Kasimir Malevich
Biography of Russian Abstract Painter, Founder of Suprematism.

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Black Circle (1913) oil on canvas
State Russian Museum, St Petersburg
A great example of non-objective art.

Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)


Youth and Training
Early Art Exhibitions
Zero-Ten: Suprematist Art Show
Non-Objective Art
Vitebsk Art School
International Recognition
Selected Paintings

RAYONISM (c.1910-20)
Russian avant-garde version of
Cubism founded by Mikhail Larionov
and Natalya Goncharova. Rayonism
was concerned with the forms arising
from the intersection of reflected light
rays from different objects. Larionov
claimed it was a combination of
Cubism, Futurism and Orphism.
Russian abstract architectural art
movement led by Vladimir Tatlin
(1885-1953), Aleksandr Rodchenko
(1891-1956) and brothers Antoine
Pevsner (1886-1962) and Naum Gabo
(1890-1977). Constructivist artists
developed their architectural art
in an attempt to reflect the modern
industrial world. For other abstract
works similar to those produced by
Malevich or Larionov, please see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.


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.

For details of other painters, see:
Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887)
Russia's finest portraitist.
Konstantin Savitsky (1844-1905)
Critical realist genre painter.
Vasily Polenov (1844-1927)
Landscape & biblical painter.
Ilya Repin (1844-1930)
Greatest Russian genre-painter.
Vasily Surikov (1848-1916)
Russia's greatest history painter.
Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
Symbolist painter.
Isaac Levitan (1860-1900)
Landscape painter.

Abram Arkhipov (1862-1930)
Genre painter, critical realism.
Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941)
Greatest Russian colourist.
Valentin Serov (1865-1911)
Russia's greatest Impressionist.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Expressionist artist.
Chaim Soutine (1893–1943)
Expressionist figurative painter.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

Youth and Training

The Russian painter Kazimir Severinovich Malevich was born in Kiev. In the 1900s he painted Impressionist-influenced landscape and figure scenes. In 1904, after the death of his father, he moved to Moscow, where from 1904 to 1910 he studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and in the studio of Fedor Rerberg. In 1907, he met Mikhail Larionov, with whom, over the next few years, he shared a strong primitive style, and exhibited with both the Knave of Diamonds group and the more radical Donkey's Tail group. However, Malevich's paintings are more intense in colour than Larionov's, the technique of gouache on paper lending itself to a broad treatment; they reflect the influence of Matisse, whose work he saw in the private collection of Sergei Shchukin.

Early Art Exhibitions

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.

Malevich's paintings showed an increasing absorption of Western avant-garde influences, so placing him in strong opposition to the anti-European bias of Larionov. The Knife Grinder (1912; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) combines Cubist fragmentation and Futurist multiplication of the image. The Cubist Head of a Peasant (1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) is arbitrary in its relation to the subject, compared with the classic paintings of Picasso and Braque.




After breaking with Larionov, Malevich came into contact with a new intellectual circle of modern artists including the writer Kruchenykh and the composer M.V. Matyushin. The group subscribed to the concept of "alogism" which, as its name implies, was an attempt to break free from the bounds of casual connection. An "alogical" painting, such as An Englishman in Moscow (1914; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) superimposes varied words and images in a way that cannot be resolved in the way most intricate Cubist pictures can; it undermines any kind of representational logic.


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.

Zero-Ten: Suprematist Art Show

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.


Non-Objective Art

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.

At the same time he was out of sympathy with advanced artists in post-Revolutionary Russia who renounced painting as a speculative activity. Although a supporter of the Revolution and not conventionally religious, Malevich's thinking was of a mystical bent. He was concerned with presenting a new vision which, though not possible outside the context of a scientific and industrial society, was not directly related to the problems of functional design. In "The Non-Objective World" published in Munich in 1927, he stated that the artist would always be in advance of society. This being the case, he could not willingly suppress his own ideas for the sake of socially defined concepts of utility.

Vitebsk Art School

Malevich's principal activity from 1918 onwards was in education. In that year he became a Professor at the State Art and Technology Workshops in Moscow. In 1919 he joined Marc Chagall at the Vitebsk art school, along with El Lissitzky (1890-1941) with whom he formed among the pupils the "Unovis" group (1920). This became a sufficiently powerful force to lead to the resignation of Chagall, when the two quarrelled. In 1921 the group itself was ousted, and after 1922, was based in St Petersburg (then Petrograd), where Malevich was appointed head of the city's Arts Institute (1922-29). Under Malevich, who had virtually given up painting, the group made a number of models that attempted an investigation of his theories of "planity" and "arkhitektory" (basic architectural form).

International Recognition

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.

Selected Paintings

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, Moscow)
- The Knife Grinder (1912, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven)
- Head of a Peasant (1912, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam)
- Black Square on White Ground (1913, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)
- Black Square (1915, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
- Black Circle (1913, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)
- Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918, MOMA, New York)
- Red Cavalry Riding (1928-32, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

• For more biographies of Russian artists, see: Famous Painters.
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