Suprematist Composition, which Malevich completed the same year he wrote his Suprematist Manifesto, is renowned throughout the world as a premier painting from one of the most sophisticated and innovative artistic movements of the twentieth century. This picture has been featured in the collection of the Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum for the last fifty years and is regarded as an icon of Russian art and a paradigmatic example of the twentieth-century avant-garde. Suprematist Composition made its debut in one of the first important shows of the artist's work at the 16th State Exhibition in Moscow in 1919-20, which established Malevich as one of the most influential artists of his era. In 1927, the artist accompanied this picture to exhibitions in Warsaw and Berlin, introducing Western Europe to the unprecedented aesthetic that he had devised in the years leading up Lenin's triumph. In June 1927, Malevich was obliged to return to the Soviet Union and arranged for the painting to be stored in Berlin, but he was prevented from leaving the Soviet Union, where he died in 1935. Suprematist Composition was later entrusted to the German architect Hugo Haring, who purportedly sold it to the Stedelijk Museum. It was finally returned to the artist's heirs earlier this year. Rarely does a single picture embody such cultural and art historical significance.
A brilliant constellation of geometry and color in space, Suprematist Composition embodies what Malevich considered to be the pinnacle of artistic expression and "the creation of intuitive reason." The painting uses a remarkable economy of means to express such a profound concept. As he did in his other major compositions from 1915-16, Malevich's primary mode of expression here is an assembly of shapes and colors, plotted systematically on canvas. The skewed blue square and rectangular elements align in a trajectory towards the upper right of the canvas, only to be interrupted by a thick, deep-purple horizontal band. These brightly colorful objects appear to be particles in motion, propelled through a field of stark white like the photons of a beam of light. Indeed, it is the elemental beauty of the natural world that is isolated and exalted in Suprematist Composition. "Color and texture in painting are ends in themselves," Malevich wrote in his 1915-16 treatise. "They are the essence of painting, but this essence has always been destroyed by the subject." Suprematism was rooted in Malevich's desire to move beyond traditional representation towards an art of pure color and geometric form. While this radical idea had its origins in Cubism and Futurism, Suprematism proposed something wholly new in that it rejected any subjective basis or thematic origin. Malevich's opposition to traditional modes of representation was absolute: "If all the masters of the Renaissance had discovered the surface of painting, it would have been much more exalted and valuable than any Madonna or Mona Lisa. And any carved-out pentagon or hexagon would have been a greater work of sculpture than the Venus de Milo or David" (K. Malevich, "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism. The New Realism in Painting," 1915-16, reprinted in C. Harrison and P. Wood, eds., Art in Theory, 1900-1990, London, 1991, p. 175).
Suprematist painting was, Malevich proposed, a universal art that was immediately accessible, unmistakably clear and "supreme" in its aesthetic intentions. But the artist did not use the term Suprematism to describe his new art from the start. In 1914, he referred briefly to his paintings as 'Fervalist, which was related to the idea of 'transitional realism.' He also labeled his work 'Supranaturalism,' which referred to the eclipsing and supernatural essence at the heart of his painting. But that term had already been used by nineteenth century German philosophers, so Malevich ultimately rejected it. By the fall of 1915, he concluded "Suprematism is the most appropriate name, for it signifies supremacy." This eventually became the name of the new avant-garde group spearheaded by Malevich and inspired the title of the journal that they were planning, Supremus. As Nina Gurianova tells us, "it is interesting to note that Malevich emphasized the Latin etymology of this word: in his manuscripts, it rarely occurs in Cyrillic, but for the most part is written in Latin letters." (N. Gurianova, Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, (op. cit.), p. 48).
The genesis of Suprematist painting was preceded by Malevich's experiences as a young artist of the fledgling Russian avant-garde. In 1907 he took part in the exhibition organized by the Association of Moscow Artists with notables such as Vasily Kandinsky and Mikhail Larionov, and was later invited by Larionov to join the newly formed exhibition group, Target, in 1913. Target was influenced by Cubist and Futurist art, and also incorporated Larionov's new, almost non-objective concept named Rayism (Luchizm) which appealed to Malevich's proto-Suprematist sensibilities. After the demise of Target around 1914, Malevich became a leading member of the Russian Futurist group of artists, writers and poets, and began taking bolder steps with his painting. By the spring and summer of 1915, he finally discarded all reference to figuration in favor of colored, unadorned geometric shapes on a white background and painted strikingly reductive compositions. The artist wrote a lengthy treatise about these paintings entitled "From Cubism to Suprematism in Art" to accompany the exhibition "The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings: 0.10" in Petrograd. The "Suprematist Manifesto," as this text is commonly known, was later reprinted in Moscow in 1916 and titled "From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism. The New Realism in Painting." In it, Malevich described his vision of art in the age of modernity:
"The artist can be creator only when forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature. For art is the ability to construct, not on the interrelation of form and colour, and not on an aesthetic basis of beauty in composition, but on the basis of weight, speed and the direction of movement. Forms must be given life and the right to individual existence" (K. Malevich, op. cit., p. 175).
Malevich's text stated in no uncertain terms his exaltation for non-objective art. In the recent retrospective on the artist's work, Matthew Druitt emphasized the cataclysmic impact that the artist hoped his new aesthetic would have on the future of painting: "With the single-mindedness of a missionary or a prophet, Malevich spent nearly fifteen years of his career espousing the aesthetic and moral superiority of a system of abstract art he termed Suprematism. A complete departure from any pictorial method theretofore recognized in art, Suprematism was characterized by Malevich as 'that end and beginning where sensations are uncovered, where art emerges "as such."' He adopted many guises in the service of this new art, from teacher and administrator to theorist and aesthete, all fashioned to bring about a sea of change in the way people thought about art and its impact upon the world around them" (M. Druitt, Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, (op. cit.), p. 17).
Unlike the Russian-born artists Soutine and Chagall who left their native country in search of artistic inspiration in France, Malevich remained in Russia during the critical period of transformation and revolution and was a key figure in the revival of Russian art and culture during this period. Born in the Ukraine in 1878, he studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1905 and remained in that city throughout the 1910s. His early paintings from 1910-13 were not without reference to the French avant-garde, and incorporated a variation of the Cubist aesthetic made popular by Picasso and Braque. But as his painting developed, Malevich began reinterpreting the styles of Cubism, as well as Italian Futurism, and devised an artistic philosophy that was decidedly his own. His Suprematist paintings revered the beauty of speed that had been championed by Futurism and Cubism's fragmenting of objects. In contrast to these two movements, Suprematism rejected the idea of objective representation and eliminated any references to nature. "I have transformed myself in the zero of form and dragged myself out of the rubbish filled pool of Academic art...." (K. Malevich, op. cit., p. 166). This was the credo that governed Malevich's compositions of this era, and would later be regarded as one of the most radical pronouncements of early twentieth century artistic theory.
The international breakthrough of Malevich's career did not occur until the seminal 1927 exhibition, Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, in which Suprematist Composition was featured alongside seventy other of the artist's works. According to Matthew Druitt, "No other Russian artist, not even Kandinsky, who had been celebrated in Germany long before Malevich, had ever received such distinguished attention.... The exhibition became the defining moment in Malevich's career in terms of the reception of his work in the West, not just at the time, but subsequently also; as it turns out, the works shown would become, outside Russia, the primary source of knowledge of Malevich's oeuvre for the next fifty years" (M. Druitt, Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, op. cit., pp. 21-22). In archival photographs of that exhibition and of a dinner organized for the Warsaw exhibition that same year, we can see this picture hanging on the walls. In Berlin, it appears in an orientation that is upside-down in comparison to how it appears in Warsaw. Malevich was evidently not concerned with the physical orientation of his pictures and allowed his works to redefine themselves depending upon how they were hung. When the original works included in the Berlin exhibition was re-assembled in 1973, the artist Donald Judd made the following conclusion about Malevich, his non-objective painting and his legacy: "It's obvious now that the forms and colors in the paintings that Malevich began painting in 1915 are the first instances of form and color .... His work is more radical than Mondrian's, for example, which has a considerable idealistic quality and which ultimately has an anthropomorphic, if 'abstract', composition of high and low, right and left. Art doesn't change in sequence. By now there is work and controversy many times over within the context of Malevich established" (D. Judd, reprinted in ibid. pp. 22-23).
The effect that Malevich's art had on future generations of artists cannot be understated. Unlike the pictures of his fellow Russian artist Kandinsky, whose pre-war oils were embellished with flurries of abstraction, Malevich's pictures have an unadulterated linearity and precision that was a major precursor of abstraction in the second half of the twentieth century. Mark Rothko, Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd can all trace the origins of their work to Malevich's sublimely pared-down shapes, bold color and non-objective themes. Suprematist Composition, with its vibrancy and lyricism, transcend its historical frame of reference, earning the status of a timeless classic.
Looking towards the future, Malevich himself knew of the great impact that his Suprematist philosophy would have on the development of modern aesthetics and artistic theory: "Our world of art has become new, non-objective, pure. Everything has vanished, there remains a mass of material, from which the new forms will be built. In the art of Suprematism form will live, like all living forms of nature. These forms announce that man has gained his equilibrium by arriving from a state of single reasoning at one of double reasoning. Utilitarian reasoning and intuitive reasoning. The new realism in painting is very much realism in painting for it contains no realism of mountains, sky, water... Until now there was realism of objects, but not of painted units of color which are constructed so that they depend neither on form, nor on colour nor on their position relative to each other. Each form is free and individual. Each form is a world" (K. Malevich, op. cit., p. 174). Suprematist Composition, which encapsulates these very concepts, puts forth an image of this spectacular new world.
Oil on canvas
Moscow, Salles de B. Dmitrovka, 16th State exhibition, Kazimir Malevich: His way from Impressionism to Suprematism, 1919-20
Warsaw, Hotel Polonia, Malevich, 1927
Berlin, Lehrter Bahnhof, Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, Malevich, 1927, no. 42
Braunschweig, Kunstverein, Haus Salve Hospes, Malevich, 1958, no. 25
Brussels, Palais International des Beaux-Arts, 50 ans d'art moderne, 1958, no. 192
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Braunschweig, Kunstverein; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Malevich, 1957-62, no. 25, illustrated in the catalogue
Bern, Kunsthalle, Malevich, Pougny, Lissitzky & Mansurov, 1959, no. 25
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna; London, Whitechapel Gallery & Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum, Malevich, 1959, no. 25, illustrated in the catalogue
Turin, Da Boldini a Pollack. Pittura e scultura del XX secolo. Mostra della Moda, Stile, Costume, 1961, no. 80, illustrated in the catalogue
Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam besöker Moderna Museet Stockholm, 1961-62, no. 72
Hannover, Kunstverein, Die zwanziger Jahre in Hannover, 1962, no. J2, illustrated in the catalogue
Willemstad, Curaçao Museum, Pioneers. 50 meesterwerken/masterpieces, 1962, no. 35
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, The Classic Spirit in 20th Century Art, 1964, no. 12, illustrated in the catalogue
Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Inner and Outer Space, 1965-66, no. 17
Frankfurt-am-Main, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Konstruktive Malerei, 1915-1930, 1965-66, no. 7
Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim; New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum & Houston, The Menil Collection, Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, 2003-04, illustrated in color in the catalogue (as dating from 1916)
34 7/8 by 28 in. 88.5 by 71 cm
Margot Aschenbrenner, "Farben und Formen im Werk von Kasimir Malewitsch, 1878-1935," Quadrum IV, Brussels, 1957, pp. 102-04
Troels Andersen, Malevich, Amsterdam, 1970, no. 60, illustrated p. 96 and illustrated in color p. 74 (as dating from 1916)
Kasimir Malewitsch (exhibition catalogue), Galerie Gmurzynska, Cologne, 1978, featured in an in situ photograph p. 265
Larissa A. Zhadova, Malevich, Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art, 1910-1930, New York, 1982, no. 54, illustrated in color pl. 54 and featured in an in situ photograph
Jean-Claude Marcadé, Malevitch, Paris, 1990, illustrated in color p. 162
Kazimir Malevich (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; The Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Culture Center, Los Angeles & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, featured in an in situ photograph p. 25
Rainer Crone & David Moos, Kazimir Malevich, The Climax of Disclosure, Chicago, 1991, featured in an in situ photographs pp. 201, 203 & 204
Serve Fauchereau, Malevich, New York, 1992, illustrated in color pl. 43 (as dating from 1916)
Kazimir Malevich, Una retrospettiva (exhibition catalogue), Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, 1993, featured in an in situ photograph p. 47
Andréi Nakov, Kazimir Malevicz, Catalogue Raisonné, Paris, 2002, no. S-97. illustrated p. 201 (as dating from 1915 and with incorrect measurements)
Andréi Nakov, Kazimir Malevicz, Le peintre absolu, vol. 2, Paris, 2006, illustrated in color p. 99 (as dating from 1915 and with incorrect measurements)
Thence by descent to the artist's heirs