Characteristics of Russian Geometric Abstract Painting.

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Black Circle (1913) oil on canvas
State Russian Museum, St Petersburg
By Kasimir Malevich. One of the most
important 20th century paintings of
the abstract genre.

Suprematism (c.1913-18)


What is Suprematism?
History & Development
Mystical Art Movement
Suprematist Artists
Suprematist Paintings

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What is Suprematism? - Characteristics

Suprematism was a Russian abstract art movement, founded by the Kiev-born painter Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935) around 1915, which concerned itself with elementary geometric forms (squares, circles). It was one of several modern art movements developed in Russia during the early 20th century: others included Russian Futurism (c.1912-14) founded by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Rayonism (1912-15) founded by Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964); and Constructivism (c.1919-1930) founded by Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953). Suprematism eclipsed Rayonism and coexisted with Vladimir Tatlin's Constructivism during the period of the Russian Revolution up until 1921.

A nihilist who sought to challenge all traditional theories of art, Malevich is seen as one of the most important Russian abstract painters in modern art. In November 2008, a Suprematist-style painting by Malevich became the most valuable painting by a Russian ever sold at auction.

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History and Development

According to Malevich, he started developing Suprematist ideas as early as 1913, after showing his Cubo-Futurist works at the Donkey's Tail exhibition of 1912. (Note: Donkey's Tail was a radical breakaway from the more internationalist Knave of Diamonds group.) Based on Utopian ideals, Suprematism was artistically revolutionary and sought a new freedom of expression in total abstraction. Malevich first used the name Suprematism in a manifesto which accompanied "0.10 The Last Futurist Exhibition" - the exhibition that launched the movement in 1915. Held in St Petersburg, in December, the show included thirty-five abstract paintings by Malevich, many in vivid colours. Its centrepiece, developed from his Opera set designs of 1913, was the picture Black Square on White Ground (1913, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg).

An expanded version of the manifesto was published in 1916, entitled "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting." Clearly therefore, Suprematism owed something to styles of earlier European avant-garde art, but Malevich intended to go further: he wanted to develop a type of non-objective art which would allow him to abandon all references to the natural world and focus exclusively on pure form.

This he did by producing a number of rigorously abstract paintings - employing fundamental geometric shapes like squares, rectangles, circles, crosses and triangles, in a limited range of colours. He traced the development of Suprematism in three stages: first, black, then coloured, and finally white. The concluding stage was exemplified by his 1918 series of white-on-white pictures, extinguishing the relevance of colour: see for instance, Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

In very simple terms, Suprematist art tried to rid painting of all associations with the real world. Only by doing this, could art free itself from a morally bankrupt society and achieve purity. (See also concrete art.)

Mystical Art Movement

Although a supporter of the Revolution with no strong religious faith, Malevich's approach to art was relatively mystical, even visionary. Unfortunately, he was looking for the secret of art at a time when Bolshevik dogma decreed art to be a utilitarian activity for the benefit of society. As a result, from 1921 onwards, Suprematism ceased to have any aesthetic influence. Virtually abandoning painting, he was appointed to various official positions by the official Institute of Artistic Culture INKHUK (Institut Khudozhestvennoi Kulturi), where he involved himself in designwork and architectural plans, without any great sincerity. As he explained in his book The Non-Objective World, which was published by Bauhaus in 1927, he was unable to suppress his own ideas for the sake of socially correct concepts of artistic utility. He died of cancer in Leningrad in May 1935, at the age of 56.

Suprematist Artists

In addition to Lyubov Popova (1889-1924), an early member of the movement, and El Lissitzky (1890-1941) whom Malevich converted to Suprematism in Vitebsk, in 1918, other Russian artists of the Supremus group, who met to discuss the philosophy of Suprematism and its relevance for other areas of intellectual life, included: Ksenia Boguslavskaya, Ilya Chashnik, Aleksandra Ekster, Anna Kagan, Ivan Kliun, Olga Rozanova, Nikolai Suetin, and Nadezhda Udaltsova. Malevich's art was influential for a while on even the most materialist minded artists: even Constructivists like Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) assisted with propaganda and some designwork.

Important Suprematist Paintings

Fortunately, Malevich took most of his paintings out of Russia during the 1920s, in case they were seized by the Soviet authorities. His most famous works include:

Suprematism (Supremus No. 58) (1916) Krasnodar Museum of Art
The Knife Grinder (1912) Yale University Art Gallery
Head of a Peasant (1912) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Black Square on White Ground (1913, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)
Black Circle (1913) State Russian Museum, St Petersburg
Yellow, Orange and Green (1914) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Suprematism Composition: Red Square and Black Square (1915) MoMA, NYC
Suprematism (1915) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
White on White (1918) MoMA, New York

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