To commemorate Kazimir Malevich’s 140th birthday (b.23 February 1878, died 15 May 1935), here’s a brief historic insight into what the art scene was like at his time and his contribution to the changing of it in Russia and consequently the whole World.
Russian art at the turn of the XIXth century, although quite diverse, on the aesthetic level was still rather academic, with the dominance of classical tradition of the Academy of Fine Art in St Petersburg and Moscow Art college, often characterised as ‘neo-classicism’. (Kile, 2015)
So what happens in the end of the 19th century that initiates such a brisk movement towards Avant-Garde that totally changes the art scene?
It was the time when Industrialisation led to emergence of rich art patrons who helped introduce artists to the Western tendencies in art, and the new movements like Futurism, Cubism and Expressionism. They also helped artist form collectives, where in collaboration between painters, poets, writers and musicians they could generate new ideas and develop new radical manifests and critical texts as well as ground breaking experimental work.
It was also the time when with industrialisation, many peasants had to move to big cities, and the traditional folk art was at the threat of being completely lost. Some influential people of the time, interested in Art, having noticed that, started to establish places, where artists could study folk art, like Abramtsevo organised by merchant and arts patron Savva Mamontov.
It was at this time that the authority of the most powerful art organisation in Russia – the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts – was questioned by a group of young painters, who believed that the mission of art spread far beyond formal aesthetics. They established a group – ‘Peredvizhniki’, and aimed to deliver art to all people, not just the elite, and strongly believed in art’s function as a communicator of social and political messages.
The liberating new tendencies of the West, such as Symbolism, Fauvism, expressionism, freed the artists from constrains of imitating “real forms”, thus at the same time connecting them back to the much more inherent folk crafts in the forms of lubok (Fig. 1), traditional Russian icons (Fig. 2), embroidery, old shop signs, fairy tales illustrations. (Amirsadeghi & Vickery, 2011)
Figure 1. Author unknown, “The Mice are burying the Cat”. An 18th-century Russian lubok print
Figure 2. Author unknown, “The miracle of St George”, Russian icon, XV century, Novgorod.
Naïve manner, ornamental elements – by large abstract, text incorporation, intense colours, tight compositions, characteristic of Russian folklore art, interested Russian artists in the beginning of the XXth century both in terms of aesthetics and the ideological, spiritual power behind the image.
Malevich, for example, acknowledged a significant influence of rich peasant colours as well as primitive forms of traditional icons on his practice, which also made him realise the importance of gaining the “intuition of the nature of art and artistic realism” over mastering anatomy and perspective. (Neret, 2003, pp. 21-22)
Taking into account the constantly changing political situation in Russia in the beginning of the XXth century, it is no wonder that the new kind of art, as revolutionary, as perhaps the minds of Russian people at the time, developed very rapidly and evolved into numerous different trends and movements. “In the hungry Russia of the time, ravaged by revolution and civil war, people were inventing new creative concepts and materials, planning hitherto unimagined towns, perfecting theories for the reform of all human life by means of art, forging the material forms of the world of the future.” (Golomoshtok & Glezer, 1977, p. 83)
Not less of a shock for a traditionally very religious nation in the end of the XIXth and beginning of the XXth century were the changes in spiritual life, with religion being relegated to the margins of the historical process. Marx speaks of the end of religious critique; Nietzsche declares the death of God. The new Communist regime officially forbids religion, burns churches. People have no choice but search for an alternative, or preserve religion but as a private affair. (Mamonov, 2007-2014)
Under such circumstances individualism in all creative spheres is becoming more and more prominent: “When religion, science and morality are shaken … and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself.” (Kandinsky, 2015, p. 41).
Many of these features: elements of folklore, religious and spiritual search, individualism, eclecticism, will remain very important in the Russian art, creating a truly unique artistic phenomenon.
However the most apparent breakthrough, mostly evidenced by the history of modern art, was probably the break with representational object, when in 1915 Kazimir Malevich formulated his idea of non-objective art and showed his “Black Square” (figure 3) during the “0,10 Exhibition”, along a series of Suprematist works.
Figure 3. K. Malevich ‘Black Square’, 1915, oil on canvas, 79×79 cm, Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery
Latin ‘superm’ means domination, which in Malevich’s view means the domination of colour in painting. “With Suprematism, the pictorial is finally liberated and can soar into the infinite.” (Neret, 2003, p. 56).
In 1916 Malevich wrote in his article ‘From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism’: ‘I have transformed myself in the zero of form and have fished myself out of the rubbishy slough of academic art. I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and got out of the circle of objects, the horizon ring that has imprisoned the artist and the forms of nature.’ (Malevich, 2012)
Coming from a village in the Ukraine, and working in Moscow, Malevich felt a deep connection with both cultures and absorbed both the Russian lubok and icon tradition, Ukrainian ornamental “pysanki” (figure 4) aesthetics, as he many time acknowledged in his theoretical work (Malevich, 2012)
Figure 4. Author unknown, Pysanki. Kiev Region, 1911, Kiev, Ukraine National Museum of Decorative Arts
He also absorbed all the progressive art movements of the West: Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism. For him this was the way to liberation from the form of nature and technology, but he wanted to go further, “toward the absolute, inventive, immediate creation” (Malevich, 2012)
His work can be described as sourcing from both mystical and concrete, “the division between the spiritual search for a transcendental experience and the wish to emphasise the material presence of the object as a concrete reality and not illusion.” (Valeria Varas, 2006) Suprematist solid shapes of colour paint became autonomous, making his work ‘pure creation’, equating human creativity with the act of God. (Ibid)
He saw his “Black Square” as “a naked icon without a frame, the icon of my time”. (Neret, 2003, p. 49) Thus – the imitation of Russian “red corner”, where he displayed his icon high in the corner of the room at the “0,01” Exhibition (Fig. 5). But it was not an icon to be worshiped, but to lead the spectator to the realm of the divine, mystical. Malevich saw Suprematism not just as a new movement in art, but as an all-encompassing concept, ideological, philosophical, social and religious. In a conversation with a fellow artist Ivan Kliun, he once said: “Maybe, I will become the patriarch of a new religion?” (Kluin, 1999, p. 138).
Figure 5. “0,10 – The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting”, Petrograd, winter 1915/16. View of the room with Malevich’s Black Square and other Suprematist paintings Russian State Archive for Literature and Art, Moscow.
Malevich’s oeuvre has always been, and still remains, however, rather mysterious and mystical, with many questions that he posed still unanswered.
This is primarily due to the widely known fact that he himself created such an aura around his work – by backdating his new paintings, filling in the gaps in his artistic biography. For instance, he claimed the start of Suprematism in 1913, however it’s manifesto painting, the “Black Square” was created allegedly in 1915, and he wrote the first Suprematist Manifesto in 1916.
It is also a well-known fact, that when Malevich first created his “Black Square” he himself did not know or understand what it contained, other than that was something big. Recent findings discover two earlier paintings under the original “Black Square” painting (see Fig. 6 and 7); as well as an inscription in Malevich’s handwriting, reading “Negroes battling in a cave”,
which refers the Suprematist icon to an earlier black rectangle painted by French writer and humourist Alphonse Allais in 1897, called “Combat des Negres dans une cave, pendant la nuit” (“Negroes fighting in a cellar at night”). These new discoveries add yet another dimension to Malevich’s work, thus reinforcing once again the enigma surrounding it and intriguing the young generations of artists. (Anon, Kultura (Culture), 2015)
Figure 6. The first layer of Maleviche’s “Black Square, revealed by the recent ex-ray, claimed to be an early Cubo-Futurist composition.
Figure 7. The second layer image discovered under the “Black Square”, revealed by the ex-ray in 2015, believed to be a “protoSuprematist” composition.
 Traditional Russian popular print with simple graphics and narrative derived from literature, religious texts and folklore.
 First Russian Revolution of 1905-1907, followed by Russia’s involvement in the First World War in 1914 – 1917, and October Revolution of 1917
 Last Futurist Exhibition in Russia, held in December 2015, help in Nadezhda Dobychina Gallery in St. Petersburg.
 Traditional Ukrainian coloured eggs.
 The “beautiful corner” (red can also mean “beautiful” in Russian) of the house, where Orthodox families traditionally hang religious icons.
 This is acknowledged by Malevich himself in his autobiography, and Anna Leporskaya, his student and assistant. (Neret, 2003)
 Cubo-Futurism – Russian Avant-Garde movement in the 1910s, combining the forms of European Cubism with the subject matter of Italian Futurism, with which Malevich was strongly associated.
Amirsadeghi, H., & Vickery, J. (2011). Frozen dreams: contemporary art in Russia. London: Thames & Hudson.
Anon. (2015, 11 11). Kultura (Culture). Retrieved 12 12, 2015, from TV Kultura.ru: http://tvkultura.ru/article/show/article_id/144351/
Golomoshtok, I., & Glezer, A. (1977). Unofficial Art From the Soviet Union . (M. Scammel, Ed.) London: Secker and Warburg.
Kandinsky, V. (2015). Point and Line To Plane. (A. Zhirkarentsev, Ed.) Moscow: Azbuka-Attikus.
Kile, P. (2015). Russian ‘Modern’. Retrieved from Proza.ru.
Kluin, I. (1999). My Journey in Art. Moscow: PA.
Mamonov, B. (2007-2014). “Fatherlessness”. Moscow Art Magazine , Digest, 45-53.
Neret, G. (2003). Malevich. Koln: Tashen GmbH.
Malevich, K. (2012). Black Square. (M. Smelkova, Ed.) St Petersburg, Russia: Lenizdat.
Valeria Varas, R. R. (2006). Monochromes. London: University of California Press.
Article by Anna Glinkina, 2018