Kazimir Malevich was a Polish-Ukrainian Russian painter who pioneered the development of abstract art in the early 20th-century and had a significant impact on both technique and social art history.
Kazimir Malevich (1879—1935) was born in Kyiv, in the Russian Empire, to a Polish family that had migrated following the partition of their country. Malevich’s Polish admirers have insisted in recent times on a recognition of his primarily Polish identity and the consequent use of the spelling “Kazimierz Malewicz”, which he himself regularly used in signing his artworks.
Malevich grew up in a professional family in close proximity to Ukrainian peasant art and its colourful, embroidery-derived motifs. Like many Slavic modernists of his generation, he looked at traditional non-academic art for inspiration. For Malevich, this is particularly significant in the first years of his activity in Moscow.
He studied drawing in Kyiv from 1895 to 1896, before establishing himself in Moscow in 1904, after his father’s death. Here he took academic courses in art and began to operate as an avant-garde painter. In a city pullulating with modernist movements animated by a generation of artists who are remarkably aware of what is happening in France, Malevich finds his place as a Cubo-Futurist (c. 1912). This autochtonous Russian art style combines the adoration of energy and machinery with the compositional method of Analytical Cubism.
Salon des Indépendants
Having achieved success by designing a Cubo-Futurist stage set (Victory over the Sun), Kazimir Malevich had the chance to exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, in 1914, as part of a delegation of Russian modernists. During this period of his career, Malevich is illustrating books, created patriotic lithographs, and produced advertisement material. These common artistic employments allow him to earn a living while beginning to manifest his personal avant-garde language, Suprematism.
The Suprematist art style is identified with Malevich. It is a radical departure from Cubo-Futurism, with which it only shares a devotion to pure geometries, in particular the cube. Suprematism is so-called because it constitutes an attempt to express feeling above all else; not the shape of things but the perception they cause in the artist. Its medium is a narrow selection of colours and strong abstract shapes, most commonly cubes or squares.
Suprematism began as a movement in 1915, when Kazimir Malevich published a manifesto and started to prepare a serial promotional publication which, however, would never take off because of the war and the Bolshevik Revolution. The launch of Suprematism came with the exhibition of his emblematic Black Square (1915). This dark shape, a non-object, appears on an off-white background. Its original version suffered from premature decay, with the white base beginning to show through cracks in the square, accidentally lending it a new, tridimensional quality.
Malevich replicated the black square through many iterations. This pure shape obsessed him. It is unclear what this non-representative concept stood for in emotional terms. His painting technique regularly employed a base layer of dark or light colour to darken or lighten the impression of the pigment applied above.
After the October Revolution, which he may not be said to have welcomed, Kazimir Malevich enjoyed unexpected opportunities. The socialist-revolutionary zeal of the first Bolshevik government included a positive view of anti-traditionalist and deconstructionist art, which it saw as industrial modernity overcoming the false notions of the past. Malevich was admitted to government-sponsored artistic bodies as an authority and given teaching positions in Vitebsk, Belarus; Kyiv; and Leningrad.
In 1926, Malevich experienced his first setback at the hands of the revolutionary regime when the Petrograd State Institute of Artistic Culture, of which he had become director, was shut down on the grounds of counterrevolutionary thinking. In the same period, in 1927, he toured Warsaw, Berlin, and Munich, where Avant-garde artists gave him warm welcomes, recognised his influence, and put up a retrospective exhibition of his paintings. Aware that the rise of Stalin would signify an end to state toleration of abstract art, Malevich left most of his paintings in Central Europe.
Socialist Realism — ideological art in the spirit of Realism glorifying the communist leadership, mythologising the working class, and deprecating capitalism — previously in the ascendant, became state doctrine under Stalin. In late 1930, Malevich was arrested by the KGB, the Soviet secret police. His artworks had by then been barred from the public exhibition and many of them confiscated. He was interrogated and briefly imprisoned in Leningrad on the unproven charge of being a Polish spy. His foreign contacts, “counterrevolutionary” thinking and Polish origins played against him.
The Stalinist and the Nazi regime, which would soon enter a non-aggression pact, came together over Malevich. The Nazis classified his work as Degenerate Art and banned it from Germany.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Malevich is found working on landscapes and anonymous human subjects. Suprematist bands of colour now fill in the space around featureless prisms. Abstract experimentation is difficult to detect, though there is an experiment with the Impressionist technique: Summer Landscape (1920).
Though obscured by the Soviet government throughout the 20th century, Kazimir Malevich is today a highly appreciated avantgardist of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish canon. Suprematist Composition (1916) became a symbol of his art in recent decades after the Dutch Stedelijk Museum handed the painting over to his heirs in 2008, after two decades of contentions over rightful ownership. When sold that same year at Sotheby’s, it established the new record for a Russian artwork at $60 million (the previous record having been $17 million). In 2018 it was sold again, for a new record of $85 million.
Kazimir Malevich died in 1935 at the age of fifty-seven. His funeral saw his friends waving a banner with a black square and his tomb had the same emblem for decoration. Though his memorial was destroyed during the bombing of Leningrad in the Second World War, the city council gave his mother and daughter a pension.