Obelisk Art History
Modernism

Suprematism
Taking refuge in the square.

Suprematism, Modernism

Once in a rare while, a single artwork spawns an entire movement. In 1915, the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich took a white canvas and painted a single, black square in the center. He called it, shockingly, ‘Black Square’.

Since the Futurist explosion in 1909, Mondrian’s dissection of representative art, and Braque and Picasso’s experiments in Cubism, the art world had been spiralling toward some unnamed revelation. Everyone felt it — the very definition of what art is was up for grabs, and artists all over the world were trying to claim the ‘new art.’ And Malevich got there first. In what critics have called ‘the zero point of painting’ Malevich had reduced 2D art to it’s simplest possible form. A surface, with a single mark on it, the art world collectively exclaimed “why didn’t we think of that?”

But Malevich had earned his revelation — an incredibly prolific painter, Malevich had worked across nearly every modern style, from impressionism and pointillism to futurism and cubism, and his distillation of artistic forms was rooted in a nearly manic pursuit of artistic purity. From Black Square, Malevich expanded the vocabulary of his new minimalist style, including the circle as the atomic counterpart to the square, and exploring how these shapes could relate to each other, themselves, and the canvas. Malevich called the reductionist style Suprematism after his belief in the supremacy of artistic feeling over visual representation.

Malevich’s feverish ideals drew a handful of artists to the new style, and in December of 1915, alongside Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, and eleven more painters, Malevich debuted Suprematism at a show titled The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10.

The show attracted more artists, who joined the movement and documented their thinking and in an unpublished journal called Supremus. Malevich himself wrote a book, The Non-Objective World, documenting his ideas. But the world was spinning too quickly for this small, powerful revelation to spark a long-running movement. The horrors of WWI had much of Russia’s artists thinking in more pragmatic terms, using art as a tool for social good in a movement called Constructivism. In 1924, Stalinism gripped Russia and avant-garde artists came under censure. Malevich was arrested and interrogated in 1930, and soon after gave up his suprematist explorations in favor of Socialist Realism the Soviet-sanctioned style.

Pure Suprematism was continued in the work of El Lissitzky and introduced to architecture by Lazar Khidekel. But though the style eventually faded, the influence of its revelation — the zero point — has been felt by every movement that has come after, from minimalism to pure conceptual art, to abstract expressionism. Art would never be able to return to the time before the Black Square.


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Reed Enger, "Suprematism, Taking refuge in the square.," in Obelisk Art History, Published October 07, 2015; last modified July 21, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/modernism/suprematism/.

Read More
Black and White, Suprematist Composition, Kazimir Malevich

Black and White, Suprematist Composition Kazimir Malevich, 1915

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Black Square and Red Square, Kazimir Malevich

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Black Trapezium and Red Square Kazimir Malevich, 1915

Abandon love, abandon aestheticism, abandon the baggage of wisdom, for in the new culture, your wisdom is ridiculous and insignificant. I have untied the knots of wisdom and liberated the consciousness of color!

From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism Kazimir Malevich, 1915

Supremus No.50, Kazimir Malevich

Supremus No.50 Kazimir Malevich, 1915

Dynamic Suprematism, Kazimir Malevich

Dynamic Suprematism Kazimir Malevich, 1915 – 1916

House under construction, Kazimir Malevich

House under construction Kazimir Malevich, 1915 – 1916

Non-Objective Composition, Olga Rozanova

Non-Objective Composition Olga Rozanova, 1916

Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Airplane), Olga Rozanova

Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Airplane) Olga Rozanova, 1916

Painterly Architectonic, Liubov Popova

Painterly Architectonic Liubov Popova, 1916

Suprematist Composition, Kazimir Malevich

Suprematist Composition Kazimir Malevich, 1916

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Composition in Black Gold and Brown Liubov Popova, 1917

Painterly Architectonic, Liubov Popova

Painterly Architectonic Liubov Popova, 1917

Painterly Architectonics, Liubov Popova

Painterly Architectonics Liubov Popova, 1917

Suprematism, Kazimir Malevich

Suprematism Kazimir Malevich, 1917

Composition, Aleksandr Rodchenko

Composition Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1918

Non-Objective Painting no. 80 (Black on Black), Aleksandr Rodchenko

Non-Objective Painting no. 80 (Black on Black) Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1918

Linear Composition, Liubov Popova

Linear Composition Liubov Popova, 1919

May the downfall of the old world be etched on the palms of your hands.

A Call to the New Art Kazimir Malevich, 1920

Composition in Blue Yellow and Black, Liubov Popova

Composition in Blue Yellow and Black Liubov Popova, 1920

Composition in Red Black and Gold, Liubov Popova

Composition in Red Black and Gold Liubov Popova, 1920

Line Construction, Aleksandr Rodchenko

Line Construction Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1920

Untitled, El Lissitzky

Untitled El Lissitzky, 1919 – 1920

Proun 19D, El Lissitzky

Proun 19D El Lissitzky, 1920 – 1921

Space Force Construction, Liubov Popova

Space Force Construction Liubov Popova, 1921

Spatial-Force Construction, Liubov Popova

Spatial-Force Construction Liubov Popova, 1921

Mystic Suprematism, Kazimir Malevich

Mystic Suprematism Kazimir Malevich, 1920 – 1922

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 1, El Lissitzky

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 1 El Lissitzky, 1923

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 2, El Lissitzky

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 2 El Lissitzky, 1923

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 3, El Lissitzky

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 3 El Lissitzky, 1923

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 4, El Lissitzky

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 4 El Lissitzky, 1923

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 5, El Lissitzky

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 5 El Lissitzky, 1923

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 6, El Lissitzky

Kestner Portfolio, Proun 6 El Lissitzky, 1923

Study for Proun S.K., El Lissitzky

Study for Proun S.K. El Lissitzky, 1922 – 1923

l.n.31, El Lissitzky

l.n.31 El Lissitzky, 1922 – 1924

Proun 99, El Lissitzky

Proun 99 El Lissitzky, 1923 – 1925

Next Movement
Dada, Modernism

Dada

Dada is anti-dada!

1916 – 1924

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