Russian Art

Who Were the Suprematists?

By Martin Dean

T he Russian Pictures sale on 5 June features works by a number of artists who were part of the Suprematist movement, including its founder Kazimir Malevich. But who were the Suprematists?


The art of pure feeling

Few artistic movements were as short-lived, and yet left such a lasting legacy, as Suprematism: to this day it’s considered one of the most radical movements ever to occur in art. The seminal Suprematist work of its founder — Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square — is considered the movement’s  iconic centrepiece, and it, along with other works depicting simple geometric figures are regarded as the beginnings of geometric abstract art. Suprematism’s influence can be clearly seen in the works of Kandinsky and many others, while its geometric abstraction had a major influence on the Constructivist movement, despite the two movements having opposing ideologies.

Suprematism was founded by Malevich amid the tumultuous socio-political climate of Russia in 1915, influenced in part by new movements like Cubism and Futurism, avant-garde poetry and the Russian Formalist school of literary criticism. The world was rapidly changing. The new reality saw mechanised warfare causing entirely new levels of devastation, industrialisation transforming traditional social structures and shifting people from rural settings to increasingly urban landscapes, and new revolutionary movements challenging established power structures. Both Cubism and Futurism had attempted to depict this feeling of rapidity, movement, instability and multiplicity of perspective. 

Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.
The Non-Objective World, Kazimir Malevich.

For Malevich, however, these movements did not go far enough. After explorations of various artistic styles, including Symbolism (an example of his Symbolist work appears in Sotheby's sale), Neo-Primitivism and Cubism, he became strongly engaged with Futurism, but saw that he needed to go further still.  He drew on the Russian Formalist idea that words and the objects they denoted were only loosely connected, and applied this idea to forms that depicted the world. In developing Suprematism he sought to transcend form entirely, creating works which did not reference an environment and its objects, but instead expressed the pure feeling at the heart of the creative impulse. In doing so, he created non-objective work that sought to escape the rational, rigid world where expression was mediated by the conditions and contents of the environment. Suprematism was so-called because Malevich considered this pure expression of colour and shape ‘supreme’ over art that dealt in images of the world and its objects.


Black Square

In 1915, Malevich and a group of Russian artists formed the Suprematist group, and held an exhibition entitled 0.10, The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings. The zero in the title referred both to the idea of a new beginning, and the striving for simplicity: the zero degree of painting, or the smallest and simplest expression required to communicate the artistic feeling at its heart. It was here that Malevich, in a room filled with paintings of geometric shapes, exhibited what became the most iconic work of Suprematism, Black Square. At the time, this was an extremely revolutionary work: it’s widely considered to be first time someone had exhibited a painting that wasn’t of something in the world.


Up until now there were no attempts at painting as such, without any attribute of real life… Painting was the aesthetic side of a thing, but never was original and an end in itself.
Handout at 0.10, The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings, 1915. Kazimir Malevich.

Malevich’s Black Square, a revolutionary work which caused a sensation among Russian art crowds, resonated with the social revolution happening in Russia at that time. Its position in the gallery, high in the corner of the room, had an additional significance for the Russian audience. This was the position that a religious icon would be placed in a traditional Russian home. This subversion both diminished traditional religion and suggested that Black Square itself was a new kind of spiritually significant object.

In the years that followed this exhibition, a number of artists in Russia engaged with this new movement. Among them was Vera Ermolaeva, who had been sent to teach at the People's Art School in Vitebsk in 1919. After Malevich moved there months later, Ermolaeva became strongly influenced by his ideas and began to create Suprematist works, several of which appear in Sotheby's Russian Pictures sale.  



The decline of Suprematism

While Malevich and other Suprematist artists had begun a revolution in art, the social revolution happening around them was to take its toll on their radical new project. Through the 1920s, the Soviet Union under Stalin began to suppress art that deviated from the accepted political orthodoxy, Socialist Realism. Malevich’s career declined, and he was banned from creating abstract art. In his late works he returns to painting figures and landscapes. On his deathbed however, Malevich’s body was exhibited by his followers with Black Square hung above him, and his ashes were buried in a grave marked with a black square.

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