Few artists are as associated with geometrical abstraction as Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935). Even at his death, Malevich’s white coffin was decorated with a black circle and square in homage to the style for which he became best known. Yet life had not always been so starkly defined for the Russian painter; rather, his arrival at Suprematist compositions occurred as a result of experimentation and study influenced by culture and politics.
Born in Russia to an upper middle class family on a sugar plantation, Malevich was brought up far away from where art was radical. Yet at a young age he showed an interest in folk art, which was perhaps a catalyst for him pursuing this line of study.
Malevich’s early work depicted peasants, religious scenes and landscapes, but while studying art in Moscow he came into contact with art movements including Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism. Seemingly out of nowhere, Malevich’s Self Portrait (1908-10) looked like Matisse had gone wild with a German Expressionist colour palette. Experimenting with a range of styles during a relatively short period of time made Malevich a skilled painter, refining his understanding of colour and composition.
“In 1913, trying desperately to liberate art from the ballast of the representational world, I sought refuge in the form of the square,” he later recalled. His new style, Suprematism, premiered that year and was based on the idea that the spiritual could best be expressed through a painting’s essential components: form and colour.
At first glance Malevich’s Black Square (1915) looks deceptively simple, but within these shapes lie a host of artistic associations. Malevich described the black square as the “zero of form” and the white background as “the void beyond this feeling”. In a way, his technique proclaimed that paintings are composed of flat, abstract areas of paint – just as much a rejection of the medium as a celebration of its endless possibilities.
Here, the act of painting is subordinate to the rules of composition, form and colour. Strangely, by rejecting the tactility and texture of paint, more emphasis is placed upon the paint itself. It had to be even, sharp, smooth and flawless in order to capture the essence of colour. Sparse, yet bearing layers of philosophical, emotional depth, the effects of Malevich’s work were felt in the art world at the time and continue to resonate today.
*Lead Image: Kazimir Malevich, Supremus No. 55 (1916), Krasnodar Territorial Art Museum