Malevich, Kazimir (1879–1935)

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Abstract painter.

Kazimir Malevich was born in Kiev on 11 February Old Style (23 February New Style) 1879 and died in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on 15 May 1935. Although he was of Polish extraction and was born and brought up in Ukraine, Malevich's artistic career was centered in Russia. Above all, he is associated with the innovative Russian artists of the 1910s and 1920s; he became one of the leaders of the avant-garde and emerged as an important pioneer of abstract painting with his invention of suprematism in 1915. After socialist realism was imposed in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, Malevich's work tended not to be shown or mentioned publicly in his homeland. In the West, however, from the 1950s onward, it provided inspiration for numerous artistic developments, including minimalism.

The only professional training Malevich seems to have received was at the private school run by Fedor Rerberg (1865–1938) in Moscow, which he attended intermittently from 1907 to 1910. Malevich's early output was eclectic, including impressionism (e.g., Portrait of a Member of the Artist's Family, 1906); postimpressionism (The Church, early 1900s); art nouveau (Relaxation: Society in Top Hats, 1908); and symbolism (Self-Portrait, 1907). In 1907 he showed his works at the fourteenth exhibition of the Moscow Society of Artists, where he may have met Natalya Goncharova (1881–1962) and Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964), who also contributed to the show.

Three years later, in 1910, Larionov invited Malevich to join the innovative Knave of Diamonds (also called "Jack of Diamonds") group. When Larionov rejected the group's Cézannist approach and developed a more stridently neoprimitivist idiom, Malevich followed suit. As shown at the Donkey's Tail exhibition in 1912, neoprimitivism sought to produce a distinctively Russian style by combining the inventions of Western painting, especially fauvism's emphasis on the plane and the use of arbitrary and expressive color, with the bold use of line and the naive quality of archaic Russian art forms such as the icon and the lubok, or popular print (e.g., The Bather, 1911, and Chiropodist at the Baths, 1912).

By 1913 Malevich's experiments with cubism and futurism had produced works such as Harvest/Bringing in the Rye (1912); Woman with Buckets II(1912); and the more dynamic and fragmented Knife Grinder: Principle of Flickering (1912–1913). From this time onward Malevich became more closely associated with the Union of Youth in St. Petersburg, through which he became acquainted with notions of the fourth dimension (as time, spatial construct, and elevated state of consciousness) and the literary theory of zaum, or the transrational, which proposed abandoning established linguistic structures based on logic and reason in pursuit of a universal language of irrational sounds. Such ideas became integrated with elements of cubism and futurism in Malevich's work, including the set and costumes he devised for the zaum opera Victory over the Sun, which opened in December 1913, and his alogist composition Cow and Violin (1914), in which he placed a figuratively painted, diminutive cow against a large violin, in the manner of cubist collage, subverting logic and pictorial convention and seemingly defying gravity. Exploring synthetic cubism further, Malevich produced what have been called alogic compositions, such as Lady at an Advertising Column (1914; sometimes called Woman at a Poster Column), which incorporated collage, lettering, fragmented forms, and large quadrilaterals of color.

In early summer 1915, Malevich developed suprematism, which consisted of geometric forms painted in bright, primary colors on white grounds. Launched publicly that December at the Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10, suprematism was firmly associated with the fourth dimension through the titles given to some of the works. At the same time, the placement of The Quadrilateral, better known as The Black Square (1915), in the holy corner (where the icon would normally hang in a Russian Orthodox home) stressed the metaphysical content of the new style. After the White on White paintings of 1918, and in response to Russia's October Revolution of 1917, Malevich applied suprematism to designs for propaganda items, ceramics, and fabrics, as well as prototypes for architectural structures.

During the 1920s, he also devoted himself to his theoretical and art historical work. After his trip to Warsaw and Berlin in 1927, perhaps in an attempt to meet the government's demand for an art that was comprehensible to the masses, Malevich returned to painting. He produced figurative works that retained a strong spiritual and abstract flavor (e.g., Sportsmen, 1931), as well as realist paintings (Portrait of Pavlov, 1933) and portraits recalling the early Renaissance (Self Portrait, 1933).

See alsoPainting, Avant-Garde .


Douglas, Charlotte. Kazimir Malevich. London, 1994.

Drutt, Matthew, ed. Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism. New York, 2003. A catalog for an exhibit at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that traveled to Berlin and elsewhere.

Kazimir Malevich 1878–1935. Amsterdam, 1988.

Malevich, Kazimir. Essays on Art. Edited by Troels Andersen . Translated by Xenia Glowacki-Prus and Arnold McMillin. 2 vols. Copenhagen, 1968; London, 1969–1970.

——. Unpublished Writings on Art. 2 vols. Copenhagen, 1978–1979.

Milner, John. Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry. London, 1996.

Petrova, Evgeniya, et al. Malevich: Artist and Theoretician. Translated by Sharon McKee. Paris, 1990.

Simmons, W. Sherwin. Kazimir Malevich's "Black Square" and the Genesis of Suprematism 1907–1915. New York, 1981.

Christina Lodder