Obliteration and Affirmation: The Language of Suprematism in Malevich

Following the First World War, the prevailing modernist trend in art underwent a startling transformation. While it initially appeared that painting was traveling along a teleological path towards abstraction, the post-war years saw a widespread return to the conventions of figurative painting. The Russian avant-garde was by no means immune to this change. Russian art’s metamorphosis from the 1920s into the 1930s was in many respects a caricature of the overall trend: while the radical geometric shapes of Suprematism and the utilitarian objects of Constructivism were by all counts the established Russian art form into the 1920s, the rise of Josef Stalin saw a complete overthrow of the modernist tradition in favor of the pastel colors and smiling faces of Socialist Realism. Given the ideological fervor and fatalistic language of the Russian avant-garde, the shift is nothing short of bewildering. 

At the heart of this shift is Kazimir Malevich. Malevich, whose “Black Square” brought on the flourishing of the Russian avant-garde, in many ways invented the Suprematist, defamiliarizing, nonobjective visual language that would come to define post-revolutionary Russian art. Given his central role in establishing the Russian avant-garde, Malevich’s strange return to figurative painting in the late 1920s with his second “peasant cycle” and his impressionistic portraits can be seen as a microcosm of the greater trend towards Socialist Realism. When one observes the trajectory of Malevich’s oeuvre, it is easy to characterize his return to figuration—what he would call “objective” painting—as regressive. When Malevich unveiled his startlingly austere canvases in the 0.10 exhibition of 1915, he articulated along with them a new, apparently absolute artistic ideology, what he called “Suprematism.” The visual principles of Suprematism were strict and highly specific: flat, geometric forms, entirely removed from any referent, presented on a white background.  By “atomizing” the traditional picture and presenting the viewer with monochrome planes of color devoid of any objective reference, Malevich claimed to have reduced painting to its first principles, creating “the new realism.”[1] This essentially teleological language—language that prefigured the vitriolic, anti-bourgeois rhetoric of the Constructivists—makes Malevich’s eventual abandonment of Suprematism in favor of figurative painting somewhat hard to stomach. Indeed, Malevich’s later work was met with harsh criticism in his time.[2]

Yet to write off Malevich’s later period as regressive is unproductive at best, at worst entirely myopic. In order for Malevich’s post-Suprematist work to qualify as regressive, it would have to demonstrate both a reversion to the Cubo-Futurist style of his earlier work and a wholesale rejection of his Suprematist ideals. This, however, is far from the case: in his later peasant portraiture and “retrospective impressionism,” one can detect a union between the formal innovation of his Suprematist canvases and the rural, distinctly human subject matter of his earlier peasant portraiture. Regardless of the exact causes of the dramatic shift,—which are no doubt many and multifarious—Malevich’s return to figurative painting constitutes not a complete reformulation of his artistic ideology but a repurposing of established Suprematist ideals. With Suprematism, Malevich invented a distinct iconography, a symbolic system in which forms, colors, and spatial relationships are given their own distinct meaning. By applying the visual language of Suprematism within a figurative, generally human framework, Malevich put Suprematist theory into practice. The result is a series of emotionally complex images that communicate a mounting disillusionment with emerging Soviet realities—forced collectivization, widespread famine, and state control.

Given the abruptness of Malevich’s return to figurative painting in the late 1920s, much scrutiny has been devoted to the circumstances surrounding the shift. A number of explanations have emerged as to what exactly caused Malevich to “reconsider” his aesthetic. Some suggest that the shift was simply necessary for Malevich’s survival as an artist: the rise of Stalinism, with its intolerance of the avant-garde, must have left little room for Malevich to experiment with abstraction during the late 1920s.[3] Yet even if Malevich’s return to figurative painting involved a compromise with the political forces of Stalinism, it remains unclear whether or not Malevich himself was vehemently opposed to the shift. By the time Malevich returned to figurative painting in the late 1920s, he had not been painting anything, let alone Suprematist canvases, for a number of years. Instead, he had taken up a series of teaching positions following the 1917 Revolution and travelled to Warsaw, Berlin, and Munich. It seems that in using Suprematism as a teaching tool, he regarded it not as the new, teleological and exclusive mode of painting, but as a pedagogic method with which the artist could reduce painting to its first principles. As K. I. Rozhdestvensky, a student of Malevich’s, described: “The first phase of [Malevich’s] pedagogy was a purification from all influences. The task was to achieve a pure painterly culture and to bring into it additional elements. At that time it was important, since we had very many influences from all sides.”[4] It appears, then, that Suprematism may have simply been to Malevich a process of purification—not the end of art, but a reduction of painting to its state of nature so that it might start anew.

It may be impossible to deduce the exact cause of Malevich’s return to traditional modes of painting. It is likely that the shift involved an inescapable compromise with the Russian state’s ever-growing intolerance of the avant-garde. However, as his teaching method suggests, Malevich may not have objected to the application of Suprematist ideology within a more traditional framework, such as landscape or portraiture. In any case, searching for a cause for Malevich’s perplexing decision does not seem entirely lucrative, and may even prove futile. The real investigation thus lies in the question of coherence: Are Malevich’s two periods at all reconcilable with each other? Can one extract any threads of continuity between Malevich’s Suprematist canvasses and the work of his later period? If so, what is the meaning located therein?

Malevich’s later work can be separated into two distinct categories: first, his peasant cycle, in which mysterious, often featureless peasant figures stand motionless in front of rolling Suprematist landscapes; and second, his impressionistic, Renaissance-inspired portraiture. While the two categories are strikingly different (in fact, it often seems difficult to reconcile even these two periods with each other), they both draw on Suprematist iconography to generate complex layers of emotion and meaning. Taken together, the two groups stand as an articulation of Malevich’s growing disillusionment with the oppression of Stalinism. In this sense, there is in fact a strong continuity between Malevich’s Suprematist period and his return to figurative painting. 

Malevich’s late peasant portraiture is rife with double meanings. Superficially, each canvas seems to present the peasant as a heroic figure, to glorify the every day and rejoice in the victory of Communism—much in keeping with the tropes of Socialist Realism. However, beneath this apparent optimism runs a strong undercurrent of longing, suffering, and despair. Quite notably, Malevich generates this subtext by way of engaging with the optimism of Socialist Realism: by taking the propagandistic visual language of Socialist Realism to its extreme, he exposes the inherent absurdity and consequent oppressiveness of the Stalinist agenda. Crucial to this bait-and-switch is his manipulation of his pre-established Suprematist iconography.

 

Suprematism, 1917-18. Oil on canvas.  106 x 70.5 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/suprematic-painting-1918.

Suprematism, 1917-18. Oil on canvas.
106 x 70.5 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/suprematic-painting-1918.

Complex Presentiment, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 99 x 79 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/bad-premonition.

Complex Presentiment, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 99 x 79 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/bad-premonition.

 

 

                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take, for example, Complex Presentiment, painted between 1928 and 1932. Here, one of Malevich’s characteristic featureless peasants stands upright and motionless in front of a sprawling landscape. The application of Suprematist techniques—namely, large, flat planes of primary color—contributes to a certain sense of universalism. Because Malevich regarded his Suprematist forms as first principles, or universals, his use of them here to articulate the form of the peasant and the surrounding landscape rid the scene of all specificity. In this way, Malevich offers the viewer an image of the universal peasant in a universal environment.[5] This strong universalism is further articulated by the featurelessness of the peasant and the rigidity of the torso: in some sense, Malevich presents the viewer with a metaphysical portrait of the Russian peasant. Confronted with a faceless figure, the viewer is compelled to project his own face onto the blank slate he finds before him, to take up the role of the peasant. The peasant could be anyone. This universalism, as articulated by Malevich’s distinctly Suprematist visual language, coincides with the iconography of Socialist Realism, which concerned itself with the glorification of universal stereotypes: the athlete, the shock worker, the peasant, and so on.[6] By presenting the viewer with a blank, universal figure, Malevich has taken the stereotype to its logical extreme: he has painted the consummate Soviet peasant. There is nothing individual or distinctive about the figure; he is the every-man, the realization of the Soviet dream.

Yet, under scrutiny, this apparent optimism gives way to despair. By vehemently universalizing the figure of the peasant, Malevich strips him of all humanity. His rigid stance and his smooth, featureless face essentially commodify him—he becomes little more than a figurine, a puppet.[7] The land he stands on is bare, unintelligible, and bizarre; the Suprematist house in the background appears cold, uninviting, and prisonlike.[8] During his Suprematist period, Malevich was careful to distinguish white from blue in its ability to suggest infinite, empty space. The former indicated unboundedness, allowing the viewer to conceptualize the infinite.[9] From an optimistic stance, Malevich’s use of white thus seems to indicate the infinite potential located within the peasant. However, if one is to take a more pessimistic standpoint, the white begins to suggest a void, oblivion. The yellow paint on the peasant’s torso, applied ostensibly to create volume, begins to resemble one of Malevich’s Suprematist forms dissipating into nothingness (compare Complex Presentiment with Suprematism above). A more human reading of the painting almost inevitably subscribes this latter, pessimistic interpretation. Malevich presents the viewer with a figure devoid of flesh, a corpse-like peasant. What is so powerful about this result is that hopelessness and despair emerge quite naturally from Malevich’s extreme visualization of the Soviet dream: by reducing the peasant to a universal figure, Malevich has created a cold, lifeless figurine. Given the actual plight of the peasants under the Stalinist program of forced collectivization—a plight that Malevich, who often self-identified as a peasant, must have been aware of and sympathetic towards—this implication becomes all the more poignant.[10]

 

Girls in the Field, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 106 x 125 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/girls-in-the-fields-1932.

Girls in the Field, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 106 x 125 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/girls-in-the-fields-1932.

Peasant, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 120 x 100 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/peasant-1932.

Peasant, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 120 x 100 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/peasant-1932.

            

           

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This reductio ad absurdum of Soviet iconography forms a common thread that runs throughout Malevich’s second peasant cycle.[11] In Girls in the Field, Malevich pushes the de-individualization of the peasant even further. Aside from coloration, none of the three girls display any defining characteristics.[12] The three figures stand on the same plane; in the same, inactive stance. Here, Malevich pushes his use of white to define the figure to its extreme. The color on the peasants’ torsos entirely fails to convey a sense of volume. The forms are left empty, hollow. The girl on the far left, perhaps the best example of this effect, appears in places as merely the outline of a figure. The individual seems to have been cut out of the painting by the hand of a censor.[13]

Here one should also note two tropes that, though absent from Complex Presentiment, are near staples within Malevich’s second peasant cycle: first, a reliance on cross-like perspective; and second, an emphasis on the emptiness of the inactivity of the peasants’ hands. In Girls in the Field, as in many of Malevich’s peasant portraits, the three figures stand pressed up against the picture plane with the landscape unfolding behind them towards a high horizon line. The result is a clear “cross” shape.[14] This compositional detail alone contains some of the same double-meanings as Malevich’s engagement with Socialist iconography. Is one to take the cross to signify the peasant’s messianic power, or his crucifixion? Second, the painting displays Malevich’s interest in gesticulation—or rather, the lack thereof. Here, the girls stand with their hands hanging empty and inactive at their sides. This small detail constitutes a major departure from Malevich’s pre-Suprematist peasant portraiture, in which peasants were nearly always depicted in action, with tools in hand. Their limp hands seem to suggest impotence, furthering the concept of the peasant as a puppet or corpse.

The despair that lurks below the surface of Girls in the Field and Complex Presentiment comes to a head in Peasant. Here, the thick impasto brushwork that Malevich uses to describe the peasant’s beard and clothes only emphasizes the complete void that is the peasant’s face. The figure, instead of representing an optimistic vision of the “ideal” peasant, becomes a haunting monstrosity. The peasant’s limp, hollow gesture, directed at nothing in particular, invites the viewer to gaze upon the barren land, the emptiness that has come to define the peasant’s life.

In nearly all of his late peasant portraiture, Malevich’s extreme engagement with the visual language of Soviet realism—an emphasis on the universal over the individual—seeks to expose its inherent absurdity, dehumanizing potential, and ultimately tragic consequences. Crucial to this visual exposé of Stalinism is Malevich’s reliance on a distinctly Suprematist visual language. Thus, the often powerful meaning that emerges from Malevich’s peasant portraits is entirely dependent on a kind of continuity between his Suprematist period and his return to figuration.

 

Female Worker, 1933. Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 59.8 cm. From http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/worker-1933.

Female Worker, 1933. Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 59.8 cm. From http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/worker-1933.

Self-Portrait, 1933. Oil on canvas, 73 x 66 cm. From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/self-portrait-1933.

Self-Portrait, 1933. Oil on canvas, 73 x 66 cm. From:
http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/self-portrait-1933.

           

               

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Malevich’s late peasant cycle sought to explore the Soviet infatuation with the collective and the universal, his final series of paintings–impressionistic portraits composed in a manner reminiscent of Renaissance paintings–sought to reject it. In these paintings, Malevich portrays the triumph of the individual over the de-individualizing forces of universals. Again, Malevich’s use of his pre-established Suprematist iconography is absolutely essential in understanding this shift.

In both Female Worker and Self-Portrait, Malevich abandons white as the primary descriptor of the human form and returns enthusiastically to flesh tones. He fills the female worker’s face with rich coloration—her cheeks are rosy, and her lips are red. The result is not simply a subject with a definite sense of volume but a subject with life. Her veins bulge out of her thick, strong arms; one can almost feel the blood coursing through her body and the breath passing through her parted lips. Her substantive arms and lively visage stand out from the rest of the canvas, emerging out of flat, almost abstract planes of color. Her distinct face and figure thus assert themselves over the universal, Suprematist forms that constitute the rest of the painting. In this way, she is the opposite of the faceless peasant: she is an individual. Unlike the limp, largely gestureless hands of the peasants, the woman holds her hands upward, apparently caught in the act of raising them. The gesture is generative and assertive, suggesting a unique sense of human agency. 

Malevich’s Self-Portrait, composed soon after he learned that he was suffering from a terminal illness, constitutes the apotheosis of this affirmation of the individual. First, the very concept of a self-portrait runs contrary to the extreme universalization that Malevich engaged with when painting his peasant portraits: it is in many ways the ultimate declaration of the self. This self assertion is only amplified by Malevich’s choice to present himself as a Renaissance artist: he has become the ultimate individual, a man of great acts and extreme creative power. Here, as in Female worker, Malevich’s face competes with and emerges out of universal Suprematist forms—the flat planes of color that constitute his hat and collar—ultimately asserting itself over them. His hand is turned upward, his palm open. The gesture, like that of the female worker, exudes a certain sense of power: it resembles the outreaching palm of Lenin in a number of memorials.[15] Finally, in the lower right corner of the canvas, Malevich leaves his signature: not his name, but a small black square. The artist thus merges with his most famous work and, more generally, with the act of painting itself.[16] This constitutes a strong form of individualism: Malevich is defining himself by a unique and powerful act. Thus, where Malevich used the language of Suprematism to expose the tragic consequences of the extreme Stalinist universalization in his peasant portraiture, he uses it here to showcase the individual.

At first glance, Malevich’s return to figuration may appear as nothing short of perplexing. However, Malevich’s continued reliance on a certain Suprematist iconography in order to convey meaning generates a strong sense of continuity. Malevich’s late work thus constitutes not a complete departure but a kind of Hegelian synthesis, a union between the objective and the non-objective, a practical application of Suprematist theory to figurative painting. Malevich’s about-face, bewildering yet ultimately reconcilable, thus exposes the mistake that was the teleological language surrounding abstraction in the early 20th century. “Black Square,” which can be read as the apotheosis of the entire project of abstraction, thus did not put an end to conventional painting. If anything, Malevich’s experimentation with Suprematism ultimately bolstered his later figurative work, inherently reflective rather than regressive. Time and time again, Malevich demonstrates that that the gaze of art is not directed forward towards an end, simultaneously arriving at a critical realization: art can progress only by looking inward.

Oliver Preston (’16) is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.

Bibliography

Basner, Elena. “Malevich’s Paintings in the Collection of the Russian Museum (The Matter of             the Artist’s Creative Evolution).” In Kazimir Malevich in the Russian Museum. Edited by            Yevgenia Petrova. St. Petersburg: State Russian Museum, 2000.

Bois, Yve-Alain. “Lissitzky, Malevich, and the Question of Space.” Suprematisme: Galerie Jean             Chauvelin, 25 October 1977–25 December 1977. Paris: La Galerie.

Katsnelson, Anna Wexler. “My Leader, My Self? Pictorial Estrangement and Aesopian             Language in the Late Work of Kazimir Malevich.” Poetics Today 27, no. 1. Spring             2006: 67–96.  Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.

Malevich, Kazimir. “Futurism-Suprematism, 1921: An Extract.” In Kazimir Malevich: 1878–1935. Edited by Jeanne D’Andrea. Los Angeles: Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 1990.

Sarabianov, Dmitry. “Malevich at the Time of the ‘Great Break’.” In Malevich: Artist and             Theoretician. Paris: Flammarion, 1991. 

Soulter, Gerry. Malevich: Journey to Infinity. New York: Parkstone Press International, 2008.

Images 

Complex Presentiment, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 99 x 79 cm. From:

            http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/bad-premonition. 

Female Worker, 1933. Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 59.8 cm.

            From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/worker-1933. 

Girls in the Field, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 106 x 125 cm. From:

            http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/girls-in-the-fields-1932. 

Peasant, 1928-32. Oil on canvas. 120 x 100 cm. From:

            http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/peasant-1932.

Suprematism, 1917-18. Oil on canvas. 106 x 70.5 cm. From:

            http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/suprematic-painting-1918.

Self-Portrait, 1933. Oil on canvas, 73 x 66 cm.

            From: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/kazimir-malevich/self-portrait-1933

 


[1] Kazimir Malevich, “Futurism-Suprematism, 1921: An Extract,” in Kazimir Malevich: 1878–1935, ed. Jeanne D’Andrea, Los Angeles: Armand Hammer Museum of Art, 1990, 177-178. 

[2] Gerry Soulter, Malevich: Journey to Infinity, New York: Parkstone Press International, 2008, 189.

[3] Anna Wexler Katsnelson, “My Leader, My Self? Pictorial Estrangement and Aesopian Language in the Late Work of Kazimir Malevich,” Poetics Today 27, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 67-96, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 27, 2013), 70.

[4] Soulter., 197.

[5] Dmitry Sarabianov, “Malevich at the Time of the ‘Great Break,’” in Malevich: Artist and Theoretician, Paris: Flammarion, 1991, 143.

[6] Ibid., 146.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Yve-Alain Bois, “Lissitzky, Malevich, and the Question of Space,” Suprematisme: Galerie Jean Chauvelin, 25 October 1977 – 25 December 1977, Paris: La Galerie, 32.

[10] Katsnelson., 72

[11] Ibid., 80.

[12] In some of his peasant portraits, Malevich removes even color as a defining characteristic. See Sarabianov, 147.

[13] One should note, too, that the titles of many of Malevich’s peasant paintings communicate a similar idea: nearly all of them provide the viewer with only the gender of the figure portrayed. These generic titles further remove the individual from the painting in quite a radical way.

[14] Elena Basner, “Malevich’s Paintings in the Collection of the Russian Museum (The Matter of the Artist’s Creative Evolution)” in Kazimir Malevich in the Russian Museum, ed. Yevgenia Petrova, St. Petersburg: State Russian Museum, 2000.

[15] Katsnelson., 84.

[16] Ibid., 92.

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