Malevich, Suprematism and the ‘Black Square’
On the 23rd of February 1878, the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich was born in the Kiev Governorate of the Russian Empire (now Ukraine), to parents of Polish descent. In terms of his influence on the development of modern art, he can be placed alongside such ground-breaking artists as Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp. Between 1895 and 1896 he studied drawing in Kiev, and after moving to Moscow in 1904, he continued his artistic education at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.
As an artistic centre mediating Western influences and combining them with local influences, Moscow proved to be an exciting place for young Malevich. Besides, the air of new political and ideological discussion, as well as that of cultural transformation and technological innovation, turned out to provide significant stimuli for artists of his generation, whose aspiration was to find relevant forms of expression that would correspond to the spirit of the time. In 1915, Malevich’s epoch-making discovery, called Suprematism, which focused on basic geometric forms and a limited range of colours, seemed to provide the answer. This new vision of painting was, according to Malevich, supreme in relation to painting of the past, represented by that of ‘the Academy’, as it focused on pure artistic feeling rather than on visual depiction of objects. “I have ripped through the blue lampshade of the constraints of colour.” he said, “I have come out into the white. Follow me, comrade aviators. Swim into the abyss. I have set up the semaphores of Suprematism. I have overcome the lining of the coloured sky, torn it down and into the bag thus formed, put colour, tying it up with a knot. Swim in the white abyss, infinity is before you.” (Kasimir Malevich, Non-Objective Art and Suprematism, [in:] Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Art in Theory, 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas)
The starting point for this new artistic philosophy was Malevich’s Black Square, which he painted around 1915. “When asked by art historian A. V. Bakushinsky “how he drew his Black Square and what the impetus for it was, Malevich replied that when he was drawing Black Square ‘fiery lightning bolts’ were constantly crossing the canvas in front of him.” And Malevich’s pupil, Anna Leporskaia, recalling his words, “recounted that he considered Black Square an event of such tremendous significance in his art that he could not eat, drink, or sleep for a full week.” Black Square of 1915 allows the contemporary viewer to feel this tremendous tension as well. In the canvas’s texture, created in rapid, almost chaotic strokes, we can see the fingerprints of Malevich, who was in such a hurry that he outstripped his own brush.” (Aleksandra Shatskikh, Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism). Therefore, those faced with the black homogeneous surface of the painting should not be fooled by its superficial simplicity. In fact, “Black Square, as its glasnost’ X-ray reveal, was painted over “a completely finished composition,” determined to be “dynamic suprematism,” and thus came into existence through the act of zapisyvaniia (painting over or writing over) of one pictorial “text” over the other, a process comparable with palimpsest.” (Margarita Tupitsyn, Malevich and Film).
Another important thing about Black Square is its context. The famous painting, which is now in possession of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, was first displayed at the Last Futurist Exhibition 0, 10 in Petrograd in 1915. Hanged in the upper corner of the gallery – the place traditionally ascribed to Orthodox icons of religious figures – Black Square automatically acquired the status of the ‘icon of the era’. By veiling the traditionally understood ‘divine’ with the surface of a singular colour it provided an apt commentary on the ideological reappropriation of the contemporary world, which was soon to be engaged in one of history’s most significant events – the October Revolution.