Research series: Russian Art and Artists (15): Suprematism – Malevich, Rozanova and Popova

We’ve seen over the last few episodes that, since Diaghilev’s comment in 1905 that “we are witnessing the greatest historic hour of reckoning, of things coming to an end in the name of a new unknown culture”, the Russian art world became a site of rapid, experimental change through the work of artists such as Goncharova, Chagall, Kandinsky and many others. This explosion of painting was linked to the work of modernists right across Europe – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso – adopted into and transformed by the Russian context of ideas, culture, philosophy and indeed the increasingly unstable political situation.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, links with European artists were cut but, within Russia, the avant-garde continue their radical experimentation.

Out on the streets there were strikes and demonstrations. The news from the war is that tens of thousands of men – barely trained, barely armed – are dying en masse at the front. It becomes clear that Tsar Nicholas is clueless at military strategy and that the Tsarina is influencing social policy by way of the disreputable figure of Rasputin. The strikes and demonstrations grow louder, increasingly political as left-wing activists, especially the Bolsheviks, rally citizens towards revolution.

Meanwhile, artist Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) has been quietly cooking up a revolution of his own…

Malevich: Peasant Women in Church [1911; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

As with the other Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich had explored Symbolism, Impressionism and by 1911 a Post-Impressionist “Primitivism” akin to that of Natalya Goncharova. These brusque paintings were very much part of a radical art movement that intended to shock the viewer with their non-naturalist depictions and roughly-textured painting. With its roots in Paul Gauguin’s pictures of Brittany and the villagers of Pont-Aven from the 1880s, Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” also reflects – especially by way of the mask-like faces – the more recent work of Picasso, in particular perhaps Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Paul Gauguin: Breton Peasant Women [1894; Musee d’Orsay, Paris]

& Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York]

What is fascinating about Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” canvas is what is on the other side of it. Note how the peasant women are painted really quite sculpturally, they are rotund, their arms and bodies look solid… well on the ‘verso’ of this painting, we find Malevich, just one year later, moving away from that brusque, textured primitivism to take on, via a version of Cubism, a much cleaner sculptural, and uniquely cylindrical style:

Malevich: The Woodcutter [1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The human form has been radically simplified, yet one feels the woodcutter’s strength; he is a monumental figure reflecting his importance in village life. All around him are cylindrical logs – neither background nor foreground – integrating the figure into his work, this very moment of concentration. It’s a delicious patterning of distinct, clearly formed shapes, and they have a sense of movement and dynamism.

Malevich: Taking in the Rye [1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The paintings strike one as extraordinarily modern – that tubularity, the almost metallic sheen – and yet fascinatingly they depict the changing of the seasons and the traditional rural work that has been done since time immemorial. If there is a sense of ‘futurism’ here, it is far from the machinery, urbanisation, transport and war of the Italian Futurists. Closer to that sense of speed and dynamism of the city, and the fragmentation of modern life is:

Malevich: The Knifegrinder [[1913; Yale University]

“The workman sharpens his knives at the foot of a flight of steps, visible upper and lower right… The arc of the steps curves around the knifegrinder, whose rhythmic movements Malevich has indicated by the repetition of the foot upon the pedal, the repetition of fingers and hands and the duplication of the nose and other facial features. The grinding machine provides the pivot of the composition [as] the rhythm of rotation appears to spread out like ripples from the centre of the machine animating the flight of steps…” [John Milner: Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry, 1996].

Through all this Cubo-Futurist experimentation, Malevich is searching for something: he wants to release art from matters of representation, from the depiction of nature and so-called reality. And, in 1913, he staged an opera at the Futurists Theatre called “Victory Over the Sun”.

Left: Poster advertising “The World’s First Four Productions of Futurist Theatre” at Luna Park Theatre, St Petersburg, 2nd-5th December 1913, including “Victory Over the Sun”.

Right: “The Aviator” painted by Malevich in 1914 [Russian Museum]

The main thrust of Victory Over the Sun, is that the sun represents nature, logic and rationality (the Enlightenment) and therefore the past and present. Victory will represent the future, and its hero is the Aviator or the New Man, of the future, a Traveller in time and space who was later painted by Malevich full of symbolic references. He wears a top hat with a ‘0’ on it from which come beams of light; the Zero might represent a starting point. The playing card in his hand might represent chance and the Tarot (which fascinated Malevich).

Understanding the painting can get rather complicated, for example the ray of light illuminates and splits some lettering which, together, in Russian spell “apteka” meaning “chemist” – the KA might refer to the character of a traveller in a poem, and/or to the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. Certainly there are layers of meaning, the images relating to language and words as well as possibly fellow Futurist poets involved in Victory Over the Sun.

The costumes for the Opera were designed by Malevich: they are quite bizarre visually with patches of bright colour, and also bizarre in effect: some of the colours would be illuminated by the stage-lighting, and so fragmenting the image on stage, moreover the costumes were made of soft fabric, undermining their solidity.

Malevich’s costume designs: State Museum of Theatre and Music, Saint Petersburg.

The Opera itself was bombastic and absurd. Unsurprisingly it had a mixed reception, some criticised its lunacy, others delighted in its eccentricity. Malevich himself was thrilled with it all, see: Victory Over the Sun for more detail.

As we can see from these newspaper images, Malevich’s backdrops were as peculiar as his costumes; and they include something very important. Joseph Kiblitsky of the State Russian Museum notes that the outline of a square appears in the first, second and third scenes, then, in the fifth, a pure black square on a white plane. It was the first time Malevich had depicted any type of black square. In the play, the image simply symbolises the victory over the sun, like an eclipse, the black covering the white. But for Malevich it seems there was more to it. Like a scientist in a laboratory, he had come about something by chance but that he knows is valuable. Throughout 1914 he experiments…

Malevich: Composition with ‘Mona Lisa’ [1914; State Russian Museum]

The words on the canvas: “chastichnoe” means partial; “zametnie” means eclipse; “peredatsa kvartina v moskva” means we have surpassed the picture in Moscow. Note how the image of the Mona Lisa has been crossed through and torn, it almost disappears in the cascade of Cubist squares – it is a partial eclipse of the old art. In solitude and secrecy, Malevich continues working in his studio and then, in 1915, there was an extraordinary exhibition:

0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition [December 1915; St Petersburg (renamed Petrograd)]

It must have been bewildering to any common viewer that happened to be passing by! And, displayed on the corner – just as a Russian would hang an icon – is Black Square.

Malevich: Black Square [1915; Tretyakov Gallery]

It’s an icon, the likes of which we had never seen before: the icon of a new world order, a new means of making art. Malevich has stripped away all representation and left us with nothing, a void, a blank, a black square. He called it the Zero of form (remember The Aviator’s top hat?).

Black Square seems to erase, end, annihilate all the paintings that went before. It is the end of art.

If the traditional Orthodox icon was our connection to the heavenly, then to what does Black Square connect us?

Outer-space? Nothingness?

It is worth noting that Black Square has no horizon: hang the painting any way you want and it remains a black square floating on a field of white – Malevich has released the artist from gravity.

But above all it is just, simply, a black square – a geometric, mathematical form. Unsullied by nature or politics or human history and society. It is pure. “It is the face of new art. The Square is a living, royal infant” said Malevich:

“It is everything.”

The photograph of the exhibition shows there were other paintings too: the Black Square had given Malevich entry into the development of a new purely artistic alphabet: squares, crosses, circles and so on. Releasing us from the chains of Art History, this is Suprematism – painting founded on pure artistic forms.

Black Circle [1915; State Russian Museum]; White on White [1918; MoMA, New York]

So what does Malevich, and other artists inspired by his work, do with these new forms? The development is rapid. From the bold simple forms we soon move into formations of complex, dynamic planes, shapes and colours:

The painting at the Tate is a marvellous example: we can see a white on white triangular form around, over, under which other shapes are floating in various directions, some are coming forward, whilst others cross over (reminding us again of the impact of the costumes and backdrops in Victory Over the Sun).

Importantly too, colour is kept within the forms and very much part of the dynamic ‘non-gravity space’ within the picture frame.

We can turn to other artists who took up Malevich’s Suprematist ideas and created The Supremus Group, including Olga Rozanova (1886-1918) who I would call a Suprematist Colourist:

Non-Objective Composition (Suprematism) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Yekaterinburg]

Rozanova uses both bold and more subtle colours, from stark red to gentle peach and lilac; and note how at the bottom left she has ‘quoted’ Black Square.

Rozanova: Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Aeroplane) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Samara]

“Throughout Rozanova’s career, colour remained her chief concern. In sophisticated abstract paintings [those shown above], she reveals a ‘discordant concordance’ of interactive coloured planes to reveal her own variant of Suprematism based on the dominant role of colour.” [Nina Gurianova in “Amazons of the Avant-Garde”, Royal Academy, 1999].

For Rozanova, it is colour that has the dynamism Malevich attributes to shape; her work blazes with colour, contrasts that create movement and rhythm. Her aim was “to convey the immaterial essence of colour, its inner energy and luminosity…”

For Liubov Popova (1889-1924), shape and colour were certainly central, but it is perhaps a combination of texture and structure that stands out in many of her Suprematist paintings, which she called ‘architectonic’

This “Painterly Architectonic” at the National Gallery of Scotland is described as: “characterized by dynamic, overlapping planes which seem to float in space. The coloured diagonal shapes in this painting suggest movement but also a sense of balance. The modelling of the shapes suggests a light source from outside the frame.”

That latter statement suggest something quite different to anything found in Malevich’s Suprematism; the Gallery seems to be suggesting that Popova imaging her abstractions as physical architecture out in the ‘real world’. And that, perhaps, is why she is so interested in texture – faktura – the actual material of the painting, which would lead her towards Constructivism, yet another aspect of the radical avant-garde in Russia, as we will see next time.

Describing the art of Liubov Popova in “The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922”, Camilla Gray notes how difficult it is to categorise the works such as the Architectonic Paintings from 1918 below, yet how exciting they are:

“They are often executed on a rough board, and the angular forms in strong blues, green and reds are brushed in on this crude, raw surface, leaving the impression of a lightning-swift movement, a darting, breathless meeting of forces…”

Russian Art & Artists 15 – Suprematism

Thank you for reading this episode of our ‘gentle’ research into Russian Art & Artists! If you are able to ‘donate’ that would be marvellous – many thanks and all best wishes.


Our next episode:

Russian Art & Artists (16): Constructivism and Tatlin’s Tower

will be published by Sunday 25th July 2021

Let’s finish, though, with two gorgeous colour sketches by Olga Rozanova [1917; private c/o Wikimedia]:


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

One response to “Research series: Russian Art and Artists (15): Suprematism – Malevich, Rozanova and Popova

  1. Thank you so much for posting! Several of the paintings I have not seen before and they are all wonderful!

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