Biography of Kazimir Malevich, Russian Abstract Art Pioneer

kazimir malevich house in a garden
"House in a Garden" (1906). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) was a Russian avant-garde artist who created the movement known as Suprematism. It was a pioneering approach to abstract art dedicated to the appreciation of art through pure feeling. His painting "Black Square" is a landmark in the development of abstract art.

Fast Facts: Kazimir Malevich

  • Full Name: Kazimir Severinovich Malevich
  • Profession: Painter
  • Style: Suprematism
  • Born: February 23, 1879 in Kyiv, Russia
  • Died: May 15, 1935 in Leningrad, Soviet Union
  • Education: Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture
  • Selected Works: "Black Square" (1915), "Supremus No. 55" (1916), "White on White" (1918)
  • Notable Quote: "A painted surface is a real, living form."

Early Life and Art Education

Born in Ukraine in a family of Polish descent, Kazimir Malevich grew up near the city of Kyiv when it was part of an administrative division of the Russian empire. His family fled from what is currently the Kopyl Region of Belarus after a failed Polish uprising. Kazimir was the oldest of 14 children. His father operated a sugar mill.

As a child, Malevich enjoyed drawing and painting, but he knew nothing of the modern art trends beginning to emerge in Europe. His first formal art studies took place when he received training in drawing at the Kyiv School of Art from 1895 through 1896.

kazimir malevich self portrait
"Self Portrait" (1911). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Following the death of his father, Kazimir Malevich moved to Moscow to study at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. He was a student there from 1904 through 1910. He learned of impressionism and post-impressionist art from Russian painters Leonid Pasternak and Konstantin Korovin.

Avant-Garde Art Success in Moscow

In 1910, the artist Mikhail Larionov invited Malevich to be part of his exhibition group known as the Jack of Diamonds. The focus of their work was on such recent avant-garde movements as cubism and futurism. After tension between Malevich and Larionov emerged, Kazimir Malevich became a leader of the futurist group known as Youth Union, with its headquarters in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Kazimir Malevich described his style at the time as "cubo-futuristic." He combined the deconstruction of objects into shapes championed by the cubists with the honoring of modernity and movement that characterized work by the futurists. In 1912, he took part in an exhibition by the group Donkey's Tail in Moscow. Marc Chagall was another of the exhibiting artists.

kazimir malevich winter landscape
"Winter Landscape" (1911). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

As his reputation grew in Moscow, the Russian capital, Malevich collaborated with other artists on the 1913 Russian futurist opera "Victory Over the Sun." He designed the stage sets with music by Russian artist and composer Mikhail Matyushin.

The reputation of Malevich expanded into the rest of Europe with his inclusion in a Parisian exhibit in 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, Malevich contributed a series of lithographs that supported Russia's role in the war.

Suprematism

In late 1915, Malevich participated in an exhibition titled "O.10 Exhibition." He also released his manifesto, "From Cubism to Suprematism." He exhibited the painting "Black Square," a simple black square painted on a white background. Taking abstraction to an extreme logical end, Malevich said that Suprematist works would be based on "the supremacy of pure artistic feeling" instead of a depiction of recognizable objects.

Photo © State Russian Museum, St Petersburg; used with permission
Kazimir Malevich (Russian, b. Ukraine, 1878-1935). Black Square, ca. 1923. Oil on canvas. 106 x 106 cm (41 3/4 x 41 3/4 in.). © State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Another of Malevich's key works from 1915 is known as "Red Square" because the painting is simply that, a red square. However, the artist titled it "A Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions." He saw the painting as letting go of a materialistic attachment to the world. His painting was able to move beyond those earthly ties and enter a spiritual realm.

In a 1916 brochure titled "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism," Malevich referred to his own work as "nonobjective." The term and the idea of "nonobjective creation" were soon adopted by many other avant-garde abstract artists.

Kazimir Malevich painted many works in the Suprematist style. In 1918, he presented "White on White," a white square slightly tilted over the background of another white square in a slightly different tone. Not all Suprematist paintings were as simple. Malevich frequently experimented with geometrical arrangements of lines and shapes, as in his piece "Supremus No. 55."

Malevich insisted that viewers should not analyze his work with principles of logic and reason. Instead, the "meaning" of a work of art could only be understood through pure feeling. In his "Black Square" painting, Malevich believed the square represented emotions, and the white was a sense of nothingness.

kazimir malevich supremus 55
"Supremus No. 55" (1916). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Malevich worked within the government of the new Soviet Republic and taught at the Free Art Studios in Moscow. He taught his students to abandon representational painting, thought to be part of bourgeois culture, and explore radical abstraction instead. In 1919, Malevich published his book "On New Systems of Art" and attempted to apply Suprematist theories to the development of government and its service to the people.

Later Career

In the 1920s, Malevich worked to develop his Suprematist ideas by creating a series of models of utopian towns. He called them Architectona. He took them to exhibitions in Germany and Poland, where other artists and intellectuals expressed interest. Before returning to Russia, Malevich left many of his pieces of writing, paintings, and drawings behind. However, the rigid cultural principles of the Soviet government endorsing Social Realism in art effectively undercut the efforts of Malevich to explore his artistic philosophies further after returning home to Russia.

During a 1927 visit to the Bauhaus in Germany, Kazimir Malevich met Wassily Kandinsky, a fellow Russian abstract art pioneer who was alienated by the post-Revolution Soviet government based in Russia. Kandinsky's career flourished when he chose to remain in Germany and later move to France instead of returning to Russia.

In 1930, Malevich was arrested upon returning to Russia from Western Europe. Friends burned some of his writings as a precaution against political persecution. In 1932, a major exhibition of art honoring the 15th anniversary of the Russian Revolution included work by Malevich but labeled it "degenerate" and against the Soviet government.

kazimir malevich two women in a landscape
"Two Women in a Landscape" (1929). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Late in his life, as a result of the official condemnation of his earlier work, Kazimir Malevich returned to painting rural scenes and portraits as he did early in his career. After he died in 1935 in Leningrad, Malevich's relatives and followers buried him in a coffin of his own design with his landmark black square depicted on the lid. Mourners at the funeral were allowed to wave banners with images of the black square.

The Soviet government refused to exhibit Malevich's paintings and recognize his contributions to Russian art until 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union.

Legacy

Much of Kazimir Malevich's legacy in the development of European and American art is due to the heroic efforts of Alfred Barr, the first director of New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 1935, Barr smuggled 17 Malevich paintings out of Nazi Germany rolled up in his umbrella. Subsequently, Barr included many Malevich paintings in the 1936 "Cubism and Abstract Art" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

The first major American Malevich retrospective took place at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 1973. In 1989, after Gorbachev released much of Malevich's previously locked up work, Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum held an even more extensive retrospective.

Echoes of Malevich's influence can be seen in the later development of minimalism in abstract art. Ad Reinhardt's pioneering abstract expressionist works owe debts to Malevich's "Black Square."

kazimir malevich bureau and room
"Bureau and Room" (1914). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Sources

  • Baier, Simon. Kazimir Malevich: the World as Objectlessness. Hatje Cantz, 2014.
  • Shatskikh, Alexander. Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism. Yale University Press, 2012.