Executed between 1909 and 1910, Self-Portrait is a striking image of an artist now bold enough to represent himself in a strong and individual style. It was in 1910 that Malevich's dissatisfaction with the conservatism of the Russian art groups and movements would lead him to join the Bubnovy Valet group ('Jack of Diamonds') founded by such artists as Larionov and Goncharova, and Self-Portrait perfectly captures in a work of art the struggle against traditional representation that drove him to this. The colours have little of reality to them, but instead are filled with heat, as though there were some strange flaming background. This relates to the Symbolist tendency that was apparent in some of his work at the time: Malevich has condensed onto the surface of this painting an atmosphere, a sense of danger and vigour. He has filled this work with the fire of an artistic revolution.
Interestingly, many of Malevich's works from this period remained indebted to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. It is in works such as Self-Portrait that this began to change. His use of colour here manages to combine not only a sense of traditional Russian painting, with its schematic manner of juxtaposing the colours, but also hints at later developments in his art. In this way, two separate strands of Malevich's later work are here fused in one. The influence of icon painting, but also crucially of Russian folk art, is clearly apparent, and it was this that would dominate the imminent phase of his art, the phase that truly brought him attention from the art world at the time. Meanwhile, the planar manner in which he has rendered his own facial features appears to preempt the Suprematist style that would follow that. Indeed, the flatness of the dark areas in the hair and clothing, highlighted through the contrast with the brightness of the surrounding colours, seems already to show a predisposition in his work, the faint but undeniable phantom of his later work manifesting itself years earlier, crucially in a portrait of the artist himself.
It is a tribute to the quality and importance of Self-Portrait that it formed part of the famous George Costakis collection. A Russian of Greek descent, Costakis began collecting avant garde art just after the Second World War, and devoted much of his energy towards this in the decades that followed, often bartering his possessions in order to purchase works. In this way, Costakis assembled one of the most authoritative and complete collections in this field, a field which at that time was ignored and indeed almost taboo. Much art historical knowledge both within and without Russia exists as a legacy of his collection: the majority was donated to Russian museums, while the often exhibited remainder became one of the foremost ambassadors in the West for the Russian avant garde.