Kazimir Severinovich Malevich
(February 23, 1878 – May 15, 1935) was a Russian painter and
art theoretician. He was a pioneer of geometric abstract art
and the originator of the avant-garde Suprematist movement.
Kazimir Malevich was born Kazimierz Malewicz to a Polish
family, who settled near Kiev in the Kiev Governorate of the
Russian Empire during the partitions of Poland. His parents,
Ludwika and Seweryn Malewicz, were Roman Catholic like most
ethnic Poles. They both had fled from the former eastern
territories of the Commonwealth (present-day Kopyl Region of
Belarus) to Kiev in the aftermath of the failed Polish
January Uprising of 1863 against the tsarist army. His
native languages were Polish and Russian.
Kazimir's father managed a
sugar factory. Kazimir was the first of fourteen children,
only nine of whom survived into adulthood. His family moved
often and he spent most of his childhood in the villages of
Ukraine, amidst sugar-beet plantations, far from centers of
culture. Until age twelve he knew nothing of professional
artists, although art had surrounded him in childhood. He
delighted in peasant embroidery, and in decorated walls and
stoves. He was able to paint in the peasant style. He
studied drawing in Kiev from 1895 to 1896.
From 1896 to 1904 Kazimir Malevich lived in Kursk. In 1904,
after the death of his father, he moved to Moscow. He
studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and
Architecture from 1904 to 1910 and in the studio of Fedor
Rerberg in Moscow (1904 to 1910). In 1911 he participated in
the second exhibition of the group, Soyuz Molodyozhi (Union
of Youth) in St. Petersburg, together with Vladimir Tatlin
and, in 1912, the group held its third exhibition, which
included works by Aleksandra Ekster, Tatlin, and others. In
the same year he participated in an exhibition by the
collective, Donkey's Tail in Moscow. By that time his works
were influenced by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov,
Russian avant-garde painters, who were particularly
interested in Russian folk art called lubok. Malevich
described himself as painting in a "Cubo-Futuristic" style
in 1912. In March 1913 a major exhibition of Aristarkh
Lentulov's paintings opened in Moscow. The effect of this
exhibition was comparable with that of Paul Cézanne in Paris
in 1907, as all the main Russian avant-garde artists of the
time (including Malevich) immediately absorbed the cubist
principles and began using them in their works. Already in
the same year the Cubo-Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun,
with Malevich's stage-set, became a great success. In 1914
Malevich exhibited his works in the Salon des Indépendants
in Paris together with Alexander Archipenko, Sonia Delaunay,
Aleksandra Ekster, and Vadim Meller, among others. Malevich
also co-illustrated, with Pavel Filonov, Selected Poems with
Postscript, 1907–1914 by Velimir Khlebnikov and another work
by Khlebnikov in 1914 titled Roar! Gauntlets, 1908–1914,
with Vladimir Burliuk.
In 1915, Malevich laid down the foundations of Suprematism
when he published his manifesto, From Cubism to Suprematism.
In 1915–1916 he worked with other Suprematist artists in a
peasant/artisan co-operative in Skoptsi and Verbovka
village. In 1916–1917 he participated in exhibitions of the
Jack of Diamonds group in Moscow together with Nathan
Altman, David Burliuk, Aleksandra Ekster and others. Famous
examples of his Suprematist works include Black Square
(1915)[ and White On White (1918).
A section of Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich exhibited
at the 0.10 Exhibition, Petrograd, 1915
Malevich exhibited his first Black Square, now at the
Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, at the Last Futurist Exhibition
0,10 in Petrograd in 1915. A black square placed against the
sun appeared for the first time in the 1913 scenery designs
for the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. The second
Black Square was painted around 1923. Some believe that the
third Black Square (also at the Tretyakov Gallery) was
painted in 1929 for Malevich's solo exhibition, because of
the poor condition of the 1915 square. One more Black
Square, the smallest and probably the last, may have been
intended as a diptych together with the Red Square (though
of smaller size) for the exhibition Artists of the RSFSR: 15
Years, held in Leningrad (1932). The two squares, Black and
Red, were the centerpiece of the show. This last square,
despite the author's note 1913 on the reverse, is believed
to have been created in the late twenties or early thirties,
for there are no earlier mentions of it.
In 1918, Malevich decorated
a play, Mystery Bouffe, by Vladimir Mayakovskiy produced by
He also was interested in
aerial photography and aviation, which led him to
abstractions inspired by or derived from aerial landscapes.
As Julia Bekman Chadaga (now of Macalaster College ) writes:
In his later writings,
Malevich defined the "additional element" as the quality of
any new visual environment bringing about a change in
perception... In a series of diagrams illustrating the
"environments" that influence various painterly styles, the
Suprematist is associated with a series of aerial views
rendering the familiar landscape into an abstraction...
(excerpted from Bekman Chadaga's paper delivered at Columbia
University's 2000 symposium, "Art, Technology, and Modernity
in Russia and Eastern Europe")
Some Ukrainian authors claim that Malevich's Suprematism is
rooted in the traditional Ukrainian culture.
After the October Revolution (1917), Malevich became a
member of the Collegium on the Arts of Narkompros, the
Commission for the Protection of Monuments and the Museums
Commission (all from 1918–1919). He taught at the Vitebsk
Practical Art School in the USSR (now part of Belarus)
(1919–1922), the Leningrad Academy of Arts (1922–1927), the
Kiev State Art Institute (1927–1929), and the House of the
Arts in Leningrad (1930). He wrote the book The World as
Non-Objectivity, which was published in Munich in 1926 and
translated into English in 1959. In it, he outlines his
In 1923, Malevich was
appointed director of Petrograd State Institute of Artistic
Culture, which was forced to close in 1926 after a Communist
party newspaper called it "a government-supported monastery"
rife with "counterrevolutionary sermonizing and artistic
debauchery." The Soviet state was by then heavily promoting
a politically sustainable style of art called Socialist
Realism—a style Malevich had spent his entire career
repudiating. Nevertheless, he swam with the current, and was
quietly tolerated by the Communists.
recognition and banning
In 1927, Malevich traveled to Warsaw where he was given a
hero's welcome. There he met with artists and former
students Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro, whose
own movement, Unism, was highly influenced by Malevich. He
held his first foreign exhibit in the Hotel Polonia Palace.
From there the painter ventured on to Berlin and Munich for
a retrospective which finally brought him international
recognition. He arranged to leave most of the paintings
behind when he returned to the Soviet Union. Malevich's
assumption that a shifting in the attitudes of the Soviet
authorities toward the modernist art movement would take
place after the death of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky's
fall from power was proven correct in a couple of years,
when the Stalinist regime turned against forms of
abstraction, considering them a type of "bourgeois" art,
that could not express social realities. As a consequence,
many of his works were confiscated and he was banned from
creating and exhibiting similar art.
Critics derided Malevich's
art as a negation of everything good and pure: love of life
and love of nature. The Westernizer artist and art historian
Alexandre Benois was one such critic. Malevich responded
that art can advance and develop for art's sake alone,
saying that "art does not need us, and it never did".
When Malevich died of cancer at the age of fifty-seven, in
Leningrad on 15 May 1935, his friends and disciples buried
his ashes in a grave marked with a black square. They didn’t
fulfill his stated wish to have the grave topped with an
“architekton”—one of his skyscraper-like maquettes of
abstract forms, equipped with a telescope through which
visitors were to gaze at Jupiter.
On his deathbed Malevich
had been exhibited with the Black Square above him, and
mourners at his funeral rally were permitted to wave a
banner bearing a black square. Malevich had asked to be
buried under an oak tree on the outskirts of Nemchinovka, a
place to which he felt a special bond. His ashes were sent
to Nemchinovka, and buried in a field near his dacha.
Nikolai Suetin, a friend of Malevich’s and a fellow artist,
designed a white cube with a black square to mark the burial
site. The memorial was destroyed during World War II. The
city of Leningrad bestowed a pension on Malevich's mother
In 2013, an apartment block
was built on the place of the tomb and burial site of
Kazimir Malevich. Another nearby monument to Malevich, put
up in 1988, is now also situated on the grounds of a gated
Malevich's family was one of the millions of Poles who lived
within the Russian Empire following the Partitions of
Poland. Kazimir Malevich was born near Kiev on lands that
had previously been part of the Polish-Lithuanian
Commonwealth of parents who were ethnic Poles.
Both Polish and Russian
were native languages of Malevich, who would sign his
artwork in the Polish form of his name as Kazimierz
Malewicz. In a visa application to travel to France,
Malewicz claimed Polish as his nationality. French art
historian Andrei Nakov, who re-established Malevich's birth
year as 1879 (and not 1878), has argued for restoration of
the Polish spelling of Malevich's name.
In 2013, Malevich's family
in New York City and fans founded the not-for-profit The
Rectangular Circle of Friends of Kazimierz Malewicz, whose
dedicated goal is to promote awareness of Kazimir's Polish
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. included several paintings in the
groundbreaking exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art” at the
Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936. In 1939, the
Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in New York, whose
founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim – an early and passionate
collector of the Russian avant-garde – was inspired by the
same aesthetic ideals and spiritual quest that exemplified
The first U.S.
retrospective of Malevich’s work in 1973 at the Solomon R.
Guggenheim Museum provoked a flood of interest and further
intensified his impact on postwar American and European
artists. However, most of Malevich’s work and the story of
the Russian avant-garde remained under lock and key until
Glasnost. In 1989, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam held
the West’s first large-scale Malevich retrospective,
including its own paintings and works from the collection of
Russian art critic Nikolai Khardzhiev.
Malevich's works are held in several major art museums,
including the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and in New
York, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum.
The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam owns 24 Malevich
paintings, more than any other museum outside of Russia.
Another major collection of Malevich works is held by the
State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki.
Black Square, the fourth version of his magnum opus painted
in the 1920s, was discovered in 1993 in Samara and purchased
by Inkombank for US$250,000. In April 2002 the painting was
auctioned for an equivalent of US$1 million. The purchase
was financed by the Russian philanthropist Vladimir Potanin,
who donated funds to the Russian Ministry of Culture, and
ultimately, to the State Hermitage Museum collection.
According to the Hermitage website, this was the largest
private contribution to state art museums since the October
On 3 November 2008 a work
by Malevich entitled Suprematist Composition from 1916 set
the world record for any Russian work of art and any work
sold at auction for that year, selling at Sotheby's in New
York City for just over US$60 million (surpassing his
previous record of US$17 million set in 2000).
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