Suprematism Art: A Brief Introduction
Suprematism art, or Russian Suprematism, is the name the artist Kazimir Malevich gave to his unique and revolutionary approach to art. He developed the movement and encouraged other artists to join, expanding its reach and importance across Russia and beyond.
This brief introduction explains the philosophical and artistic theories underpinning this fascinating art movement. In addition to Kazimir Malevich and the Suprematism art movement, we also discuss the work of leading pioneers such as Liubov Popova and El Lissitzky and the group’s most famous oil paintings.
What is the Russian Suprematism Art Movement?
Russian Suprematism utilizes geometric forms (such as squares, triangles, circles, and straight lines) to create art. In addition, Suprematist art uses a limited range of whites, blacks, and primary colors. Oil paintings usually focus on two-dimensional representation instead of three-dimensional figurative effects of light and shade.
The first official exhibition of Suprematism artworks took place in December 1915. At an Exhibition titled 0.10, thirty-five paintings by Kazimir Malevich appeared. Amongst them was the legendary Black Square. It consisted of a black square set against a white background, representing the pinnacle of Suprematist art. Indeed, Malevich Black Square was not just a breakthrough in his career but in contemporary art. Malevich described how “to the suprematist,” visual phenomena were utterly meaningless. The only significant thing was “feeling,” entirely separate from the environment, causing thoughts and emotions.
Suprematism Art Definition
Malevich described the purpose of Suprematism in The Non-Objective World. Published in 1927, it remains one of the most critical essays in the entire history of Abstract Art. In this work, Malevich described his purpose of trying “desperately” to free art from the “dead weight of the real world.” In doing so, he took refuge in the “suprematist square,” starting with “suprematist grammar” based on simple geometry. From this point, Malevich developed art focusing on geometric forms, including rectangles, triangles, and circles. In addition, he utilized intense, vibrant tones floating against a usually white background. Kazimir Malevich aimed to evoke a simple understanding of color in space as the most straightforward, purest, and most beautiful art form.
As well as Black Square, this approach appears in other Malevich paintings, such as Red Square and Self Portrait in Two Dimensions. Ironically for a self-portrait, Malevich’s painting contains no depictions of the human body for a self-portrait. Instead, black, blue, yellow, and brown squares, circles, and rectangular forms float around the composition. Even these vaguely figurative compositions later gave way to even purer abstraction. White on White 1917 by Malevich is an iconic painting that marks the shift from polychrome to monochrome Suprematism art.
What are Suprematism and Constructivism?
There are many crossovers between Constructivism and Suprematism art. Indeed, Malevich worked alongside many constructivist artists and produced several constructivist oil paintings. Both movements commenced around 1915. Both rejected decorative arts, and both embraced new modes of artistic creation. Aesthetically, the two movements featured sharp lines, bold forms, and geometric shapes.
Nonetheless, Suprematist art went one step further. It argued that artists should liberate themselves entirely from worldly detail. On the other hand, Constructivist artists created art supporting political, social, or utilitarian goals, often with figurative elements. Suprematism oil paintings instead focused on the pure fundamentals of art. Geometric shapes in a limited range of colors were vital. Indeed, “suprematism” refers exclusively to Abstract art based on the “supremacy of pure artistic feeling.” This expressly excluded figurative depictions of objects.
In this way, Russian Suprematism is profoundly anti-materialist and anti-utilitarian. Malevich wrote, "Art no longer cares to serve the state and religion.” It simply exists “in and for itself.”
Kazimir Malevich Suprematism Paintings
Kazimir Malevich created and inspired the Russian suprematism movement. Of Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian descent, his full name was Kazimir Severinovich Malevich. Malevich worked as an artist and art theorist. His pioneering writing and painting profoundly influenced the development of abstract art, with ongoing importance throughout the twentieth century. Malevich’s concept of Supremus maintains that society must liberate artists from an attempt to dictate ideal structures of life and art.
In line with this, he particularly admired Cubism's ability to deconstruct and analyze objects and everyday life. To support Suprematisim’s artistic development, Malevich created a creative journal titled Nul (or Nothing). However, he soon changed the title to Supremus and accepted contributions from artists and philosophers. Despite the publication never reaching a broad audience, the movement flourished after the first Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings, 0.10.
Who developed the concept of Suprematism in Art?
While Malevich initially created the concept of suprematism, he developed its practical application alongside several other artists. These artists include Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Aleksandra Ekster, Ivan Kliun, Anna Leporskaya (a long-time student and assistant of Malevich), Nadezhda Udaltsova and Nina Genke-Meller, amongst others. One particularly influential artist was Liubov Popova, who previously pioneered a unique synthesis of Cubism and Futurism. She created a series of suprematism artworks titled Painterly Architectonics between 1916 and 1918. The series of paintings defined her artistic trajectory and that of the group. They are exceptionally notable oil paintings, with Popova’s entire canvas filled with overlapping and intersecting geometric shapes.
Two notable examples are Painterly Architectonics Still Life Instruments and Painterly Architectonics (1917). Popova arranges red, black, gray, and pink planes in this latter painting against a white background. The shapes resemble a paper collage and are mostly straight and flat, except for one rounded edge, which “pushes” the other forms toward the viewer. In this way, the term “architectonic” speaks to Popova’s treatment of planes of color as architectural entities in their own right. Each shape holds monumental, interrelating importance.
What did Suprematism Art influence?
Suprematism art played an integral role in developing modernist art and pure abstraction. With the rise of Stalin in Russia in 1924, a new (highly controlled) form of Social Realism took precedence. As a result, Malevich’s artistic career languished. While he moved towards more figurative paintings in later life, for instance, Self Portrait, 1933, his years of pioneering suprematism art production were over. Despite this, Malevich met the Russian artist El Lissitzky in 1919. Malevich’s Suprematism oil paintings strongly influenced El Lissitzky and the Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
The Suprematist art approach is evident in El Lissitzky’s paintings, such as Proun 19D. This abstract oil painting shows a yellow circle behind harsh black, gray, and brown rectangles. It’s both a dynamic and incredibly enigmatic composition. As a new term coined by Lissitzky in 1920, just a year after meeting Malevich, Proun is an acronym for the Russian words for “project for the affirmation of the new.” The term refers to his series of oil paintings utilizing Suprematist geometric forms painted in a muted color palette, contrasting with solid black and white shapes.
In addition to individual artists, Suprematism influenced later art and architectural movements such as Bauhaus and De Stijl. Piet Mondrian and Van Doesburg’s De Stijl art movement, with its strict primary coloring and geometric shapes surrounded by white and black, is the closest descendent of Suprematist art.
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