KAZIMIR MALEVICH: THE IDEOLOGY OF ABSTRACTION
Kazimir Malevich (Russian, 1879 - 1935) was one of the first artists to paint in a purely abstract mode. He called his new artform Suprematism and theorized it in the manifesto, From Cubism to Suprematism, which appeared in 1915, the same year he exhibited his Black Square at the Last Futurist Exhibition in St Petersburg. While his radical works made him a hero of the avant-garde, they were also criticized for being a negation of life. His chilly retort, "art does not need us, and it never did," summed up his belief that art progressed according to its own inner logic, and could only develop with reference to itself.
In the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, Malevich fared well. He was appointed to the Commission for the Protection of Monuments and the Museums in 1918 and taught at the Vitebsk Practical Art School (1919–1922) and the Leningrad Academy of Arts (1922–1927). He wrote the book, The World as Non-Objectivity, which was published in Munich in 1926. In 1927, he traveled to Warsaw, Berlin and Munich, where a retrospective of his work brought him international recognition.
I have transformed myself into the zero of form and dragged myself out of the rubbish-filled pool of Academic Art. I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things, from the horizon-ring which confines the artist and the forms of nature.
— Kazimir Malevich, The World as Non-Objectivity
However, with the death of Lenin and the fall of Trotsky, the Soviet regime turned against modernism, favoring Social Realist art that conveyed clear ideological directives. In 1927, Stalin declared abstract art to be “bourgeois” and banned it. Despite Malevich’s dogged support of Marxism and the Communist Revolution, Stalin ordered his paintings to be confiscated and forbade the artist to create anymore in that style.
After spending his adult life repudiating representational art, in the late 1920s, Malevich avoided the gulag by returning to figural painting, rendering peasants, harvests, factories and other state approved imagery in a semi-abstract style that was tolerated by the government, but of no artistic significance. Art was no longer developing according to its own internal logic, it was being forced to regress.
When Malevich died of cancer in 1935, his small group of adherents, including his two most gifted students, Nikolai Suetin and Ilya Chashnik, had to obtain permission to violate the ban on abstract art in order to display the Black Square at his funeral (Suetin also painted a black square on Malevich’s coffin). After his death, Malevich was then excised from the historical record in Russia. His grave monument was destroyed during World War II and never restored. In 2013, an apartment building was raised on top of his grave,
While Russians may not have prized Malevich much until very recently, In the west, however, Malevich was taken very seriously. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum owns 24 Malevich paintings, the largest collection outside of Russia. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (which began life as the Museum of Non-Objective Art) has always been a strong supporter of Malevich and their 1973 retrospective exhibition devoted to Malevich greatly increased interest in the Malevich and the Russian avant-garde in general.
In 2008, Malevich’s Suprematist Composition of 1916 was purchased at a Sotheby’s New York auction for $60 million by the Art Institute of Chicago, setting a new record for the artist. Malevich may have been right about art not needing us, but we certainly seem to need him.