Known as the father of Abstract Geometric art and founder of Suprematism, Kazimir Malevich is considered to be the most important artist of the 20th century. Living and creating in a highly turbulent period of Russian history, Malevich’s first hand experience of WW1 and October Revolution, as well as his personal quest for spirituality became central inspirations for his work.
While Malevich’s art remains highly controversial, its mystic, futuristic and esoteric elements continue to intrigue, inspire and fascinate art admirers all over the world.
Early life and work
Born as Kazimierz Malewicz on February 23.,1878. in Kiev Governorate of Russian Empire, he was the oldest of 14 children of Ludwika and Seweryn Malevich. In addition to Russian and Ukranian, Kazimir spoke Polish as his native language since both of his parents were Poles from Kopyl Region, and famously signed his artworks with a Polish spelling of his name. As a child Malevich was fascinated with folk art and traditional Ukrainian embroidery but didn’t start his studies until the age of 17. After the death of his father in 1904., Malevich enrolled at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, with an intention of further honing his skills. During the next six years he spent at the School, Kazimir associated himself with famed Russian avant-garde artists of the time such as Vladimir Taltin, Sonja Delaunaj, Vadim Meller and Aleksandar Archipenko and took part in many group exhibitions. In this period, Malevich’s work was described as Cubo-Futuristic, and he became a household name in the Russian Cubist art scene by 1912.
After attending the exhibition of the most influential Russian Cubist and theatre stage designer Aristarkh Lentulov in 1913., Kazimir tried his hand at stage design for a Futurist opera called ”Victory Over the Sun”. The opera premiered in St. Petersburg, and while it mostly got negative reaction from both public and critics, Malevich’s stage design that consisted of purely geometric shapes was highly praised as the highlight of the otherwise forgettable piece. Huge success of his geometric abstract stage design encouraged Malevich to continue his work in this direction and further abstracticize his work. Finally, in 1915., Kazimir Malevich, a well-known and respected avant-garde painter published a manifesto ”From Cubism to Suprematism”, announcing a radical movement he invented and starting a new era in the history of art.
Born out of Malevich’s personal artistic evolution as well as the rise of new modernist wave in all forms of art, core values and ideas of Suprematism were explained in his book ”The Non-Objective World”. Instead of trying to imitate visible reality, he wanted to create a pure form of spirituality, shape and color, free from all references to the material world. Suprematist paintings were created with an intention of standing alone, like nothing that has ever been created before. Malevich’s spirituality and inclination towards mysticism played a crucial part in defining the other worldly nature of movement, as he stated the power of his art was in being created with a God-like feeling of ”making something that no one ever made before, creating something for the first time”. Believing in cosmic space and discrepancy between body and mind, Kazimir insisted on full abstraction since 1915., erasing all traces of accurate representation of actual objects. Letting go of the standard manifestation of objects ”set him free”, as he said, and gave his work an infinite dimension. Being influenced by two mystics of the time, George Gurdijeff and P. D. Ouspensky, Malevich was on a persistent search for higher levels of consciousness, as the doctrine of two esoteric masters was strongly based in the idea of ”walking sleep”- a partially hypnotic state most people live in characterized by low levels of virtue and consciousness. Simply put, Malevich considered himself to be a priest of a new religion that was to be explored through simplicity and geometry in art. Quickly after he published his manifesto, Malevich attracted a crowd of followers who helped him build a major exhibition, and the first one which introduced Suprematism to the world called ”Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10”. The exhibition is today considered to be legendary, since it was the first time Malevich exhibited his most famous work and the icon of modern art known as ”Black Square”.
The notorious ”Black Square” immediately caught attention of everyone who attended the exhibition, as it was placed in the holy golden corner, a place traditionally reserved for icons in Russian culture. Malevich explained his work as spiritual, saying he created the ”Black Square” in a state of cosmic consciousness, a sort of a trance he experienced due to his life-long exploration of mysticism. While he considered white to be a color of infinity, he placed all energy and life in the middle creating a square.
In this composition of his works, the order of paintings is deliberate and carries a spiritual meaning. ”Black Cross” is a symbol of crossroads, ”Black Square” represents Earth and spiritual energy, while ”Black Circle”, which is not centered but raised up, symbolizes moon. This forms an esoteric path Malevich had imagined and experienced during his exploration of spirituality and religion. And while there were many contemporaries who criticised his work, Malevich attracted a significant number of followers, many of them famous artists such as Lazar Khidekel, Ilya Chashnik, Lybov Popova, Sergei Senkin and Alexandra Exter. The most internationally known Suprematist, except of course Malevich, was El Lissitzky whose work was highly praised after exhibitions in Dresden and Berlin. Due to his connections, Suprematist movement got an international visibility and associated with German Bauhaus and Dutch De Stilj movements.
Obsessed with formlessness, Malevich’s ”White on White” truly represents lack of any visible form, and, according to him, infinity. While his art was noticeably free of any political or social messages, some critics interpreted this work as Malevich’s hope for a new, beautiful and spiritual ideology that will take place after the October Revolution. Since he was a well-known Futurist, this might be possible but is still quite unlikely.
The most expensive Russian artwork ever sold for US$60 million in 2008., Suprematist Composition is a classic representative of Abstract Geometric art. With clean lines, sharp shapes and colors against a white backdrop it shows no signs of actual figure but is fully immersed in its own abstraction. Except for this one, Malevich created a number of Abstract Geometric artworks inspired by aviation and flying, as well as his usual topics regarding spirituality and purpose. However, everything changed after the October Revolution. Abstract art, including Suprematism was forbidden, and Malevich temporarily withdrew from painting.
Malevich and Communism
The main motto of Soviet Union regarding art was that it was supposed to serve the state and ideology of the state, not individuals or their opinions. In accordance to this, all art that had no adequate social message was removed from galleries and museums, including Malevich’s. He spend the following years teaching art at Vitebsk Practical Art School in Belarus, Leningrad Academy of Arts and Kiev State Art Institute. After being appointed as a professor by state, he returned to painting but in a state-allowed manner. His art returned to being figurative, with only subtle elements of his past abstracticism remaining.
Even though his work from this period was also critically acclaimed, Suprematism and Abstract Geometric art remain the most important aspects of Malevich’s creative life. First international recognition of his work came in 1927., after Malevich visited Warsaw and Berlin where his work gained a cult-like following and inspired numerous new art movements. However, his work that was celebrated and imitated in Europe was confiscated and banned in his homeland.
Death and legacy
At the age of 57, Kazimir Malevich died of cancer in Leningrad. His deathbed wish was that his grave be designed as a gigantic maquette of one of his abstract forms with a telescope that would allow visitors to gaze at the cosmos. This wish wasn’t fulfilled, but his grave was instead topped with a white cube featuring a black square designed by artist and Malevich’s friend Nikolai Suetin. His ashes were buried in a field in Nemchinovka village according to his own wish, but both the Malevich memorial and grave were destroyed during the WW2.
Today, Malevich’s work can be seen in State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, MoMA in New York, Guggenheim Museum, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki and many more.
Widely regarded as the father of abstract art and possibly the founder of modern art as we know it today, Kazimir Malevich remains the most controversial and best-selling Russian-born artist of all times.