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Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935)


Russian avant-garde artist, whose most famous works include the startling abstract painting Black Square on White, first time exhibited in December 1915. This synthesis of geometric forms and the spirituality of icons was meant to end the narrative art, to eliminate the subject in favor of the pure painting. "The square is a vivid and majestic newborn," Malevich said, "the first step of pure creation in art". However, in the late 1920s Malevich abandoned abstraction and returned to a figurative style in order to meet the demands of the Communist Party. After his death his works were not exhibited in the Soviet Union for decades. Malevich declamatory writings, not always easy to understand, were widely read by Russian artists of his time.

"All past and recent painting before Suprematism (as sculpture, verbal art, music) has been subjugated by the shapes of nature, waiting to be liberated, to speak its own language, independent of reason, common sense, logic, philosophy, psychology, laws of causality, and technological changes." (Malevich in 'From Cubism to Suprematism', 1915, from Art of the 20th Century, ed. by Jean-Louis Ferrier and Yann Le Pichon, 1999)

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich was born of Polish parents near Kiev. His parents had fled to the Ukraine in the wake of the Polish uprising of 1863. Most of his childhood years Malevich spent in the rural environment around Kiev. With his father, who worked at sugar refineries, Malevich made long walks in the countryside. Many of his painting later were inspired by rural life.

Malevich started to paint at the age of fifteen when his mother bought him his first paints. In the mid-1890s the family moved to Konotop, a town on the railway line between Kiev and Kursk. From 1898 to 1901 Malevich lived in Kursk, where he did his first landscapes. In 1901 he married a Polish woman, Kazimira Ivanova Zgleits. For a few years he worked as a draftsman for the railroads. After his father died, Malevich settled in Moscow with his wife, daughter, and his mother.

Malevich changed his style several times, from Impressionism to Symbolism, and from Fauvism to Kubism, or Cubo-Futurism. "Here is an artist," said his friend Natalia Gontcharova, "who skips steps in art evolution." Although Malevich absorbed Western influences, his monumental peasant figures, painted in manner of Legér's work, were definitely Russian. Their large, almond-shaped eyes were those of Orthodox icons, staring into the true reality. "The art of the icon is the superior form of peasant art," Malevich defined.

In the collage Partial Eclipse with Mona Lisa (1914) Malevich pasted a torn and crossed-out picture of Mona Lisa, anticipating Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. (1919). This famous work is a reproduction of Leonardo's portrait, to which Duchamp had added a beard, moustache, and the inscription "L.H.O.O.Q.," pronounced in French as "She has a hot ass" (Elle a chaud au cul). Malevich's own incriptions read "vacant apartment" and "in Moscow".

In 1909 Malevich married Sofia Rafalovich, the daughter of a psychiatrist. Between 1912 and 1915 Malevich moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg and joined the Russian Futurist group, whose first manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, came out in 1912. Its writers included the poets Alexei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, who announced that the past masters of Russian literature "must be thrown overboard from the steamer of the Present Time."

The summer of 1913 Malevich spent in Uusikirkko, Finland, with the composer and painter Mikhail Matyushin and Kruchenykh. Together, the friends created a Futurist opera, Victory over the Sun (1913), for which Malevich designed costumes and backdrops in a non-naturalistic style. First staged at the Luna Park Theater in St. Petersburg, the opera was performed again in 1980 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts. The group also developed the concept of "alogism." Their aim, presented in a jointly published manifesto, was to free themselves from the outdated law of causality and bounds of logic. "For the artist," Malevich said, "reason is a form of imprisonment."

In addition to painting, Malevich producedd litographs, decorations for revolutionary festivals, illustrated and designed booklets. With Nikolai Kulbin and Olga Rozanova he illustrated Futurist books, and during the war he made patriotic litographs, which followed the style of luboks, popular folk prints. Some of them were probably worded by Mayakovsky.

Malevich's search for an absolute beyond the images found in nature culminated in his 39 Suprematist compositions, exhibited in Petrograd in December 1915 under the title "0.10". His exhibition room was dominated by the Black Square, painted entirely freehand. As traditional religious images in Russian Orthodox homes, it was hung high up across a corner. Malevich himself was a Roman Catholic and he had a mystical bent, but he was not conventionally religious. Outside his room Malevich put a sign proclaiming "suprematist painters." Vladimir Tatlin, his rival, responded with a sign that read "professional painters."

With the exhibition Malevich declared: "Suprematism is the beginning of a new civilization." However, reviews were crushing: "Everything is dry and monotonous, without art and without individuality," said B. Lopatin in Day. During the exhibition Malevich published 'Ot kubizma i futurizma k suprematizmu' (1915, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism), the first of his major essays. "Creation exists only where paintings present shapes that take nothing from what has been created in nature," Malevich wrote. With his nonfigurative program Malevich went even further than Kandinsky in About the Spiritual in Art (1912), where the older artist rejected pure abstraction.

From Symbolism Malevich adopted the idea that behind the world of appearances is a higher reality. Art serves a vehicle in the divine communication between realities. The square a was for Malevich a "zero form," behind which lies the way to new methods of creating. After a black square, full of the new potenialities, a red square was to give the signal of Revolution, in order to reach "the white square as pure movement."

In search of supreme color, Malevich produced White on White, a monochrome abstraction, in which an off-white square was angled against a larger white square. "I have cracked the links and the limitations of color," Malevich said in the catalogue of the Tenth State Exhibition in 1918.

After the February Revolution of 1917, Malevich became politically active. He associated briefly with the anarchists, chaired the art section of the Moscow Council of Soldiers' Deputies, and taught at Svomas (Free State Art Studios). For a period Suprematism was the new artistic language of the new order. In Petrograd Malevich designed the sets and costumes for Mayakovsky's Mystery Bouffe (1918) at the Theatre of Musical Drama. "I treated space not as illusionary but as Cubist," Malewich wrote. "I saw my task not as the creation of associations but with a reality existing beyond the limits of the stage, but as the creation of a new reality." Malevich also translated the shapes of his paintings into three-dimensional architectural models, which he called "architectonics" or "planity," from the Russian word aeroplan. Several of the designs were shown at the Venice Biennale in June 1924.

At the Vitebsk Art Institute, where Malevich taught from 1919 to 1922, he replaced Marc Chagall as director. In 1919 he wrote 'O novikh sistemakh v iskusstve' (On new systems in art). Malevich's essays on art, designed by Il Lissitzky, his colleague, were published at Vitebsk. His first one-man exhibition Malevich held in 1919-20 in Moscow. It consisted of 153 works. For the Lomosov porcelain factory he designed, among others, cups and teapots. In 1923 Malevich was appointed director of the Petrograd Museum of Artistic Culture, which was wholly devoted to contemporary art. The institute was forced to close in 1926 after it was called in a Communist party newspaper "a government-supported monastery" rife with "counterrevolutionary sermonizing." Malevich was allowed to retain a small apatment, where he lived with his mother and his third wife, Natalia Andreyevna Manchenko, whom he had married in 1925.

In the 1920s, a number of Russian artist, including Kandinsky, Chagall, Gabo, and Pevsner, went into exile. Lenin, who did not appreciate avant garde art, said of his Commissar for Education and Enlightenment: "Lunacharsky should be flogged for his Futurism." Immediately after Lenin's death in 1924, Malevich compared the revolutionary leader to Christ. His body, Malevich suggested, should be placed "in a cube, as if in eternity. The cube of eternity should be constructed as a sign of its unity with the dead." He also wrote that every working Leninist should have a cube at home, "as a reminder of the eternal, constant lesson of Leninism".

Malevich made in 1927 a trip to Poland, and visited the Bauhaus in Dessau. The Non-objective World was published as a Bauhaus Book. Eventually Malevich returned to home. However, he left his manuscripts and a group of paintings in Berlin, where his work was shown at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in a separate section. Most of them became part of the collections of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In Russia Malevich produced replicas of many of the paintings he had left in Germany. In 1929-30 Malevich taught in Kiev, where an exhibition of his works was held in the city museum. He had also a solo exhibition at the prestigious Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow.

In the last years of his life Malevich was out of favor. During the 1930s, a wave of terror ran through the country. All arts were suppressed. The union of proletarian artist launced its attack against modernists, and Socialist Realism was established as the official and the only way of artistic expression. "The artistic endeavour of the abstractionists was worlds removed from real life," explained Oleg Sopotsinsky in Art in the Soviet Union (1978), "in fact they went to great lengths to seal themselves off from its influence, thus condemning themselves to a creative barrenness. It is only natural, therefore, that abstractionism very soon bought about its own end".

Because of his contacts in Germany, Malevich was arrested for a short period in 1930. Meanwhile his friends destroyed writings which could have been used against him. In 1933 Malevich was accused of formalism. Returning to figurative art, Malevich started to paint in the style which echoed Hans Holbein, the German Northern Renaissance Painter, and Italian Renaissance artists. Of these works, perhaps the most famous is Self-portrait (1933), in which the artist's lips are tightly closed, but with his had he makes a symbolic gesture, which casually refers to a square. Other works from this period include faceless and armless peasants, who seem to be bound in straitjacket. His paintings Malevich signed with his emblematic black square.

Malevich died of cancer in Leningrad on May 15, 1935. On his deathbed he was exhibited with the black square above him. His ashes were sent to Nemchinovka, and buried in a field near his dacha. A white cube decorated with a black square was placed on his tomb. The city on Leningrad bestowed a pension on Malevich's mother and daughter. "No phenomenon is mortal," Malevich wrote in an unpublished manuscript, "and this means not only the body but the idea as well, a symbol that one is eternally reincarnated in another form which actually exists in the conscious and unconscious person."

For further reading: Malevich: Painting the Absolute by Andrei Nakov (4 vols., 2011); Malevich and Film by Margarita Tupitsyn (2002); Kazimir Malevich in the State Russian Museum, ed. by Yevgenia Petrova (2002) Kazimir Malevich and the Sacred Russian Icons: Avant-Garde and Traditional, ed. by Giorgio Cortenova (2001); Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde, ed. by John Bowlt (2000); Kasimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry by John Milner (1996); Malevich, ed. by Ellen Rosefsky Cohen, Elaine Stainton (1995); Masters of Art: Malevich by Charlotte Douglas (1994); Kazimir Malevich : The Climax of Disclosure by Rainer Crone, David Moos (1991); A History of Russian Painting by Alan Bird (1987); Kasimir Malevich's Black Square and the Genesis of Suprematism 1907-1915 by W. Sherwin Simmons (1981); Russian Avant-Garde Art: The George Costakis Collection, ed. by Angelica Zander Rudenstine (1981); Artists in Revolution: Portraits of the Russian Avant-garde 1905-1925 by Robert C. Williams (1977)

Selected bibliography:

  • Vozropshchem, 1913 (with A. Kruchenykh)
  • Igra v adu, 1914 (illustrator, text by A. Kruchenykh)
  • Ot kubizma i futurizma k suprematizmu. Novyi zhivopishnyi realizm, 1915
  • Suprematizm, 34 risunka, 1920 - Suprematism, 34 Drawings (translated from the Russian by Thomas G. Winner, 1976)
  • Iz knigi o Bezpredmetnosti, 1924 (unpublished manuscript)
  • Die gegenstandlose Welt, 1927 (translated into Germany by Alexander von Riesen) - The Non-objective World (translated from the German by Howard Dearstyne, 1959)
  • Essays on Art 1915-1928, 1968-78 (4 vols., translated by Xenia Glowacki-Prus and Arnold McMillin, edited by Troels Andersen)
  • Ecrits de Malévitch, 1974-1994 (4 vols., edited by Jean-Claude Mercadé)
  • Kasimir Malewitsch, Werk und Wirkung, 1995 (edited by Evelyn Weiss)
  • Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh, 1995-2004 (5 vols., edited by  D.V. Sarab'ianov et al.)
  • Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden, Artikel, Manifeste, Theoretische Essays und andere Arbeiten, 1913-29, 1995-98 (2 vols.)
  • Malevich on Suprematism: Six Essays, 1915 to 1926, 1999 (edited and introduced by Patricia Railing)
  • Poeziia, 2000 (edited by A.S. Shatskikh)
  • Chernyi kvadrat, 2001
  • The White Rectangle: Writings on Film, 2003 (edited by Oksana Bulgakowa)

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