Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism
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Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism

by Aleksandra Shatskikh

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Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square is one of the twentieth century's emblematic paintings, the visual manifestation of a new period in world artistic culture at its inception. None of Malevich’s contemporary revolutionaries created a manifesto, an emblem, as capacious and in its own way unique as this work; it became both the quintessence


Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square is one of the twentieth century's emblematic paintings, the visual manifestation of a new period in world artistic culture at its inception. None of Malevich’s contemporary revolutionaries created a manifesto, an emblem, as capacious and in its own way unique as this work; it became both the quintessence of the Russian avant-gardist's own art—which he called Suprematism—and a milestone on the highway of world art. Writing about this single painting, Aleksandra Shatskikh sheds new light on Malevich, the Suprematist movement, and the Russian avant-garde.

Malevich devoted his entire life to explicating Black Square's meanings. This process engendered a great legacy: the original abstract movement in painting and its theoretical grounding; philosophical treatises; architectural models; new art pedagogy; innovative approaches to theater, music, and poetry; and the creation of a new visual environment through the introduction of decorative applied designs. All of this together spoke to the tremendous potential for innovative shape and thought formation concentrated in Black Square.

To this day, many circumstances and events of the origins of Suprematism have remained obscure and have sprouted arbitrary interpretations and fictions. Close study of archival materials and testimonies of contemporaries synchronous to the events described has allowed this author to establish the true genesis of Suprematism and its principal painting.

Editorial Reviews

Slavic and East European Journal - Jason Strudler

"Black Square offers a productive critique of the artist’s numerous attempts to rewrite his biography and the history of Suprematism. One of the book’s most substantial contributions is its continuation of efforts by Charlotte Douglas, Andrei Nakov, and others to move away from Malevich’s intentionally inaccurate dating of his own works. . .Black Square also succeeds in its efforts to overturn traditional narratives about Malevich’s Suprematist period, as well as in its attempts to create new ones."—Jason Strudler, Vanderbilt University

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Yale University Press
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Copyright © 2012 Aleksandra Shatskikh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14089-7

Chapter One


Fevralism, Forerunner of Suprematism

Malevich's First Personal "Ism"

For many long decades it was believed that Kazimir Malevich's Black Square first appeared in 1913. The artist himself dated it to that year, and scholars trusted him implicitly.

We know that superstitious people consider the number thirteen unlucky, and as fate would have it, the thirteenth year of the twentieth century was indeed an unusual year for Russia. On the eve of its demise, the huge empire had achieved a prosperity unprecedented in its history. After the establishment of Soviet power and over the many decades of its ascendancy, the Soviet Union's successes would be compared with the level of development achieved by tsarist Russia in 1913.

The cultural life in the two capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow, conceded nothing in intensity to the economic surge. It was in this context that the Russian avant-garde came stormily into being.

It was a long way to all the later glorifications of the historical milestone of the prerevolutionary era, nonetheless Kazimir Malevich, as if having a presentiment of and predetermining the significance of 1913, persisted in dating his principal work to it.

By the end of the twentieth century, scholars had established the true date of the Suprematist monofigure's creation: 1915. However, detailed research into the circumstances of Black Square's appearance forces us to concede a certain validity to the artist's assertions. This shift in dates, which specialists have come to call "Malevich's mystification," in fact rested on a profound, albeit subjective truth. Black Square's biography had a prenatal period, which did indeed begin in 1913.

In 1913 Malevich had behind him participation in the exhibitions of the innovative Jack of Diamonds society, the creation of the canvases of his first peasant series, and the building of bridges with the radical Union of Youth in Petersburg. He was the co-author of an opera, Victory Over the Sun, one of the "Futurists' first productions for the theater in the world" (the other being the tragedy Vladimir Maiakovsky). The opera's text was written by Aleksei Kruchenykh (1886–1968), the prologue by Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922), and the music by Mikhail Matiushin (1861–1934); the set design was Malevich's. In essence, the production, created by opponents of tradition, put the durable traditions of the Gesamtkunstwerk into practice in a new way. Victory Over the Sun, which was performed twice in December 1913 in Petersburg, was a seminal event.

In accordance with the still dominant Romantic paradigm but strengthened by the newborn twentieth century's shared craving for renewal, the Russian avant-gardists felt they were demiurges and strove to create, if not a universally valid style, then an integral trend with developed artistic institutions: an association of colleagues with a shared ideological platform and a single name; the organization of exhibitions; the publication of journals; theatrical productions; educational lectures.

These ambitious aspirations found powerful support in the deep-rooted characteristics of the national mentality. Russian culture's mighty archetype, "communal truth," gave rise to collective forms of activity among artists as well. Russia had always favored those forms over individual efforts.

Yet another eternal dilemma of the Russian intelligentsia in matters of identification placed its stamp on the left-wing artists' worldview: which to prefer as a spiritual reference point, East or West, Asia or Europe? For example, Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964), a distinguished painter and leader of left-wing artists, pointedly ignored French Cubism.

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich—a Pole born in Ukraine who became a great Russian artist—by force of his origin and of having grown up in a multilingual environment, had a unique immunity to locking himself into any national framework; subsequently, sharing anarchism's ideological platform, he spoke out as a passionate opponent of national demarcations in all spheres of life. Malevich the artist's dimension was art as a whole; for him, French Cubism and Italian Futurism were but stages in an overall artistic process.

After his 1913 Petersburg presentations, the avant-gardist focused on crystallizing a movement intended to consolidate his supporters and reveal the originality of the country's art, its equality to European innovations. Suprematism, Malevich's epoch-making discovery, had a forerunner which later its originator ruthlessly erased from his own biography. It was called Fevralism.

This artistic phenomenon's existence has remained unknown to the present day. Malevich succeeded brilliantly in expunging his first personal "ism" by declaring his journey a straight line "from Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism." Fevralism's original features gradually emerged from detailed research into Malevich's works of the years 1914 and 1915 and analysis of his letters and the testimony of his contemporaries.

Fevralism's nature was exhaustively revealed during a study of the extensive archive assembled by authoritative literary scholar and connoisseur Nikolai Ivanovich Khardzhiev (1903–96). Pitilessly deformed by his difficult survival in Soviet society, to the end of his days Khardzhiev kept secret the manuscripts and documents he had acquired, without which it would have been impossible to reconstruct the full history of the Russian avant-garde. That portion of the archive which ultimately made its way into the Khardzhiev-Chaga Art Foundation under the aegis of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam allowed me to reconstruct Suprematism's real genesis without lacunae.

Fevralism had all the potential for constituting a serious contribution to the history of the Russian avant-garde as an independent movement. In it we find an original ideology and aesthetic platform declared in texts, an identifying name and emblematics, a circle of followers, albeit small, and also an entire stratum of works created by Fevralists with a clearly expressed stylistics.

Malevich needed a term, a banner, to define the vector of his own development and to consolidate his followers. He had always had a keen sense of the connection between signified and signifier; the new phenomenon had to be denoted by an appropriate word. The artist tried out the names "Cubo-Futurism," "Painting Alogism," and "Trans-Sense Realism," but none satisfied him. They lacked rigorous specifics and in addition were also being used for self-identification by many left-wing artists, from some of whom—especially David Burliuk (1882–1967) and his circle—Malevich the radical had decisively distanced himself in the mid-1910s, considering them eclectics and opportunists.

The word "Fevralism" appeared in the artist's lexicon soon after the December 1913 Futurist performances. It derived from the month when a fateful announcement was made: "On Febr[uary] 19, 1914, I rejected reason in a public lecture." This happened at a Jack of Diamonds debate at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, where Malevich and his associate, the painter Aleksei Alekseevich Morgunov (1884–1935), spoke. Both respondents had attached wooden spoons to their lapels; Malevich spoke in the first person about the subversion of reason, while Morgunov performed a ruffianish prank to show blatantly how to explode the rules set by that same reason. His speech began by insulting the previous speaker, an influential critic: "I have a stomachache from Tugendkhold's lecture, and he bored me, the fool. [...]" To avoid any bodily harm, the chairman immediately shut down the gathering. In the second half of the twentieth century, all this would have been a provocational happening.

This event gave Fevralism its name.

When this term became firmly fixed in Malevich's lexicon is not entirely clear. There is a gaping hole in the documents—primarily his letters to Matiushin—and events contemporary with his life at this time, there being no evidence from the period between March 5 and November 4, 1914. One thing is beyond a doubt, though. By fall 1914 Malevich was acutely aware of Fevralism's characteristics, which he recounted to Matiushin in detail during a visit to Petrograd that took place between November 5 and 24, 1914.

Fevralism's strategic goal was the total destruction of the dominant rational worldview, which, according to Malevich, had over the centuries merely proved its bankruptcy by creating laws and rules that were quickly declared erroneous, only to be replaced by new laws and rules, and so on ad infinitum. In addition, traditional art, such as is encouraged by "reason," merely duplicated and imitated reality's outward features and therefore was not art at all.

Fevralism's tactical weapons were absurdism and provocative attacks against generally accepted taboos, that is, the disgracing of reason and its focus on logical order and cause and effect. By definition, the struggle against reason had to take on reason-less, trans-sense forms. Beginning with Fevralism, the irrationalism and global aspirations of the movement Malevich initiated expanded its creative territory far beyond the bounds of painting.

Cubist and Futurist experiments bestowed on the Russian artist freedom to work with the picture plane and an understanding of the artist's complete power over it. Cubism, while exploding traditions, remained wholly inside the plastic arts, and its creators were primarily elitist painters; as we know, they never retreated from the traditional genres of portrait, landscape, still life, and compositions that synthesized these genres, although they carried out a cardinal renewal of the plastic language.

Futurism harbored creative aspirations akin to the Russian mentality in all vital spheres, but Malevich had other claims against the Italian artists. In his opinion, the Italians' Futurist painting also obeyed all kinds of conventions, being wholly connected to visual, and hence naturalistic, effects. As we know, F. T. Marinetti (1876–1944), the Futurists' leader, took up arms against subjectivism and individualistic emotion; however, one of Italian Futurist painting's foundations was the "state of the soul." Malevich found this, too, utterly unacceptable because the "state of the soul" merely led the artist toward "sincerity," whereas what art needed was "truth," which is independent of psychological experiences: "What art needs is truth, not sincerity," as he later formulated so succinctly.

Fevralism's Painterly Manifesto: Cow and Violin (1915)

The initial sphere of material embodiment for Malevich the artist had always been painting; it was here that he demonstrated and reinforced the nature of Fevralism, distinguishing it from other European "isms." Now considered among his Fevralist works are the well-known Englishman in Moscow (SMA), Aviator (GRM), Composition with Mona Lisa (GRM), and other canvases created in the second half of 1914 and the first few months of 1915.

At first glance, Malevich used a specifically interpreted collage technique in them, "pasting onto" the surface independent, separate, painted images and their fragments. However, the paintings do not bear even a trace of the textural embellishments characteristic of the French masters' classic collages, which move into three-dimensional space. Nor is there any question here of any Italian-style dynamic whatsoever, any fixation on the force lines of movement. The Moscow avant-gardist's painting is intentionally poor and harsh. Fevralism marked the beginning of Malevich's tireless battle against art's "aestheticism" and "beauty." His compositions were aimed primarily at a semantic comparison and contrast of specific painterly "nouns." He believed that recognizable figures and objects and their details frustrated the viewer with the mocking meaning-lessness of their disposition.

The artist turned his Fevralist canvases into "montages of attractions," to use the later and more capacious expression of film director Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948). At the same time, the front-facing "aviator" and "Englishman" had a solemn representational quality that brought them closer to icons and folk art signboards. Indisputable as well was the fact that they belonged to a still common genre structure; they were a special kind of formal portrait.

Fevralism's policy manifesto was a small picture in which the objective world's muddled "turmoil and jumble" (Malevich's expression) were jumbled into a laconic but multidimensional statement. Cow and Violin was drawn on a wooden shelf taken from a broken-down bookcase, as is obvious from the round openings in the corners for attaching stanchions; the poor artist did not always have money for canvas and stretchers.

In dating this picture, Malevich seems to have been rehearsing the shift in dates that he used subsequently with such success for creating his own conceptual biography. As has already been said, to the end of his days, he persistently dated Black Square to 1913. Unlike Black Square, though, whose date now diverges from Malevich's, the wooden Cow and Violin has to the present day been dated to 1913, following the artist.

In fact, the picture was made in early 1915. Left-wing artists were drawing works specifically for exhibitions, inasmuch as this was their sole opportunity to present their art in public. Cow and Violin appeared for the first time at "Tramway V: The First Futurist Exhibition," which opened on March 3, 1915, in Petrograd. Its title is not in the catalog, but it was reproduced along with his Aviator canvas in the tenth issue of Theater and Art (Teatr i iskusstvo), a Petrograd journal, announcing the Futurists' current undertaking, with a caption, "View from the balcony."

The next public appearance of Cow and Violin was in March 1916, at the "Store" exhibition in Moscow organized by Vladimir Yevgrafovich Tatlin (1885–1953). Colleague Tatlin forbade colleague Malevich from exhibiting Suprematist works, and this repressive act, the reasons for which we will discuss below, played a positive role in the painting's fate. It appeared before viewers under its own name, with the warning "Painting Alogism" and the artist's date of 1913, which abides to this day in art history.

At one point Khardzhiev said the picture was created in 1915, not 1913: "In March 1916 Englishman [...] and Aviator were exhibited at the Moscow Futurist exhibition 'Store,' where it was incorrectly dated 1913. In the 'Store' catalog Cow and Violin, which was created in the first half of 1915, was dated the same way."

The leading expert did not like to reveal the documentary sources for his assertions; he gleaned many but not all his facts from the hidden treasures of his assembled archive. As a younger contemporary of the avant-gardists, Khardzhiev had acquired quite a lot of information from personal contact with them.

However, Khardzhiev's words were discounted. Moreover, commentators on the Russian edition of his works felt they could correct the expert, and without any explanation whatsoever change the date he indicated to the commonly accepted one without paying any attention to the nonsense that resulted from their ignorant editing.

This detailed elucidation of the true chronology of the creation of Cow and Violin is necessitated by the fact that in it Malevich, as has already been mentioned, rehearsed his future arbitrary construction of his own biography through the "correct" dating of program paintings. He intended that Cow and Violin be designated the beginning of trans-sense painting. In fact, the painting was absurdist Fevralism's crown, not its source, and its declarative nature was the result of his thoroughgoing comprehension by spring 1915 of Fevralism's more than painterly potential. Malevich had brought to life the Budetlyane formula of Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov's "worldbackwards";9 he had succeeded at turning time back—placing the end at the beginning—and his version of his own forward development was accepted as actual fact. (Budetlyane [Futurists] and its singular, Budetlyanin [Futurist], derived from budet, meaning "will be," were the terms many Russian artists of that movement preferred.)

The Fevralist manifesto was not only a "slap in the face of public taste" for the philistine public but also a challenge to Europe's innovative art. Cubism's lawgivers, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963), more than likely would not have understood the Moscow painter's picture, at best considering it a belated barbarian mangling of Cubist devices. Today, in the introduction of "low" and "vulgar" materials in the form of words and letters from signboards, fragments of actual newspapers speaking to their political engagement, and so forth, scholars see Cubism's classics penetrating and merging with life. However, the Cubists subordinated the inclusion of these kinds of "extraneous" phenomena into their works primarily to the laws of plasticity, that is, to the new artistic aesthetic. Malevich the radical did not care about aesthetics—refined couplings of textures and the fine harmonization of meager color scales, keen and "savory" in their crudeness. In contrast to the Cubists' still lifes, Malevich's "hunks of wood" cannot be assigned to an unambiguous genre.


Excerpted from BLACK SQUARE by ALEKSANDRA SHATSKIKH Copyright © 2012 by Aleksandra Shatskikh. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Aleksandra Shatskikh is an art historian and a world authority on the Russian avant-garde.

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