Kazimir Malevich: Understanding Suprematism Art

Kazimir Malevich is one of the most famous artists in the history of modern art. He is known as the father of Suprematism. Let's take a look at his work!

Apr 1, 2021By Dea Cvetković, BA and MA in Art History
kazimir malevich suprematism
Details from a self-portrait and Dynamic Suprematism by Kazimir Malevich, 1915-6

If you’re interested in the history of modern art you must have seen an image of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square a thousand times! It is certainly one of the most iconic works of art ever made. But what does that painting mean and what does the square represent? Let’s dive into the philosophy behind the art movement called Suprematism and look at the fascinating art of Kazimir Malevich – the creator of Suprematism. 


Who Was Kazimir Malevich?

suprematist elements squares kazimir malevich
Suprematist Elements: Squares by Kazimir Malevich, 1923, via MoMA, New York


Kazimir Malevich was born in 1878 near Kiev to Polish parents. Malevich became a part of a movement known as the Russian Avant-garde which featured not just painters, but poets, designers, architects, writers, and filmmakers too. The movement defined the early decades of the 20th-century in Russia. During this time a lot of political changes were happening in the country, including the historically important 1917 October revolution. Art movements such as Suprematism, Russian Futurism, and Constructivism were all part of the Russian Avant-garde art. Together with Malevich, artists like Lyubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko, Natalia Goncharova, El Lissitzky are all known as Russian Avant-gardists. One of the best-known works of the Russian Avant-garde is Vladimir Tatlin’s monument for the Third International. 


Kazimir Malevich also worked as a teacher at the People’s Art School in Vitebsk that was founded by the painter Marc Chagall. In collaboration with his students in Vitebsk, Malevich formed a group called UNOVIS that aimed to develop new art theories promoted through the art of Suprematism. The group worked together for around three years, disbanding in 1922. One of his supporters at UNOVIS was the famous Russian artist El Lissitzky, known for his Prouns.


What Is Suprematism?

kazimir malevich dynamic suprematism
Dynamic Suprematism by Kazimir Malevich, 1915-6, via Tate, London


So, how did Kazimir Malevich come up with Suprematism? The artist also worked as a designer! He came up with the basic Suprematist shape – a black square while working on costume and stage design for an opera called Victory Over the Sun. So, his work on this opera proved to be very important for the future of Suprematism, because it is during this time that the artist came up with the geometric shapes that were to define his art practice. 


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In 1913, the Russian artist teamed up with composer Mikhail Matyushin and poets Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov to work on the opera. Matyushin worked on the music, Kruchenykh wrote the libretto, and Malevich created the visual identity of the opera. The costumes were created in Cubo-futuristic style. This style, like its name suggests, was inspired by Cubism and Futurism. Geometric figures and color fields seen in Malevich’s paintings were also present in his costume designs. The stage was designed to resemble a square, which was to become a frequent motif in the art practice of Kazimir Malevich. Malevich later noted that his stage design for the opera Victory Over the Sun was the first manifestation of Suprematism. 


The Philosophy Behind Suprematism

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From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism by Kazimir Malevich, 1916, via MoMA, New York 


Suprematism as a movement is completely tied to the thought and work of Kazimir Malevich. Without the Russian artist, there is no Suprematism. For Malevich, Suprematism represented the new realism in painting, despite the fact that it didn’t show any scenes seen in everyday life. For the artist, the geometric shapes used in Suprematism were the new real thing. They did not refer to anything other than themselves. The visual language of Suprematism was abstract, only focused on simple geometric shapes and colors. 


In his Manifesto, Malevich wrote: “To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling.”


Suprematism wanted to question art, its purpose, and its function. Suprematist art was supposed to be non-objective, Malevich even used that term himself to describe his art in an essay called From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism in 1916.



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Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension by Kazimir Malevich, 1915, via MoMA, New York 


Malevich also viewed Suprematism not only as an art movement but as a philosophical way of thinking. For him, art was supposed to be useless and was not meant to serve some political idea or ideology. He thought the artist had to be free and independent in order to create a true work of art. 


Through Suprematism Malevich also wanted to explore the idea of space in painting. In his letter to Matyushin, he wrote the following: “But a plane of painterly color hung on a sheet of white canvas gives a strong sensation of space directly to our consciousness, it transports me to a fathomless void, where one senses around oneself the creative nodes of the universe.” You may notice in these words how spiritual Malevich found Suprematism to be. For him, Suprematism was not the end of art, but a new start. 


Another important term for understanding the art of Kazimir Malevich and Suprematism itself is faktura. The term was first introduced by Vladimir Markov. He defined faktura as “a shared concept in the field of sculpture, and architecture, and in all those arts where a certain ‘noise.’” For Malevich and his students at UNOVIS, faktura represented an idea, a new development. The Russian artist also wrote extensively about the term and tried to define it philosophically.


The Famous Black Square Painting

black square kazimir malevich
Black Square by Kazimir Malevich, 1913, via Tate, London


Malevich’s Black Square is most likely his best-known Suprematist artwork. So, you may be wondering, what makes the Black Square so special? By painting a black square on a canvas Malevich wanted to stop the traditional way of thinking about art as something representational. He showed a new reality that wasn’t the one we could see in nature or society. 


The Black Square showed no narrative. It denied the known conventions of painting and offered something new. The artist even said that his Black Square was the new face of art. Malevich sometimes used a tiny black square as his signature in other paintings, which is a testament to how important the original Black Square was to him.


It is very interesting to know that Kazimir Malevich dated his Black Square to 1913 even though the work was painted in 1915. And here’s the reason for it: the painter believed that the artwork should be dated to the time when the idea of the painting came to an artist’s mind. Since Malevich thought that the famous Black Square originated from the stage design sketches for the opera Victory Over the Sun, he dated it to the year 1913. 



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Installation of Malevich’s paintings at the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings “0.10,” Petrograd in 1915


When writing to Matyushin in 1915, Malevich noted how important the square in the sketch of the stage design was for him. He wrote: “This drawing will have great significance in painting. That which was done unconsciously is now yielding extraordinary fruits.” In total, Malevich painted four Black Square paintings. The original was done in 1915, and the copies were made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. 


The Black Square was first exhibited in December of 1915 during an exhibition named The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 (Zero-Ten) in Petrograd in Russia, then the capital of Russia. The zero in the title stood for a new start in the history of art that Suprematism was supposed to represent. Fourteen artists were included in the exhibition, and their 39 artworks were featured in it. It’s good to know that Malevich exhibited the painting by placing it in the upper corner of the walls, which was the way to display Russian Orthodox icons at home. This tells us that Malevich thought of Suprematism as a spiritual movement, for him the Black Square was the icon. The importance of the Black square in art history is undeniable. It represents a turning point, just like Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. It was enigmatic, interesting, and thought-provoking.


Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition – White On White

suprematist composition white on white
Suprematist Composition – White on White by Kazimir Malevich, 1918, via MoMA, New York


A few years after painting the Black Square Kazimir Malevich turned to white! In 1918, he painted a white square on a white background and titled the piece Suprematist Composition – White on White. In this painting, because of its color and simplicity, we are easily able to focus on the material aspect of the painting itself. We can notice the structure of the paint, and the different shades of white the artist used here


White on White was supposed to give away a feeling of the painting that was floating in space. For the artist, white represented the utopic and the pure. It was an infinite color. In response to Malevich’s White on White, Alexander Rodchenko painted a work known as Black on Black in 1918. This piece also became an incredibly important work of art. In it, Rodchenko wanted to explore the material qualities of a painting like texture and form. 



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Half Teacup by Kazimir Malevich and Ilia Grigorevich Chashnik, 1923, via Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York


Malevich did not just paint Suprematist paintings and write philosophical essays about the movement, he also designed different objects inspired by Suprematism.


In 1923, together with Ilya Grigorevich Chashnik, he created a number of beautiful teacups. A year before that, Malevich was invited by the Leningrad Porcelain Factory to design cups and teapots. Around this time, the artist also created plaster models of Suprematist buildings, so it’s obvious that he thought about mixing Suprematism and architecture too. He also designed patterns for textiles. Therefore, for Malevich, Suprematism represented a whole aesthetic universe. It was not just a way to paint, but to understand the world completely.

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By Dea CvetkovićBA and MA in Art HistoryDea has a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in history of Art from the University of Belgrade. Her main fields of interest include modern and contemporary art, American art, gender studies, photography, and film. She loves taking pictures, watching movies, traveling, and wandering around museums.