Malevich Introduces Suprematism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Kazimir Malevich exhibited thirty-nine paintings to which he attached the subtitle “Suprematism,” critics saw the abstract forms as a direct challenge to realism and responded with insults and verbal fireworks.

Summary of Event

The movement known as Suprematism had its birth at a 1915 art exhibition in St. Petersburg, Russia, that was promoted as the “last Futurist exhibition.” The focal point of the exhibition was the display of thirty-nine Suprematist paintings by Kazimir Malevich, who, in calling the new movement Suprematism, appeared to be designating the total nonobjectivity of Suprematism as the last stage of his progress as an artist. Suprematism Art movements;Suprematism Art;abstract Abstract art Painting;Suprematism [kw]Malevich Introduces Suprematism (Dec. 17, 1915) [kw]Suprematism, Malevich Introduces (Dec. 17, 1915) Suprematism Art movements;Suprematism Art;abstract Abstract art Painting;Suprematism [g]Russia;Dec. 17, 1915: Malevich Introduces Suprematism[03890] [c]Arts;Dec. 17, 1915: Malevich Introduces Suprematism[03890] Malevich, Kazimir Chashnik, Ilia Ermolaeva, Vera Khlebnikov, Velimir Kliun, Ivan Kudriashev, Ivan Lissitzky, El Puni, Ivan Suetin, Nikolai Tatlin, Vladimir

The first of the paintings by Malevich listed in the exhibition catalog is the famous Black Square on White. Black Square on White (Malevich) The painting consists of two shapes, a black square set in a larger white square; the contrast between the black and the white presents composition at its most economical. In particular, the painting calls attention to the effect of spatial infinity opening into the nothingness of the black square. Despite the total abstraction of the painting, the tactile quality of the surface of the canvas tended to overcome the viewer’s impulse to regard the painting merely as an arrangement of basic forms. Similarly, Malevich’s other paintings, with titles such as Eight Red Rectangles and Painterly Realism: Boy with Knapsack—Colour Masses of the Fourth Dimension, called attention to constructed, painted geometric forms. Malevich, however, undermined the organized nature of such concepts by giving each rectangle its own orientation within the spatial composition, thereby denying the imposition of a predetermined or expected design, pattern, or structure. In particular, the paintings stretched the limits of representation because of their total abstraction and lack of any allusions to reality, despite such allusive titles as Boy with Knapsack and Red Square: Painterly Realism of Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions. Malevich also installed his paintings so that their deliberate proximity extended the space of each painting beyond its individual frame and consequently informed viewers of the intended spatial relationship between separate works.

Because most critics at that time judged art according to traditional values of locating meaning in art, Malevich’s Black Square on White became the focal point of attacks against the notions of the Suprematists. Black Square on White was described as nothing but a void and the embodiment of emptiness, and art critics regarded this work and the others in the exhibition as degenerate examples of the destructive rejection of tradition. More positive critics likened the total abstraction of Malevich’s Suprematist paintings to the recent efforts of theoretical physicists Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Niels Bohr to define non-Euclidean space. New scientific concepts required articulation in a new scientific syntax; Malevich and poets such as Velimir Khlebnikov attempted to extend the limits of the language of the arts in the same manner in order to express the alteration of perception caused by the new explorations of space and time. Consequently, in bringing art to the edge of innovation, Malevich’s Suprematist paintings can be regarded as directly reflecting the dialectic between language and thought.

In his exploration of the changing nature of art, Malevich wrote that “characteristic signs which distinguish the new painting from representative painting . . . are reflected in painters’ differing perceptual conceptions of the world and attitudes regarding it.” As Suprematism was not concerned with the reflection of everyday life, Suprematist art was not bound to representation but instead sought to establish its freedom to represent the abstraction of infinity. For Malevich, color became a means of creating form and structure, of creating a language “composed of special words . . . an aid with which one can talk about the universe or about the state of our inner animation, something one cannot express by means of universe of words, sounds.”

To appreciate Malevich’s Suprematist period, one needs to consider the period of his artistic maturation from Impressionism to Suprematism as an attempt to achieve the maximum of artistic freedom. Malevich rejected the broken brushwork of Impressionism to concentrate on the static quality of the surface plane; he further developed this static quality in paintings he displayed at a 1910 exhibition of neoprimitivists. In his paintings of peasants, he heightened the static quality even more by presenting the peasants working in the fields as shapes whose heads, instead of being individualized, had the abstract quality of icons. Shortly thereafter, in a 1911 exhibition at the Moscow Salon, Malevich attempted to integrate the color experiments of his neoprimitivist paintings into works that reflected the influences of cubism and Futurism. Futurism Art movements;Futurism His Knife Grinder (1912) reflected the evolution of his individual style as he adjusted it to the theories of the Italian Futurists, who advocated the representation of velocity and dynamism. In paintings shown at a 1913 exhibition in Moscow, Malevich continued to experiment with Futurism; his painting Peasant Woman with Buckets suggested movement by showing cones broken into almost unrecognizable shapes.

Influenced by Khlebnikov’s experiments in creating disjunctions between sound and meaning in language, Malevich joined the First All-Russian Congress of Poets of the Future in the production of Victory over the Sun, staged at the Luna Park Theater in St. Petersburg in 1913, for which he designed the costumes and stage decor. Khlebnikov and Malevich advocated the destruction of language as well as the “antiquated movement of thought based on laws of causality.” From these experiments, as well as from the statements published in Malevich’s brochure From Cubism to Suprematism in Art, to the New Realism of Painting, to Absolute Creation, it became evident that Malevich’s paintings mirrored the development and the formulation of personal creative principles. Ultimately, Malevich’s personal explorations in art also reflected the experiments of the Russian avant-garde, and, consequently, his theoretical writings not only influenced the development of Suprematism but also contributed to the explorations of constructivism.


Malevich’s introduction of Suprematism had a profound effect in that it released art from the constraints of easel painting. As part of his program to alter the conceptual frame of art, Malevich began experimenting with three-dimensional architectural drawings, which he called “architectonics,” and he inspired his fellow Suprematists to proclaim a transition from painting toward a universal system of art headed by architecture. In addition, Malevich devoted himself to working out his pedagogical method and to writing treatises on the history of the modern art movements and on the nature of art for the Vitebsk UNOVIS, UNOVIS a new kind of art school that was conceived to function not only as a teaching institute but also as a scientific research institute and workshop engaged in practical work to promote the program of the Suprematists and to train succeeding generations of artists. Consequently, all of Malevich’s paintings and architectural constructions from this period served as illustrations of his theories and were meant to stimulate his colleagues and students to extend their experiments into both the decorative and the applied arts. Ultimately, the Suprematist experiments outlined a new field of activity for art in which painting, experiments in architecture, furniture, ceramics, polychrony, scientific experimentation, and theoretical statements were closely interlinked.

The impact of the UNOVIS program in Vitebsk is particularly evident in the work of Malevich’s closest collaborators, Ilia Chashnik and Nikolai Suetin. Chashnik cofounded the journal Unovis, assisted Malevich with architectural constructions, and worked on ceramic designs as well as on his own Suprematist paintings. Chashnik’s contributions to Suprematism were, however, cut short by his untimely death at the age of twenty-seven. Suetin’s contributions to Suprematism related to his applications of Suprematist forms to functional objects. Because Malevich was interested in the conceptual framework for design, he left the actual execution to Suetin and Chashnik, and Suetin concentrated on porcelain design and decorations of porcelain with highly colored, asymmetrical patterns.

Perhaps the most influential of Malevich’s followers was Vera Ermolaeva, the director of the Vitebsk art school, who played a significant role in promoting Suprematism; it was at her invitation that Malevich established the UNOVIS program at Vitebsk. Along with Chashnik and Suetin, Ermolaeva, who managed the color laboratory at Vitebsk, formed the original core of Malevich’s collaborators and practitioners of Suprematism. In addition to Chashnik, Suetin, and Ermolaeva, Ivan Kudriashev represents the generation of artists who came to maturity in the transitional period in the history of the Russian avant-garde. Although Kudriashev was trained as a Suprematist, by the time he had an opportunity to develop as an artist, the Soviet government had restricted artistic freedom in the promotion of the doctrine of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism Consequently, Kudriashev’s Suprematism is highly eclectic, as he had to adhere to the new restrictions but nevertheless showed his loyalty to Suprematism by using clear, bright, unmodulated color applied to simple geometric shapes. The last tribute to Suprematism occurred long after abstract art was banned in the Soviet Union, when Suetin organized the last Suprematist event, the painting of the Suprematist coffin for the funeral of Malevich.

Malevich’s influence is also evident in the work of a number of artists who were later to search for different approaches. Among these was Ivan Puni, one of the earliest followers of Malevich’s Suprematism. Puni’s work during his Suprematist phase offers the only example of Suprematist painting extended into actual three-dimensional space through the use of real objects, attached wooden pieces that were incorporated with the illusionistically painted objects into a spatial composition.

Ivan Kliun, one of the oldest members of the Russian avant-garde, represents the intersection between adherence to cubist fragmentation and Suprematist assertion of flat, geometric shapes. Ultimately, Kliun was to draw inspiration from both Suprematism and the constructivism of Malevich’s ideological opponent, Vladimir Tatlin. Similarly, El Lissitzky, who had a long-standing commitment to the Suprematism of Malevich, his mentor, was to extend the application of Suprematist theory toward utilitarian ends, and his contributions to the Russian avant-garde encompassed a wide range of activities, including painting, architecture, book design, photomontage, city planning, teaching, and theoretical explorations. His “Prouns” project (an acronym for “Project for the Affirmation of the New”) represents a cross between constructivist and Suprematist ideals.

Although Tatlin, as the founder of the constructivist movement, fought long-standing ideological and aesthetic battles with Malevich regarding the function of art, Tatlin’s constructions and systems of design were to polarize and clarify the position of Malevich’s Suprematism. Consequently, when one views the impact of Suprematism, one must also examine the mutual impacts of parallel movements. The combination of Suprematist and constructivist ideals was to influence the Bauhaus movement, and the most telling examples of the wide-ranging influence of Suprematist architectonics on Western architecture is clearly evident in the style of such artist-architects as Theo van Doesburg, Le Corbusier, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, and Walter Gropius. Suprematism Art movements;Suprematism Art;abstract Abstract art Painting;Suprematism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barron, Stephanie, and Maurice Tuchman, eds. The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1933: New Perspectives. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1980. Well-illustrated and well-documented volume published in conjunction with the first major exhibition of the Russian avant-garde at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1980. Provides biographical data, essays, and chronologies of the leading Russian artists. Represents an invaluable introduction to both the period and the individual artists. Includes a section devoted to Malevich and Suprematism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowlt, John E., ed. Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich, and the Russian Avant-Garde. Bethesda, Md.: Foundation for International Arts and Education, 2000. Published in conjunction with the world premiere of an exhibition of Russian avant-garde paintings at the Phoenix art museum. Features three scholarly essays, color plates, glossary, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. Introduces in translation significant essays from the theory and criticism of Russian art movements of neoprimitivism, Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism, constructivism, and Socialist Realism. Includes Malevich’s influential “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism.” Features illustrations, notes, and extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crone, Rainer, and David Moos. Kazimir Malevich: The Climax of Disclosure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Situates Malevich’s experiments in art in contemporary critical theory and provides a scholarly exploration of Malevich’s theory and practice. Color plates illustrate each stage of Malevich’s artistic progress. Includes extensive notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Andrea, Jeanne, ed. Malevich. Los Angeles: Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 1990. Catalog from a 1990 exhibition held by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., features introductory essays, catalog illustrations, supplemental essays by contemporary Malevich scholars, endnotes, and selected bibliography. Excellent and comprehensive introduction to Malevich’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drutt, Matthew, ed. Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2003. Features more than one hundred paintings, drawings, and objects created by Malevich as well as essays on Malevich’s art by international scholars and material from the artist’s previously unpublished personal papers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lodder, Christina. Russian Constructivism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Provides parallels between Russian constructivism and Suprematism. Although devoted to examples of the theory and practice of the constructivists, contributes to awareness that many of the Suprematists also participated in the experiments of constructivism. Serves as an excellent supplemental text. Includes illustrations, biographical sketches, notes, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zhadova, Larissa A. Malevich: Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art, 1910-1930. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982. Exploration of Malevich’s contributions to Suprematism covers a wide range of material, including documents by Malevich and articles on Malevich and Suprematism by representative Russian artists and critics. Includes more than four hundred illustrations (eighty-four in color) and index.

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