Kazimir Malevich was one of the most influential and innovative artists of the 20th century. He pioneered a revolutionary style of abstract art known as Suprematism, which focused on basic geometric shapes and pure color. Born in 1879 to Polish parents in Kiev, Ukraine, Malevich was exposed to traditional Ukrainian folk art from a young age. However, as a young artist he embraced new modernist movements like Cubism, Futurism, and Symbolism. He sought to push the boundaries of painting further into pure abstraction.
In 1915, Malevich created his most famous work – the Black Square. This simple black square on a white background was a startling break from tradition. Malevich called it the “zero degree” of painting, referring to its lack of depth or perspective. The Black Square would become an icon of the emerging abstract art movement. That same year, Malevich published his manifesto From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, formally establishing this new direction in artistic expression.
Over his long career, Malevich continued to produce innovative abstract compositions focused on shape and color, such as White on White. His Suprematist works radically pared down painting to its most fundamental elements. Having supported the Russian Revolution early on, Malevich ran afoul of the Soviet regime in later years. Nevertheless, his pioneering art and writings left a lasting impact. Malevich is recognized today as a leading figure in modern art, opening the door for pure abstraction through his development of Suprematism. His creative vision liberated painting from the constraints of objet realism and expanded possibilities for artistic expression in the 20th century.
Kazimir Malevich was born in 1879 in Ukraine to Polish parents. From a young age, he was exposed to the colorful folk art traditions of his Ukrainian homeland. As a budding artist, Malevich embraced new modern styles like Impressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau. However, he sought to take art further into pure abstraction, reduing painting to its fundamental elements of shape, color and composition.
In 1915, Malevich painted his groundbreaking Black Square – a radical work that marked a turning point in the history of art. That same year, he announced his new artistic philosophy of Suprematism, which focused solely on abstract geometric forms and their arrangements on the canvas. Malevich continued to create innovative abstract compositions until his death in 1935. Despite periods of persecution, he left behind an enormous legacy and profoundly influenced the evolution of modern abstract art in the 20th century.
Early Life and Artistic Influences
Upbringing in Ukraine
Kazimir Severinovich Malevich was born on February 23, 1879 in Kiev, which was then part of the Russian Empire. His parents, Ludwika and Seweryn Malewicz, were ethnic Poles who had settled near Kiev after the Polish uprisings against Tsarist Russia. They were Roman Catholic, though his father occasionally attended Orthodox services.
As a boy, Malevich was exposed to the colorful folk art of Ukraine – the embroidered cloths, ceramics, and religious paintings that were part of traditional Ukrainian peasant culture. Some art historians believe these early experiences with bold shapes and vivid colors informed Malevich’s later embrace of abstract art.
The family moved frequently around Ukraine as his father worked in sugar factories and railway construction. As a result, Malevich absorbed the sights and experiences of Ukrainian village life. These early surroundings left a lasting impression on the young artist.
Art Studies in Kiev and Moscow
Malevich showed a talent for drawing early on and was determined to become an artist. His father died in 1904, and the inheritance allowed Malevich to move to Kiev to formally study art. He enrolled at the Kiev School of Art, where he gained foundational training in drawing and painting.
In 1904, Malevich moved to Moscow. There he studied at the Stroganov School of Art and took private lessons from artist Ivan Rerberg. Malevich continued his art education at the prestigious Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He learned Impressionist and Post-Impressionist techniques that he incorporated into his early works.
As a young painter, Malevich passed through various modern art movements at the turn of the century. He was heavily influenced for a time by Symbolism and Art Nouveau. The works of Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, and Jan Toorop introduced him to the expressive use of color.
In 1907, Malevich met avant-garde artists Wassily Kandinsky and Mikhail Larionov. They exposed him to radical new directions in art, such as Primitivism and Cubism. Under their influence, Malevich shifted toward more abstract and brashly modern styles.
By 1912, Malevich was producing Cubo-Futurist compositions, combining the abstract forms of Cubism with the dynamism of Italian Futurism. However, he soon found even these styles too limiting for his vision of pure abstraction.
Development of Suprematism
By 1913, Malevich had begun producing completely abstract paintings devoid of any reference to objective subject matter. His Alogcal Composition of Female Figures and Vases of Flowers (1913) features boldly colored geometric shapes floating against a white background.
In 1914, Malevich created an important work titled An Englishman in Moscow. The painting depicts a man in contemporary dress rendered in an abstract, Cubist style – flattened shapes and fractured planes. The work shows Malevich stylizing the figure and the cityscape toward abstraction.
Black Square and Suprematist Philosophy
In 1915, Malevich made his most pivotal contribution – the painting of the Black Square on a white ground. This was the most radically abstract painting yet seen – no subject, no perspective, no depth. Just a black square against a bare white backdrop representing the ultimate reduction of painting.
Malevich called this “the zero degree of art.” The Black Square marked his break from the rest of the art world and the beginning of his new philosophy of Suprematism. For Malevich, the square represented feeling, while the white field around it represented the void.
That same year, Malevich published his manifesto, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, formally announcing his new art theory. In the treatise, Malevich argues for the supremacy of pure feeling and abstraction in art. He believed art should not represent the natural world, but rather exist in and of itself.
Further Explorations in Abstraction
In the years after the Black Square, Malevich continued his Suprematist explorations. He produced multiple variations of his radical new vision. Paintings like White on White (1918) took abstraction even further, reducing the composition to little more than a white square against a slightly differentiated white background.
Malevich explored different arrangements of shapes and colors – floating blocks and bars over contrasting backgrounds to create a dynamic sense of movement. Works like Red Square and Black Square (1915) and Suprematist Composition (1916) exemplified his ongoing Suprematist experimentation. While remaining devoted to abstraction, he sought new ways of arranging forms and colors to evoke feeling.
Comparison Table of Selected Paintings by Kazimir Malevich
|The Knife Grinder
|Depicts a fragmentary view of a man sharpening knives. Combination of abstract Cubist planes and Futurist dynamism.
|Shows Malevich’s early embrace of Italian Futurism and French Cubism. Still contains identifiable subject matter.
|An Englishman in Moscow
|An abstracted figure of a man wearing a top hat and coat rendered in geometricized planes.
|Malevich is stylizing the figure and landscape toward greater abstraction. Retains some identifiable imagery.
|A black square against a bare white background. No subject or perspective.
|Malevich’s breakthrough into pure abstraction, which he called the “zero degree” of painting. Completely non-objective.
|White on White
|A predominantly white square against a white background, with subtle tonal variations.
|Further development of pure abstraction, paring down the composition to its bare essentials.
|Floating rectangles and shapes in black, red and blue over a white ground.
|Dynamic arrangement of abstract forms and colors, conveying energy and movement.
|Red Square and Black Square
|Large red and black squares floating in white space.
|Study in color and form. The squares seem to vibrate against each other.
Russian Revolution and Later Years
In the years right after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Malevich was enthusiastically swept up in revolutionary fervor. He saw abstract art as aligned with socialist ideals of modernity and progress. From 1919-1922, Malevich accepted an important post in the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, working to bring avant-garde art into the new communist society.
In 1920, Malevich was appointed director of the art school in Vitebsk (now Belarus). There he established the UNOVIS collective that disseminated his Suprematist teachings. Malevich designed propaganda porcelain and textiles based on Suprematist motifs, like his iconic Red Triangle. For a time, abstract art enjoyed official approval as the new revolutionary art.
Fall From Favor
However, by the late 1920s, Communist leaders like Lenin had begun denouncing modernist abstraction as bourgeois and decadent. Socialist Realism was now the only officially approved style. Malevich’s abstract art fell out of favor with the regime.
In 1930, Malevich’s works were included in a major exhibition in Moscow but were displayed with insulting captions mocking them as degenerate. Over 150 of Malevich’s paintings were confiscated by the state and some were destroyed. In 1932, he was imprisoned briefly and interrogated about his contacts with foreigners.
The final years of Malevich’s life were marked by isolation and poverty. Suprematism was completely banned and he was no longer allowed to paint in his abstract style or even exhibit his work. Nevertheless, Malevich continued to create paintings, predominately conventional portraits and genre scenes solely for his own personal collection.
On May 15, 1935, just a few months after his 56th birthday, Malevich died of cancer. He wished to be buried under an iron cube engraved with a black square, but his gravesite remained unmarked for decades due to the official disapproval of his work. He remained in obscurity immediately after his death.
Legacy and Impact
Recognition and Influence
Although obscured in his homeland during his lifetime,Malevich’s pioneering abstract art soon garnered acclaim in the West. Retrospectives of his work in Europe brought him international recognition. Western artists were especially influenced by Malevich’s use of geometric shapes and devotion to pure abstraction.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Malevich’s reputation finally rose to prominence in Russia as well. He is now recognized as one of the most important and influential figures in modern art. No other artist in the early 20th century so radically expanded the possibilities for abstract painting.
Malevich’s Black Square in particular has become one of the most iconic images of modern art. It is viewed as an emblem of the revolutionary spirit at the dawn of abstract painting. Reproductions of the Black Square can be found hanging ironically or reverentially in galleries and homes around the world.
Malevich’s Suprematist philosophy and paintings went on to directly influence several major 20th century art movements. The De Stijl movement embraced his use of basic geometric forms and bold colors. Russian Constructivists adapted his visual language. Minimalists in the 1960s inherited Malevich’s devotion to stripped down abstraction.
Additionally, Malevich’s theoretical writings have been continually studied and debated up to the present day. He expanded critical discourse around the meaning and evolution of abstract art. His theoretical positions on the emotional qualities of form and color remain relevant.
Even into the 21st century, Malevich stands as an inspiration for generations of abstract artists. Contemporary painters and sculptors still wrestle with the questions of pure abstraction first posed in dramatic fashion by Malevich’s radical Black Square over a century ago. The impulse toward minimalism and abstraction continues to exert a strong pull on the modern artistic imagination.
Frequently Asked Questions about Kazimir Malevich
Where and when was Malevich born?
Kazimir Malevich was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1879.
What artistic movements influenced Malevich’s early work?
Malevich was influenced by Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Cubism, and Futurism in his early career.
What is Suprematism?
Suprematism is an abstract art movement founded by Malevich in 1915. It focused on basic geometric shapes and dynamism through asymmetrical compositions.
What was Malevich’s most famous painting?
Malevich’s 1915 work Black Square is considered his most renowned painting. Its simple abstract composition marked a radical breakthrough.
What happened to Malevich’s reputation after the Russian Revolution?
Malevich fell out of favor as the Soviet regime denounced abstract art. Many of his works were confiscated and he was briefly imprisoned.
How did Malevich die?
Malevich died of cancer in 1935 at the age of 56. He had been banned from creating abstract art in his last years.
What was Malevich’s lasting legacy?
Malevich pioneered non-objective art and profoundly influenced the course of 20th century abstract painting through his Suprematist works and theories.
Who did Malevich influence?
Malevich directly influenced the De Stijl, Constructivist, and Minimalist art movements that emerged after his death.
Why is Black Square so significant?
Black Square exemplified pure abstraction and a break from representation. It embodied Malevich’s concept of the “zero degree” of painting.
Malevich is now recognized as one of the most significant pioneers of abstract art in the 20th century. The provocative journey of his life paralleled the dramatic evolution of modern art itself. Malevich’s artistic travels took him through the major styles of his day before propelling him beyond representation. His Suprematist vision liberated painting to exist wholly on its own autonomous terms, opening up an entire creative territory we continue to map today. More than any other artist of his generation, Malevich showed the way into pure abstraction and demonstrated the expressive power of abstract geometric forms. Both his iconic paintings and his theoretical writings aim toward the liberation of feeling through pure sensation. This is the profound and enduring achievement of Kazimir Malevich. His work will continue to inspire abstract experimentation far into the future.