At the famous 0.10: Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings in Petrograd in December 1915, Kazimir Malevich exhibited 39 paintings, marking the emergence of innovative Russian painting into the world of international avant-garde art. Malevich created a new terminological definition for his canvases, the suprematism of painting, which was soon shortened to one word: “Suprematism.” In Malevich’s opinion, these suprematist works showed the absolute power and domination, or the supremacy, of color in painting. Their subjects were devoid of any resemblance to objects or phenomena that were present in the real world. Indeed, another definition favored by Malevich was “безпредметное искусство,” or “subject-less” art, which is normally translated into English as “abstract art.” The vehicles of color in Malevich’s extraordinary paintings were basic geometric shapes: squares, trapezoids, rectangles, and stripes. The intensity of their coloration testified to the power of the energetic force of the particular color. Malevich painted his constructions of colored shapes on a white background: for him, the color white marked the infinite whiteness of the universe, which he termed the “white cosmic abyss.”
Malevich created his first abstract composition at the end of May 1915. The creation of his Black Square on June 8th 1915 (Julian calendar, June 21st in Gregorian calendar) crystallized the burgeoning prospect of an unprecedented breakthrough in art. By this time, Malevich, who lived in Moscow, had established strong business contacts with the young Ivan Puni (1892-1956), a wealthy St Petersburger who enthusiastically financed the activities of left-wing painters. In March 1915, the Tramway V: First Futuristic Exhibition of Paintings, sponsored by Puni and curated by Malevich, took place in Petrograd. The exhibition caused a scandal in society, which was exactly what the radicals were trying to achieve. The next exhibition curated by Malevich and sponsored by Puni was scheduled for the end of 1915.
Having ventured into pure abstraction, Malevich instantly realized the scale of the discovery he had made. Nothing in Europe could match the radicalism of his new paintings. The dream of Russian artists to surpass the innovation of their European counterparts had become a reality. Malevich was aware that the potential of this new artistic system should be presented and established not in two or three works, but in a vast group of paintings. For nearly six months, from June to early December 1915, Malevich created Suprematist paintings for the upcoming exhibition.
It is interesting to note that the first compositions of geometric elements that emerged before Black Square were complex, multi-component constructions. Malevich’s innovative drawings, from which he frequently planned and developed the subjects of his future paintings, testify to this. Having chosen a particular subject for translation into the medium of painting, Malevich thought out the dimensions of the future work and, having put dimensions in vershki in the margins (the old Russian form of measurement, 1 vershok = 4.445 cm), ordered the stretcher and canvas.
In Malevich’s collection there is a drawing which is connected to a picture of a larger size. In the margins the artist put the following dimensions: 18 by 30 vershki (80 by 134 cm). The dimensions of this drawing reveal a horizontal orientation and thus attest to the early time of its creation at the end of May or beginning of June 1915. Malevich would soon turn away from such a horizontal emphasis in his works: for Malevich the “horizon” was a symbol of gravity’s enslavement of creativity which prevented the weightless floating of objects in space. The painting based on the preparatory drawing has a vertical orientation, and is clearly visible in the photo from Malevich’s first solo exhibition in Moscow in 1919-1920. After being taken to an exhibition in Berlin in 1927, the work remained in the West, and, like all of Malevich’s large canvases, has not survived.
Besides crystallizing the development of pure non-objectivity, Black Square marked another powerful breakthrough for Malevich. As is well known, the simple quadrangular figure was superimposed on top of a complex color arrangement, covering it with its form. It was as if Black Square rid suprematism of verbosity, revealing within it those qualities which, over the course of many decades, would become the fundamental characteristics of an influential, global artistic trend: minimalism.
The Russian avant-garde forged this revolutionary path independently in 1915, and from complex, multi-component compositions, strict, minimalist canvases emerged. They depict either a single mono-figure, such as a square, circle, elongated rectangle, or cruciform planes, or a construction made out of two or three elements.
For the 0.10 exhibition, Malevich created a number of minimalist canvases using visual motifs singled out from complex, multi-component compositions. From the preparatory drawing and photograph of the aforementioned, unpreserved work, it is clear that some of its visual elements were given their own, individual paintings (the circle, rectangle, the rectangle with the triangle cut into it, the two cruciform, intersecting planes etc). The subject of Suprematist Composition with Plane in Projection (the name is not Malevich’s) was also based on one of the themes of both the preparatory drawing and the lost canvas: the trapezoid with the two longitudinal stripes across the bottom.
Suprematism has been and is still inevitably compared to neoplasticism, a movement founded by Piet Mondrian a year later in 1916. Malevich himself reflected on their similarities, for example, their use of geometric elements, their clarity of construction, and sonority of color, as well as their fundamental differences. The Russian avant-garde stressed that neoplasticism was a static visual system based on an ancient post-and-beam system of horizontal and vertical divisions, whereas suprematism was concerned with the relentless movement and great dynamics which dominated the universe.
The representation of this intense dynamism was Malevich’s ultimate objective. He developed the entire system of suprematism from the dynamic transformations of the Black Square. As is well known, Malevich subsequently noted that the conscious rotation of the black square around a central point would ultimately produce the shape of a circle, the second primary form of Suprematism. The third fundamental form was the “cruciform planes.” Under the influence of force, the Black Square seemed to divide in half along its longitudinal axis. When one of the newly formed planes moved 90° in relation to the other, it formed the figure of the “cruciform planes” (later "Black Cross" for short). Analyzing his discoveries, Malevich developed this theory later, but the problem of the dynamics and the dynamic transformations of geometric elements was at the center of his attention from the very beginning of the emergence of suprematism.
Correct rectangular figures, it would seem, inevitably had to be symmetrical; that is, balanced and static. Stativity was fundamentally at odds with Malevich’s aspirations, and with his characteristic determination he overcame this contradiction by persistently experimenting with the rectangular form. Dynamic tension destroyed regular forms and turned squares and rectangles into trapezoids. Having grouped together a whole cycle of drawings marked on the reverse with a letter X, Malevich stressed his main idea: on the envelope in which the drawings were gathered, he wrote: "Deformation of the square into an incorrect 4-triangle. 12 drawings. X" (an envelope with this inscription currently resides in the collection of N. M. Suetina, St. Petersburg). Suprematist Composition with Plane in Projection demonstrates the fundamental characteristic of Suprematism: here the figure of the trapezium - the sides of which seem to give in to the influence and pressure of the dense white background - speaks to the dynamism that prevails in Malevich's non-objectivity.
In the Suprematist paintings of 1915, their expressive texture attracts attention: Malevich later abandoned textural painting, believing it to be too material for the spiritual nature of Suprematism. The busy relief texture of Suprematist Composition with Plane in Projection therefore indicates that the work was executed in 1915. Another striking particularity of the painting is its use of color. Malevich built the composition on the basis of the contrast between a hot, saturated yellow and a deep blue; that is, he used the sonorous contrast of complementary colors from the fundamental primary colors (blue, yellow and red).
In the photograph of the “0.10” exhibition, only 21 canvases out of the original 39 are visible - the others are not in the frame. However, it is well-known that Malevich brought all the pictures he had completed by that time to the exhibition. Some of the works were still damp, and the corners were therefore so that the works would not stain each other. The visual particularities of Suprematist Composition with Plane in Projection undoubtedly testify to the early date of the work’s execution in 1915, and allow us to confidently assert that the picture was exhibited at the 0.10: Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings.
Aleksandra Shatskikh, PhD is an art historian. Her book Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism was published in 2012.
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