Kazimir Severinovich Malevich was a Russian avant-garde painter and art theorist, primarily known for his abstract composition and the Black Squares. Although oil painting was his favorite medium, Malevich also created and designed setpieces for theater plays. He was associated with Cubism and Futurism, as well as creating a style called Suprematism, which aimed at the dissolution of all figurative representation. Malevich was a pivotal artist for the development of abstract art, helping to shape art as we know it today.
Kazimir Severinovich Malevich was born on February 23, 1879, to a Polish family under the name Kazimierz Malewicz. The artist was born in the Kyiv Governorate, which belonged to the Russian Empire. His family settled there after Poland's January Uprising of 1863 had failed, fleeing from the region of today's Belarus.
The soon-to-be artist didn't know any professional artists until the age of 12, as he was far from cultural centers. He spent most of his childhood on villages and beet plantations for sugar since his father was a sugar factory manager. Young Malevich had an interest in peasant craftsmanship, like decorated stoves, walls, and embroidery. Shortly before moving to Kursk with his family, at the age of 16, Malevich spent a year having drawing lessons.
Malevich left Kursk after his father's death in 1904 and moved to Moscow. Now in the biggest city of Russia, the artist was able to enroll at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, studying at the Academy for six years. He also worked in Fedor Rerberg's studio and under Modern artists such as Konstantin Korovin and Leonid Pasternak, who taught the young artist to paint with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist techniques. In fact, Malevich's early production was largely influenced by Post-Impressionism, although the Art Nouveau and Symbolism is considered just as significant to his artistic development.
By 1907, following his acquaintance with Mikhail Larionov, David Burliuk, and Wassily Kandinsky, Malevich shifted his production towards a significantly more avant-garde aesthetics. Scholars also suggest that Kandinsky was a pivotal influence on Malevich's artistic career. Three years later, Larionov invited the artist to the Jack of Diamonds, also known as Knave of Diamonds, a prominent avant-garde collective. During this period, the artist's production was mainly focused on peasant life, often with inspiration from traditional Ukrainian Luboks.
Malevich was also becoming more familiar with Cubist, Futurist, and Primitivist philosophies of art. It consisted of an amalgamation of Italian Futurism and Synthetic Cubism elements, exemplified by the works of Juan Gris, Georges Braque, and Jacob Lawrence.
Following a falling-out with Larionov, Malevich became a pivotal member of the Union of Youth (Soyuz Molodyozhi), an influential association of Futurist artists. They made their second exhibition in 1911, in which Malevich participated, along with Vladimir Tatlin and others. The next year, at their third exhibition, Aleksandra Ekster also attended. By 1912, Malevich described his work as Cubo-Futuristic. A good example is the painting The Knifegrinder.
In March 1913, a major exhibition of paintings by Aristarkh Lentulov opened in Moscow, one of the foremost avant-garde Russian painters of his time. The said exhibition caused a profound impact on Russian art as a whole, for the leading Russian artists of the time, including Malevich, promptly absorbed all the news concepts manifested in these works.
During this period, Malevich finished The Reaper on Red, a figurative artwork reminiscent of the production of the French Cubist artist Fernand Leger. According to scholars, although the composition's overall construction is associated with Cubism, the vibrant color palette is inspired by Post-Impressionism. Also, the artworks were influenced by the Eastern-European traditional folk prints known as Lubok. Although still a figurative piece, this artwork is a harbinger of Malevich's future plunge into abstraction.
During the same period, the artist created his Woman With Pails: Dynamic Arrangement. Here, the artist created a far more abstract and complex composition than the previously mentioned artwork. The painting also contains a figurative subject. Although it is more subtly identifiable, one can notice one of the woman's hands carrying two pails and perhaps some edifications in the background.
The composition is executed with a puzzle-like interlocking of geometrical forms and an overall muted palette. However, the artist also employed vibrant tones of ochre, red, green, and yellow distributed in small sections of the picture, enhancing its visual dynamism.
The Russian Cubo-Futurism extended beyond the visual arts. Also in 1913, they premiered Victory Over the Sun, a Cubo-Futuristic Opera written by Aleksei Kruchonykh with the set designs made by Malevich. The piece was received with immediate success.
In 1915, Malevich participated in an exhibition called "0,10", or The Last Futurist Exhibition. The showing introduced a non-objective form of painting called Suprematism, developed by Malevich himself. He thought of it as a development of Cubism, as seen in his manifesto "From Cubism to Suprematism". From this point, Malevich's production became almost exclusively works of pure abstraction. Suprematism is often considered one of the first and most dramatic developments in abstract art.
In this exhibition, the artist showed the first of his Black Square, a recurrent image in his subsequent production. These artworks were the embodiment of Malevich's Suprematist concepts. The composition is solely comprised of a black square over a white background. Although the painting seems quite simple, it shows its subtleties through the brushstrokes, fingerprints, and colors underlying the cracked black surface. For the artist, the white area represented nothingness, as the black square represented feelings that would only be accessed through an observation deprived of reason and logic. The black square was also perceived and depicted by the artist as an icon with a godlike presence.
By 1918, the artist finished his White on White. As mentioned before, in Black Square, the white area represented nothingness, and the black square embodied human emotions. Here, however, the artist turned both squares white, merging the two elements. The shape is still perceptible, suggesting a transcendental state reached through Suprematism, the complete transformation into zero forms.
The composition's overall simplicity complements the rich textures, which entices the viewer for a closer examination of the artwork. The abstract form of the square is identifiable by slight tonal contrast, suggesting the employment of coats of color underlying the white surface.
During the early years following the October Revolution, the Soviet Union was a favorable environment for avant-garde artists to develop their vision. In fact, Malevich was even a member of the Fine Arts Department of the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment, an organ responsible for administering museums and overseeing artistic education for the people. He taught at the Free State Art Studios in Moscow, encouraging his pupils to abandon the previous bourgeois aesthetic in favor of a more abstract approach towards art.
However, by 1925, the tides would turn following the death of Vladimir Lenin and the deposition of Leon Trotsky from power. The State would increasingly promote a highly propagandistic and idealized art style known as Socialist Realism, which later effectively became the country's official art movement.
As Malevich predicted, upon the rise of Joseph Stalin, the government opposed any form of abstraction, regarding it as bourgeois art and unable to represent social realities. As a consequence, his artworks were confiscated. The artist was prohibited from exhibiting and even creating similar paintings. However, Malevich was quietly condoned by the Communists.
During his later years, Malevich saw himself obligated to abandon his abstract production in favor of figurative artworks. During this period, his works, like Haymaking (1930), are often reminiscent of his early career, regarding both subject matter and execution, such as the aforementioned The Reaper (1913).
Several compositions, although still figurative, are structured with well-defined lines and geometric forms consistent with his abstract aesthetics. He was also able to imbue his creations with his Suprematist ideas, especially through the rendering of crosses, an important and recurring element in his non-objective paintings, exemplified by his Running Man (1932).
Kazimir Malevich died of cancer on May 15, 1935.
Kazimir Malevich is undoubtedly one of the most pivotal names regarding the development of abstract art. He began expanding the possibilities of movements such as Cubism and Futurism, leading to the Suprematist movement. The story of his life is one of an artist with a relentless pursuit of aesthetical transcendence. Although his production was actively suppressed by the Soviet government, his art and ideas reached other countries and eventually influenced several generations of artists to come, such as the Minimalists. Malevich's oeuvre was influential to both his contemporaries and subsequent generations.
Today, a Malevich artwork can achieve a net worth of 60 million dollars.
"We have rejected reason because we have found another reason that could be called trans-rational, which has its own law, construction, and sense...This reason has found a way-Cubism-of expressing the object."
"Every real form is a world. And any plastic surface is more alive than a (drawn or painted) face from which stares a pair of eyes and a smile."
"At the present time, man's path lies through space, and Suprematism is a color metaphor in its infinite abyss."
"To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth."
"I transformed myself in the zero of form and emerged from nothing to creation, that is, to Suprematism, to the new realism in painting – to non-objective creation."
- Kazimir Severinovich Malevich