Thence by descent to the artist's heirs
(possibly) Petrograd, Galerie Dobycina, 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings, 1915-16
Warsaw, Hotel Polonia, Malevich, 1927
Berlin, Lehrter Bahnhof, Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, 1927
Braunschweig, Kunstverein, Haus Salve Hospes, Kasimir Malewitsch, 1958, no. 20 (as dating from 1914)
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Casimir Malevich, 1958, no. 20, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1914)
Bern, Kunsthalle, Malevich, Pougny, Lissitzky & Mansurov, 1959, no. 20, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1914)
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Kasimir Malevich, 1959, no. 20
London, Whitechapel Gallery, Kasimir Malevich, 1959, no. 20, illustrated in the catalogue
Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum, Kasimir Malevich, 1960, no. 20
Ulm, Ulmer Museum, Malevich, 1961
Linz, Neue Galerie der Stadt Linz & Vienna, Galerie Würthle, Malevich, 1961-62, no. 12
Leverkusen, Städtisches Museum, Kasimir Malewitsch, 1962, no. 12, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (as dating from 1914)
Winterthur, Kunstmuseum, Malevich, 1962, no. 12
Hanover, Kunstverein, Die zwanziger Jahre in Hannover, 1962, no. J1, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1914)
Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1914. An Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture Created in 1914, 1964, no. 141, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1914-15; with inverted illustration)
Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Inner and Outer Space, 1965-66, no. 27
Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim; New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum & Houston, The Menil Collection, Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, 2003-04, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Malevich and the American Legacy, 2011, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, Tate Modern, Malevich, 2014, no. 96A, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Guy Habasque, 'Malevitch', in L'Œil, no. 71, November 1960, illustrated p. 45
Troels Anderson, Malevich, Amsterdam, 1970, no. 52, illustrated p. 94 (with inverted illustration)
Larissa A. Zhadova, Malevich. Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art 1910-1930, London, 1982, no. 49, illustrated in colour
Jean-Claude Marcadé, Kazimir Malevitch, Paris, 1990, no. 212, illustrated in colour p. 142
Andréi Nakov, Kazimir Malewicz. Catalogue Raisonné, Paris, 2002, no. S-56, illustrated p. 192
Andréi Nakov, Malevich. Painting the Absolute, Farnham, 2010, vol. II, illustrated in colour p. 89
Aleksandra Shatskikh, Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism, New Haven, 2012, illustrated p. 91
Precisely one hundred years ago, at the turn of spring to summer in 1915, a Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich faced a pivotal moment while making the greatest discovery of his life, now known in the history of art by the term ‘Suprematism’.
As an avant-garde painter, Malevich achieved success at a mature age, when he was 30 years old. Mikhail Larionov played an important part in Malevich’s development as an artist. He was a pioneer among young Russian artists and organised the famous first exhibition of the Jack of Diamonds. Having recognised and appreciated the innovative works by Malevich, Larionov immediately included him in his circle, and offered him the position of Secretary for the Donkey's Tail group. This meant that Larionov had placed Malevich in the third most important position of this group of Russian radicals, with the first two belonging to the celebrated couple Natalia Goncharova and Larionov himself. Goncharova enhanced Malevich’s standing by recommending his work to Wassily Kandinsky.
The acclaim from Larionov and Goncharova inspired a new wave of expressive neo-primitivism in Malevich’s work and brought about his first peasant series. Malevich embraced the liberating power of artistic freedom, expressed in the deformation of the figure and powerful saturated colours. The paintings exhibited at Donkey's Tail in March 1912 marked the peak of his intensely colourful, improvisational and highly energetic painting style. At the same time, Malevich closely observed the revolutionary trends in the art of the twentieth century, particularly French Cubism and Italian Futurism. He was drawn to the harmony of the Cubists’ carefully adjusted compositions, while Futurism attracted him for its destructive dynamism - crushing and fragmenting the image. Merging the diverse impulses of innovative European art trends, Malevich defined his own work as Cubofuturism.
However, Malevich’s sources of inspriation were not solely rooted in art, but also in poetic experiments. In 1913 he became close with the Russian poet Alexei Kruchenykh who invented Zaum, a transrational poetic form. This inspired Malevich to review conventional traditions as a whole, and led him to a new, non-figurative language. None the less, painting remained the dominant medium for Malevich and his new understanding of the possibilities it offered was conveyed in his ‘fevralist’ compositions. ‘Zaum Realism’ and its illogical juxtapositions of elements not only shattered conventional painting principles, but also separated Malevich from the laws previously established by the European avant-garde.
Even the most radical painting of Western artists, with its deconstructive compositions, unexpected colours and rigid fabrications of the model, maintained an inviolable bond with nature and an ‘objective reality’. Malevich’s revolutionary act was to refuse even the loosest connection with the object.
Previously colour was an element that bore the essential meaning of a painting, yet Malevich redirected colour from any existing phenomenon. Thus, his ‘non-objective’ painting was born. Colour now expressed itself in pure geometric forms hovering in white space. For these new canvases, Malevich coined the term ‘Suprematism’, where ‘supremacy’ signified domination of colour above all other elements of a painting.
Russian artists have often resented their dependence on European artistic trends. Malevich’s first non-objective paintings immediately stated an unprecedented event of discovery that had never occurred in the Western world, which, for the first time, elicited Russian Art as original and revolutionary. The concept of ‘Russian avant-garde’ emerged as an art historical term much later, but in the summer of 1915 Malevich laid its foundations.
Malevich’s first suprematist paintings, completed in late May and early June of 1915, were complex and colourful multifaceted compositions. While working on one of them Malevich experienced a severe shock when a square black plane seemingly overshadowed a compound composition. The Black Square (fig. 1), in its compressed form, contained all the possibilities that were the foundations of Suprematism; Malevich called it the ‘core of compressed meanings’. The artist fully exposed the potential of Suprematism, creating a new movement in art, supported by a circle of followers. He also designed examples of a new form of architecture that profoundly influenced the development of twentieth-century architecture and wrote original philosophical works. In 1920, Malevich summarised the fundamental potential of this great abstract system in the definition of ‘Suprematist order’.
The immensity of Malevich’s talent as a painter was reflected in his ability to convey his understanding of the foundations of eternal physical existence of the universe – space, laws of gravity, energy – in expressive plastic forms. His Black Square was the first and most fundamental form of the Suprematist triad. Two other forms ‘Black Circle’ and ‘Black Cross’ were a result of a dynamic transformation of the square: ‘spinning’ around the centre, edges of the square marked a circle; then dynamic forces dichotomised the square and forced the halves to move toward each other and then turned horizontally to form a cross.
Throughout 1915, he created a number of magnificent non-objective paintings, many of which were exhibited in December at the famous 0.10 exhibition. Among this heroic legacy, Suprematism, 18th Construction had a special place. This title was inscribed on the reverse of the canvas at a later date, when Malevich was preparing the Berlin exhibition in 1927. The artist typically chose the definition of ‘construction’ in its broader meaning, rather than the word ‘structure’. In addition, he opposed Suprematism to Constructivism (he considered constructivism ‘a footman serving the objective reality’). On the reverse, the artist dated this work to 1914, but the picture could not have been created earlier than June or later than October 1915. By backdating their canvases, Russian avant-garde artists believed that they could irrevocably establish their pioneering artistic discoveries.
Suprematism, 18th Construction was first shown in public a month and a half before the celebrated 0.10 exhibition. The painting, along with two other Suprematist works by Malevich, was shown in the Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Moscow from 6th to 20th November 1915 (fig. 3). The organiser of the event, a wealthy artist Natalia Davydova and the wife of Tchaikovsky’s nephew Dmitry Davydov, invited Malevich after a recommendation of her close friend Alexandra Ekster. Malevich accepted the invitation and exhibited in the Lemercier Gallery, and the present work and two others were included in the Catalogue of the exhibition of contemporary decorative arts. Tapestry and carpets based on the artists’ sketches as sketches for Scarves (nos. 90 & 91) and Pillows (no. 92).
The exhibition had a great public response and photographs of the central hall were published in the weekly Iskra (no. 45, 15th November 1915), which promoted Malevich’s non-objective paintings. A composition with cruciform planes was displayed on the right wall, Untitled. Suprematist Composition (now in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; fig. 2) was on a podium to the left, and Suprematism, 18th Construction was displayed on the right.
I would like to emphasise an important fact about the first public appearance of Suprematism, 18th Construction: Malevich was not afraid to show his paintings at an exhibition of decorative arts, an act that demonstrated his courage and freedom from traditional categorisation of art into ‘high art’ and ‘decorative art’. He was aware that the process of accepting innovative art was rooted in educating the public and their perception of new forms and principles of art. In this light, the hierarchical division of ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms becomes meaningless.
As previously noted, the choice of the title ‘Construction’ for the painting was not random. Five elongated trapezoidal elements appear to be fixed to each other by natural forces, as they cluster through a powerful magnetic attraction. Tightly welded together, the group of colour planes have no relation to any recognisable object, or to any other of the most innovative ‘-isms’ at the time. The complete lack of object in the composition is further emphasised by the abstract space in which the colour structure is floating, which the author referred to as the ‘white abyss of the background’. Suprematism, 18th Construction repeats the diagonal dynamic of Automobile and Lady (fig. 4), a canvas that has not survived. In Suprematist iconography, this was one of Malevich’s favourite plastic idioms.
According to Malevich, the basic principle of Suprematism was in the ‘weightlessness’, designed to create the effect of the non-objective structures floating against the abyss of the white space. In Suprematism, 18th Construction the overpowering ‘severity’ of the central trapezoid is balanced by four colour plates. Malevich contrasts the massive black plane with the bright yellow stripe, and enhances its effect by an additional bright-blue stripe.
It should be noted that the artist achieves compositional balance by enlarging the lower element - a process that seems to unfold in front of us - and this is the distinguishing property of his 1915 Suprematist paintings. For Malevich, the rigor and restraint of colour was essential. He shunned any ‘beautiful colour schemes and considered them a remnant of lightweight ‘aestheticism’.
Malevich himself curated 0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings, which opened on 19th December 1915. The display of Malevich’s works has been recorded in a sole photograph of two adjacent walls of his room (fig. 5). Suprematism, 18th Construction was not captured by this photograph, however we can confidently say that it was included in the exhibition. Anticipating the sensational effect of the 0.10 exhibition, Malevich brought all his 1915 paintings to Petrograd. Some of them were still wet, hence with strips carefully laid on the corners to preserve them.
Along with Black Square, Suprematism, 18th Construction is a painting that embodies Malevich’s non-objective formula, reflected in the dynamic diagonal construction of colours, tied together with an energetic tension floating in the white abyss.
The photograph of the 0.10 exhibition shows several similar compositions, all of them combined into a series of ‘Art masses in motion’. Among other paintings are Suprematist Composition: Airplane in Flight (now in The Museum of Modern Art, New York; fig. 7) and Suprematism, with Eight Rectangles (in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; fig. 8).
Suprematism, 18th Construction was the first painting from the series ‘Art masses in motion’ that appeared in public, and it powerfully exhibits the fundamental elements of the ‘Suprematist order’ created by the great Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich.
Aleksandra Shatskikh, PhD is an art historian. Her book Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism was published in 2012.
In 1927 Malevich accompanied the present work and a number of other Suprematist canvases to the now-famous Grosse Berliner Ausstellung, held from May to September of that year. This was the first time Malevich’s work was shown outside of Russia, and was pivotal in establishing his reputation on the international scene. According to Matthew Drutt, ‘No other Russian artist, not even Kandinsky, who had been celebrated in Germany long before Malevich, had ever received such distinguished attention. [...] The exhibition became a defining moment in Malevich's career in terms of the reception of his work in the West, not just at the time, but subsequently also; as it turns out, the works shown would become, outside Russia, the primary source of knowledge of Malevich's oeuvre for the next fifty years’ (M. Drutt in Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., pp. 20-21). In the surviving photographs of that exhibition as well as of a dinner organised for the Warsaw exhibition that same year (fig. 10), we can see Suprematism, 18th Construction hanging on the walls.
In June 1927 Malevich was obliged to return to the Soviet Union and arranged for the painting to be stored in Berlin, but he was prevented from leaving the Soviet Union, where he died in 1935. Suprematism, 18th Construction was later entrusted to the German architect Hugo Häring, who purportedly sold it to the Stedelijk Museum. It was finally returned to the artist's heirs in 2008.
When the works originally included in the Berlin exhibition were re-assembled in 1973, the American artist Donald Judd made the following conclusion about Malevich, his non-objective painting and his legacy: ‘It's obvious now that the forms and colors in the paintings that Malevich began painting in 1915 are the first instances of form and color. ... His work is more radical than Mondrian's, for example, which has a considerable idealistic quality and which ultimately has an anthropomorphic, if 'abstract', composition of high and low, right and left. Art doesn't change in sequence. By now there is work and controversy many times over within the context Malevich established’ (D. Judd, reprinted in ibid. p. 23).
The effect that Malevich's art had on future generations of artists has long been recognised and was the subject of a recent exhibition Malevich and the American Legacy, held at the Gagosian Gallery, New York in 2011. Unlike the pictures of his fellow Russian artist Kandinsky, whose pre-war oils were embellished with flurries of abstraction, Malevich's pictures have an unadulterated linearity and precision that was a major precursor of abstraction in the second half of the twentieth century. Mark Rothko (fig. 11), Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd (fig. 12) and Barnett Newman (fig. 13) can all trace the origins of their work to Malevich's sublimely pared-down shapes, bold colour and non-objective compositions. With its vibrancy and purity of form, Suprematism, 18th Construction transcend its historical frame of reference, earning the status of a timeless classic.
Looking towards the future, Malevich himself knew of the great impact that his Suprematist philosophy would have on the development of modern aesthetics and artistic theory: ‘Our world of art has become new, non-objective, pure. Everything has vanished, there remains a mass of material, from which the new forms will be built. In the art of Suprematism forms will live, like all living forms of nature. These forms announce that man has gained his equilibrium by arriving from a state of single reasoning at one of double reasoning. Utilitarian reasoning and intuitive reasoning. The new realism in painting is very much realism in painting for it contains no realism of mountains, sky, water... Until now there was realism of objects, but not of painted units of colour which are constructed so that they depend neither on form, nor on colour, nor on their position relative to each other. Each form is free and individual. Each form is a world’ (K. Malevich, ‘From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting’, 1916, reprinted in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory, 1900-2000, Oxford, 1992, p. 181). This revolutionary new world is beautifully encapsulated in Suprematism, 18th Construction, which remains a masterpiece of twentieth-century avant-garde art.
This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition In Search of '0,10': The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting to be held at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel from October 2015 to January 2016.
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