Ukrainian painter Kazimir Malevich considered the art of painting shackled by natural forms and colors. In 1918, he wrote down why it needed to be set free – a manifest equally fascinating and crazy.
Kazimir Malevich was born in Ukraine in 1878. He is credited as the founder of the Suprematism, an avant-garde art movement that developed out of futurism. Malevich shocked the art world with his paintings, which often featured little more than simple geometric forms, taken to the extreme in an iconic painting called “Black Square”, which showed (you guessed it) just a simple black square on a white background. It is often referred to as the “zero point of painting”, the pinnacle of abstraction, even though Malevich would later paint a white square onto a white canvas. He was a man on a mission.
Such avant-gardistic art has a tendency to seem over the top, but remember that Malevich’s work is a product of its time, of an age when modern art and abstract painting just emerged. The painter didn’t just start painting rectangles but arrived there through further and further reduction. An earlier piece of his was called “Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions” and it showed just simple red parallelogram. It’s safe to assume that the peasant woman was wearing red.
Malevich would soon entirely depart from reality, and his later works no longer represented anything. Art historian John Milner once wrote that in Malevich’s paintings, “proportion and perspective were manipulated apparently without reference to imagery”. Malevich wanted nothing to do with our assumptions.
We know this not because Malevich took abstraction to such heights, but because he wrote about it. At the 10th State Exhibition in 1919, a joint event of Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich sold a small brochure that spelled out his philosophy. Back then, the “Petrograd Bulletin” mentioned it in its review of the fair, nonchalantly describing its scope: “On sale at the exhibition is a small brochure by K. Malevich – “From Cubism to Suprematism” – intelligently written, in which the author sets out to shed light on the essence of futurist theories and desires. While he writes on the destruction of all that exists, he remains logical in his own way and comprehensible.”
But Malevich’s writing, quoted below, is itself avant-gardistic: a text that starts out sensibly but slowly veers off into the abstract, the emotional. Just like he does in his paintings, the artist doesn’t communicate on a factual, but increasingly on an emotional pane, making his point with feverish urgency, and turning his pamphlet into a rallying cry to leave behind colors and forms, and to start anew.
What they mean with “the destruction of all that exists” you ask? Well, Malevich had nothing but scorn for the art of yore:
And however many moonlit landscapes the artist paints, however many grazing cows and pretty sunsets, they will remain the same dear little cows and sunsets. Only in a much worse form. And in fact, whether an artist is a genius or not is determined by the number of cows he paints.
The artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature.
Just as we fret over smartphones and VR today, wondering what they do to our appreciation of the reality around us, Malevich saw planes, trains, and automobiles blurring our ability to see. Art, he argued, had to keep pace. And painters had to stop it with the nudes already:
(…) your lack of understanding is quite natural. Can a man who always goes about in a cabriolet really understand the experiences and impressions of one who travels in an express or flies through the air? The academy is a moldy vault in which art is being flagellated. Gigantic wars, great inventions, conquest of the air, speed of travel, telephones, telegraphs, dreadnoughts are the realm of selectivity. But our young artists paint Neros and half-naked Roman warriors.
The new life of iron and the machine, the roar of motorcars, the brilliance of electric lights, the growling of propellers, have awakened the soul, which was suffocating in the catacombs of old reason and has emerged at the intersection of the paths of heaven and earth.
Color, he thinks, has been enslaved by common sense:
Being a painter, I ought to say why people’s faces are painted green and red in pictures. Painting is paint and color; it lies within our organism. Its outbursts and great and demanding.
My devours system is colored by them.
My brain burns with their color.
But color was oppressed by common sense, it was enslaved by it. And the spirit of color weakened and died out.
But when it conquered common sense, then its colors flowed onto the repellent form of real things.
And the use of color starts being an almost political struggle rather than just an artistic expression:
In achieving this new beauty, or simply energy, we have freed ourselves from the impression of the object’s wholeness. The millstone around the neck of painting is beginning to crack.
Unfortunately, people hadn’t yet learned to appreciate this vision. In Malevich’s eyes, they were stuck hopelessly in the past. And, dear, did he hate them:
This is why it is strange to look at a red or black painted surface. This is why people snigger and spit at the exhibitions of new trends.
Art and its new aim have always been a spittoon. But cats get used to one place, and it is difficult to house-train them to a new one. For such people, art is quite unnecessary, as long as their grandmothers and favorite little nooks of lilac groves are painted.
Let’s remember, for a second, that his contemporaries thought Malevich “logical in his own way”. With this manifesto, he took the sledgehammer to their taste, stood on the rubble with a pumping fist and yelled. This man was angry. And he poured all his anger into his art, his words, and his own sense of grandiosity.
You all wish to see pieces of living nature on the hooks of your walls. Just as Nero admired the torn bodies of people and animals from the zoological garden.
I say to all: Abandon love, abandon aestheticism, abandon the baggage of wisdom, for in the new culture, your wisdom is ridiculous and insignificant.
I have untied the knots of wisdom and liberated the consciousness of color!
Hurry up and shed the hardened skin of centuries, so that you can catch up with us more easily.
I have overcome the impossible and made gulfs with my breath. You are caught in the nets of the horizon, like fish!
We, suprematists, throw open the way to you.
For tomorrow you will not recognize us.