"When the mind’s habit of seeing depictions of corners of nature, Madonnas and shameless Venuses in paintings vanishes, only then will we see purely painterly works."
Kazimir Malevich, From Cubsim and Futurism to Suprematism, The New Painterly Realism, 1915
On 17th December 1915, the Russo-Polish artist Kazimir Malevich opened an exhibition of his new "Suprematist" paintings in the Dobychina Art Bureau in the recently renamed city of Petrograd. These startling, purely geometric and completely abstract paintings were unlike anything Malevich, or indeed any other modern painter, had ever done before. They were both a shock and a revelation to everyone who saw them. Malevich’s Suprematist pictures were the very first purely geometric abstract paintings in the history of modern art. They comprised solely of simple, colored forms that appeared to float and hover over plain white backgrounds. Nothing but clearly-organized, self asserting painted surfaces of non-objective/non-representational form and color, these pictures were so radically new that they seemed to many people to have announced the end of painting and, even perhaps, of art itself.
Suprematist Composition is one of the finest and most complex of these first, truly revolutionary abstract paintings. Comprised of numerous colored, geometric elements seeming to be dynamically caught in motion, it epitomizes what Malevich defined as his "supreme" or "Suprematist" vision of the world. The painting is not known to have been a part of the exhibition in the Dobychina Art Bureau but is believed to date from this same period of creative breakthrough and, if not included, was, presumably painted very soon after the show closed in January 1916. As had it been painted earlier, it would almost certainly have been included in this first ever showing of Suprematist work, because it is clear, from the frequency with which Malevich later exhibited the picture, that he thought very highly of the painting. Malevich subsequently chose, for example, to include Suprematist Composition in every other major survey of his Suprematist pictures made during his lifetime. These exhibitions ranged from his first major retrospective in Moscow in 1919 to the great travelling retrospective showcasing much of his best work that he brought to the West in 1927. Indeed, it was as a result of this last exhibition, held with great aplomb in Berlin that Suprematist Composition came to form part of the extraordinarily influential group of Malevich’s paintings that remained in the West and which served as almost his sole creative legacy for much of the Twentieth Century. It was at the time of this 1927 exhibition that Malevich had been compelled to return to Russia where he later died in 1935. Hidden in Germany throughout much of the 1930s, Suprematist Composition and the other works from this great Berlin exhibition, were ultimately to 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.
As Alfred H. Barr Jr. was among the first to point out in his introduction to Malevich’s work for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, even though "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 very first to break through to "a system of absolutely pure geometric abstraction" (Cubism and Abstract Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1936, p. 122). European-based painters like Kupka and Delaunay in Paris or Kandinsky in Munich, could claim to have painted works around 1912 and 1913 that had developed from a gradual process of abstracting figurative forms to such an extent that the overall composition had become almost wholly non-representational, and therefore abstract. But these equally valid, though clearly more tentative developments into painterly worlds beyond traditional figuration differed in at least one fundamental way from Malevich’s Suprematism. Unlike them, Malevich did not follow a painterly path that gradually became ever more abstract. He did not, like Mondrian, methodically simplify representational phenomena to the point of abstraction, nor did he, like Kandinsky or Kupka, intuitively refine his forms into their chromatic, tonal or spiritual essences. Truly radical and revolutionary, Malevich’s move into "absolutely pure geometric abstraction" was conceptual and premeditated. And when it came, it was both sudden and immediate.
Launched at the 0.10 Last Futurist Exhibition held at the Dobychina Art Bureau in 1915, Suprematism was an artform that was born fully formed. An articulation of the world as Malevich believed it was to be seen and experienced in a state of "supreme", higher-dimensional consciousness, Suprematism was the product of a conceptual leap in which non-objective colors and geometry had shown themselves to be the new and necessary means of a language of pure painting. In one sense, this is what is most radical and influential about Malevich’s Suprematist pictures as a whole. These were the first paintings that were about nothing other than painting. They were not pictures of anything extraneous to themselves. They were not even abstractions of something else. They did not seek to suggest an image or a representation of the world as we see it, but only to articulate their own world–a world that, self demonstrably, is manifested solely on the material surface of the canvas and shown to have come into being purely through the act of painting and through the innate laws of painting and composition that govern all picture-making. These are often neglected features of these now famous, even legendary works of art that have had a lasting legacy and an enduring influence on much of the later history of Twentieth-century painting.
In addition, and as pictures like Suprematist Composition, with its dynamic sense of movement, floating and dimensionless air-born interaction, were to increasingly articulate, there was also a profound sense of elevation and otherworldliness inherent to Malevich’s Suprematist vision. Many Suprematist pictures, like Suprematist Composition for instance, convey a sense of having risen above the earth-bound world of appearances. As if, like a spiritual "aviator", as Malevich often claimed himself to be, the artist (and thereby also the viewer) had become a pioneer of cosmic Space, rising ever higher into the realm of the infinite until all terrestrial conscious and unconscious thought had vanished and the Earth and its phenomena had come to be perceived from a new, higher, dimensionless, or as John Golding, has written, "perspective-less" viewpoint. In a passage that eloquently describes the visual effect of a work such as Suprematist Composition upon the viewer, Golding wrote that Malevich’s "colored shapes against white grounds suggest totally new perspectives. Shapes of different weights and proportions overlap and intercept, but it is impossible to gauge the distances that separate them. In his paintings there is no near, no far, no up, no down. Tilted shapes suggest recession into depth, flat frontal ones hover in an indeterminate space. Similarly, the painted white backgrounds reaffirm the flatness of the pictorial support and yet suggest infinity, an unbounded space beyond human ken. If the Cubists had turned their backs on traditional, single-viewpoint perspective and Mondrian had created a new kind of pictorial space, it might perhaps be fair to say that Malevich had created a new perspective-less perspective" (John Golding, op. cit., pp. 67-70).
The invention of Suprematism, Malevich was later to say, had involved just this sort of spiritual ascension into ever more rarified, "supreme" heights. Enthralled, like so many people at this time, especially in Russia, by the then new development of aviation, the possibility of flying and even, a little later, of the potential for Space travel, Malevich often compared himself to an aviator and thought of Suprematism as essentially an air-born art form. The white space of his paintings represents, he said, an infinite, "free chasm". Its space, "takes the place of cosmic space without any determination to a person or a thing. It is without dimension, without orientation" (quoted in D. Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2013, pp. 421-422).
In this "supreme" realm, where the earth and all its forms had been left behind to be replaced by a new, infinite, cosmic dimension, form was substituted by feeling. Perception, (the making of images in the mind) was now governed solely by sensation and by the same kind of sensual cognizance or "intuitive reasoning" that Malevich had first developed in his Zaum-inspired Alogist pictures in 1913. As Malevich wrote to his friend Mikhail Matyushin in 1916, "My new painting does not belong to the earth exclusively. The earth has been abandoned like a house eaten up with worms". His painting was a reflection of the fact that "in man, in his consciousness, there lies the aspiration toward space, the inclination to 'reject the earthly globe’" (in L.D. Henderson, op. cit., p. 420). It was this innate aspiration within mankind, towards space and towards a higher cosmic consciousness that Malevich sought to awaken in his viewers through his Suprematist pictures. "The flat suspended plane of pictorial color on the white canvas immediately gives us a strong sensation of space", he wrote. Through them, "I feel myself transported into a desert abyss in which one feels the creative points of the universe around one…Here (on these flat surfaces), one can obtain the current of movement itself, as if by contact with an electric wire" (Kazimir Malevich quoted in G. Néret, Kazimir Malevich and Suprematism, Cologne, 2003, p. 56).
The Suprematist "aeroscape" was therefore, a sensual, dimensionless domain of intuitive feeling. Suprematist Composition is one of the most complex, intricate and dynamic of all such "aeroscapes" and a work that carries an especially powerful sense of feeling/energy moving through an open, infinite, dimensionless void. Depicting a collation of several autonomous and seemingly floating or moving forms in space, as if seen from either above or below, it is a work that evokes a strong sense of disparate movement and of the simultaneous collation and dissolution of its groups of forms. Indeed, it seems almost as if these geometric clusters of forms/sensations/energies are, like molecules or clouds, constantly in the process of forming and dissolving against the painting's infinite realm of white. In places, the combination of these elements recalls those of other simpler Suprematist compositions specifically indicative of the imagery and sensation of flight, such as the Suprematist Painting Aeroplane in Flight of 1915 in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In other places, different conjunctions are suggestive of the beginnings of a dynamic multidimensional architecture of the kind that Malevich began to dream of building in the early 1920s. Operating simply and directly as abstract visual stimuli of color sensation rather than as signifiers of any kind of formal material entity, these color-forms function as if they were multiple independent fields of colored light interacting immaterially within the spatial void determined by Malevich's ever-present and mystical background field/chasm of white.
In addition to this, they are unified in this work by a pervasive sense of directional movement and energy that runs from the top right of the painting towards the bottom left. The vast majority of the disparate geometric shapes in this painting have been angled in line with this diagonal axis and because of this, a singular sense of directional movement is firmly established running throughout the picture. This one-directional sense of motion lends the composition as a whole, a unique and coherent dynamism that carries with it, the idea that all the forms in the work are not only caught in a singular moment of process, motion or even perhaps transition, but that they are all also subject to some broader, exterior law or organizing principle.
Despite Malevich’s insistence therefore, that the infinite white, spatial void of his paintings is "without dimension, without orientation [that] it ignores right and left, high and low, near and far", in terms of the composition and orientation of this work at least, this would appear not to be the case here (L.D. Henderson, op.cit., p. 422). And yet, Suprematist Composition is one of a rare group of paintings by Malevich known to have been both hung and reproduced, in at least two different orientations. As noted earlier, Suprematist Composition was one of a select group of the finest works Malevich was able to assemble, without recourse to public museums, that he brought to the West in 1927 for a travelling retrospective exhibition of his work there. This exhibition was mounted first in Warsaw and then in Berlin as a major part of the city’s annual Grosse Berliner Kunstaustellung. As a documentary photograph of the exhibition dinner in Warsaw shows, Suprematist Composition was prominently displayed there with the same orientation (blue square rising above the horizontal purple block) that it had been when Malevich had exhibited the painting at his first retrospective exhibition in Moscow in 1919. When the European touring exhibition travelled to Berlin, however, Suprematist Composition was hung, next to Suprematist Painting Aeroplane in Flight, in an orientation perpendicular to this earlier orientation and it has even subsequently been illustrated in this way, as for example in Larissa Zhadova's major monograph on the artist, first published in 1978.
In the early 1920s, Malevich's UNOVIS colleague El Lissitzky had maintained that "for all its revolutionary character, the Suprematist canvas remained in the form of a picture. Like any canvas in a museum, it possessed one specific perpendicular axis (vis-à-vis the horizon), and when it was hung any other way it looked as if it were sideways or upside down" (quoted in T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea, New Haven, 1999, pp. 283-285). Such a statement is undoubtedly true for many of Malevich's Suprematist canvases, but not necessarily all. As T.J. Clark has written about Suprematist Composition, Supremus No 50 from the Stedelijk Museum and Untitled from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, these three paintings all have a history of being hung in a variety of orientations. Supremus No 50 for example, was hung on its side at the Hotel Polonia exhibition in Warsaw, evidently with Malevich’s blessing as the artist is to be seen with the painting in a photograph taken on this occasion.
It is therefore entirely possible that by 1927 Malevich may have felt that some of the more expansive and universal of his Suprematist compositions, such as Suprematist Composition might, where applicable, also demonstrate their universality and multidimensional nature, by being displayed with a different orientation. One of the key purposes of Suprematist painting was, after all, to provide an insight into the non-objective, orientationless and horizonless world of "higher" space, that "supreme" world that proffered a new vision or concept of reality and space beyond the conventions of our three-dimensional world of objects and earth-bound notions of "correct" orientation. Indeed, by 1927, Malevich’s Suprematist vision had expanded to encompass the whole universe and his utopian aim was, by this time, the extension of the Suprematist vision into all areas of life in order to bring about a revolutionary change in the way in which man perceived the world and, ultimately thereby, usher in a new immaterial era of feeling and the spirit.
"At present, man's path lies across space, across Suprematism, the semaphore of color in its fathomless depths," Malevich wrote. "The blue of the sky has been conquered by the Suprematist system, has been breached, and has passed into the white beyond as the true, real conception of eternity, and has therefore been liberated from the sky's colored background...I have breached the blue lampshade of color limitations and have passed into the white beyond; follow me, comrade aviators, sail on into the depths - I have established the semaphores of Suprematism. I have conquered the lining of the colored sky, I have plucked the colors, put them into the bag I have made, and tied it with a knot. Sail on! The white, free depths, eternity, is before you" ("Suprematism", 1919, reproduced in J.E. Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde Theory and Criticism, 1902-34, London, 1976, p. 145).