On 17 December 1915, a series of new paintings by the Russo-Polish artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) was exhibited in the Dobychina Art Bureau in the recently renamed city of Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). Unlike anything Malevich — or indeed any other modern painter — had done before, these geometric, completely abstract works were a shock to everyone who saw them. Indeed, they were so radically new that they seemed to many to announce the end of painting, and perhaps of art itself.
Malevich’s Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, is one of the finest and most complex of these first revolutionary pictures. Composed of numerous coloured, geometric elements, it epitomises the artist’s vision of the world as he believed it would be experienced in a state of higher-dimensional, or ‘supreme’, consciousness. As in his other so-called ‘Suprematist’ pictures, this work does not seek to suggest a real or readily understandable image, but to articulate its own universe, brought into being purely through the act of painting.
Malevich was enthralled, like so many in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, by the relatively new development of aviation. As he wrote in 1916, his paintings reflected the fact that, ‘In man, in his consciousness, there lies the aspiration toward space, the inclination to “reject the earthly globe”.’
It was this aspiration that Malevich sought to awaken in his viewers through his Suprematist pictures. ‘The flat suspended plane of pictorial colour on the white canvas immediately gives us a strong sensation of space’, he wrote. Through them, he added, ‘I feel myself transported into a desert abyss in which one feels the creative points of the universe around one.’
It is clear from the frequency with which Malevich exhibited Suprematist Composition that he valued it highly: it was included in every subsequent major survey of his Suprematist works mounted during his lifetime. These exhibitions ranged from his first major retrospective, in Moscow in 1919, to a 1927 retrospective that travelled to Western Europe. The extraordinary group of paintings featured in that exhibition, in Berlin, would become the cornerstone of Malevich’s creative legacy.
‘Malevich pushed the boundaries of painting, forever changing the advancement of art and providing a gateway for the evolution of Modernism’ — Loic Gouzer
Suprematist Composition is one of a rare group of paintings by Malevich known to have been hung and reproduced in at least two different orientations. When it was exhibited at the 1919 Moscow retrospective, Suprematist Composition was displayed with the blue square rising above the horizontal purple block. When the exhibition travelled to Berlin, however, the work was hung perpendicular to this earlier orientation. This was perfectly in keeping with Malevich’s artistic philosophy: one of the key purposes of Suprematist painting, after all, was to provide an insight into the non-objective, horizonless world of ‘higher’ space.
At the time of the 1927 retrospective, Malevich was compelled to return to Russia; he died there in 1935. Hidden in Germany throughout much of the 1930s, Suprematist Composition and the other works from the Berlin exhibition would subsequently become part of the highly influential holdings of Malevich’s work in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Until 2008, when it was restituted to the heirs of Malevich’s family in agreement with the Stedelijk Museum, Suprematist Composition was on view in Amsterdam as part of the Stedelijk’s unrivalled collection of the artist’s work. Suprematist Composition established the world auction record for the artist when it sold in November of that year — a record it still holds. A decade on, Suprematist Composition is expected to set a new benchmark for the artist when it is offered on 15 May at Christie’s in New York.
Unlike other artists working at the time whose work shifted gradually away from the representational, Malevich’s leap into the abstract was sudden, conceptual and entirely premeditated. As the Museum of Modern Art’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr. Jr., would later point out, while ‘it was inevitable that the impulse towards pure abstraction should have been carried to an absolute conclusion sooner or later’, much is owed to Malevich for being the first to break through to ‘a system of absolutely pure geometric abstraction’.
‘Malevich pushed the boundaries of painting, forever changing the advancement of art and providing a gateway for the evolution of Modernism,’ says Loic Gouzer, Co-Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘Without the Suprematist Composition paintings, the art being made today would not exist as we know it.’