon for Malevich. By confining himself to such elementary means and a small predefined repertoire of "Suprematist" colours he was able to arrive at an independence from the subject which had evaded earlier Russian avant-garde painters.
After publishing his manifesto From Cubism to Suprematism (1915), Malevich worked with other Suprematist painters like Lyubov Popova (1889-1924) in a co-operative in Skoptsi and Verbovka village. In 1916 and 1917, he took part in exhibitions of the avant-garde Knave of Diamonds group in Moscow together with David Burlyuk (1882-1967), Nathan Altman, and A. Ekster.
Theoretically, Malevich justified his Suprematism by citing his desire to "free art from the burden of the object". He went on to condemn representational art as a theft from nature, and said that the artist must construct "on the basis of weight, speed, and the direction of movement". In these abstract paintings he conveyed strong impressions of floating or falling by placing shapes against a plain background which permitted no spatial interpretations. However, relationships can sometimes be inferred from overlappings, so that while volume is rarely hinted at, there is no suggestion of purely two-dimensional pattern.
Most of the early Suprematist paintings
take their cue from Black Square in the austerity of their conception.
Later, superimpositions and the incorporation of irregular quadrilaterals
create a more complex image. Malevich faced the dilemma that to develop
abstract images through formal elaboration increased the associative content
of the painting, so impeding its ability to communicate pure sensation.
In paintings after 1917, he returned to a simple structure, often basing
his paintings on no more than a cross. After a short period during which
he moved away from absolute austerity - tilting his rectangles, adding
more depth and colours, and even a degree of painterly handling, he returned
to his purist designs with a series of White on White paintings, such
as Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918, Museum of Modern
Art, New York). This was a virtual admission that his researches had come
to a dead end.
Vitebsk Art School
In 1927, Malevich travelled to exhibitions of his own work in Warsaw and Berlin - which finally brought him international recognition - and visited the Bauhaus design school in Dessau. Fortunately for the history of art, Malevich left most of his paintings behind when he returned to the Soviet Union, assuming correctly that the Soviet authorities would in due course crack down on the modernist art movement. Sadly from his viewpoint this is exactly what happened: many of his works were confiscated and he was banned from practising his style of abstract art.
Thus after 1930 he returned to the peasant themes that had occupied him in his early years, employing basic shapes as if trying to establish a new grammar of form in terms of the human body. This partial return to figuration may have been an attempt to come to terms with the newly established official doctrine of "Socialist Realism", with its demand that art be comprehensible to the masses. He died of cancer in Leningrad in May 1935, at the age of 56. He is now regarded by many critics as an important figure in the emerging abstract art movements of pre-Revolutionary Russia and one of the most innovative 20th century painters of the World War I era.
Works by Kazimir Severinovich Malevich can be seen in many of the world's best art museums, notably the Museum of Modern art MOMA New York, and the Tretyakov Gallery Moscow. His best known paintings include:
- Haymaking (1909, Tretyakov Gallery,
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