Social-Political Aspects of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism
Suprematism, the art of non-objective compositions of elementary two-dimensional geometric shapes, was formulated by Kazimir Malevich between 1914 and 1918 and marks the culmination of the most radical quest of the Russian avant-garde for a pure artistic sensibility (figs.1-6). Malevich’s 1916 manifesto, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, emphasizes that the “pure art” of Suprematism is opposed to the longstanding traditions of imitative art. The Suprematist valued colored surfaces for their own sake, considering them the new self-sufficient entities of his geometric constructions that have nothing in common with things of the phenomenal world, and that realize “absolute creation” in art. The imitative painter, in contrast, represented reality in the images of perceived objects, producing “utilitarian” art which depended on aesthetic and social-political conventions.
In his theoretical writings of the late 1910s-early 1920s, Malevich strove to build a wider aesthetic and philosophical basis for Suprematism, conceptualizing its geometric structures to penetrate into the world’s non-objective essence, and to depict and analyze human perceptions and sensations of abstract categories such as movement, development, energy, time, and space. Even so, Malevich also insisted on the relevance of Suprematism to actual social-political life in Russia, identifying his Suprematist revolution in art with the 1917 Socialist Revolution in Russia.
The little-studied question of Malevich’s seemingly paradoxical incorporation of social-political connotations into Suprematism must be discussed in the context of his complex attitude to both Lenin’s interpretation of communism and its practical realization inRussia. In The State and Revolution (1918), Lenin explained the historical process and the inevitability of the dialectic social development from capitalism to communism, from the old to the new, through the struggle between the antagonistic forces of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In supporting bourgeois democracy for the ruling minority, capitalism gave birth to a social force of the oppressed majority that revolutionarily created a new, inverse social order in socialism. The socialist state established democracy for the previously-oppressed majority of the people, crushed the old ruling minority, and converted the means of production into the common property of all of society. All citizens became workers of “a single countrywide state ‘syndicate’.” However, the antithesis between mental and physical labor and class differences persisted in socialism. Only in its highest, communist phase, did socialism realize the ideal of social unity in a classless society. Communist society, which achieved an enormous development of the productive forces, destroyed the division of labor and realized a complete democracy because the state machine of suppression gradually and spontaneously ceased to exist, and people became “accustomed to the elementary rules of social intercourse.”
In his appeals to communist youth in 1919 and 1920 Lenin formulated the practical task of laying the foundations of a communist society. In Lenin’s thought, the task was two-fold, both ideological and economic. The communist builders had to create a new, proletarian culture based on communist morality and opposed to bourgeois culture and consciousness. “Our morality stems from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat, [and] serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the working people around the proletariat, which is building up a new, communist society.” Communist morality “is also the basis of communist training, education, and teaching.” The consolidation of the people united by communist goals had to be provided with progressive economics. “All should work according to a single common plan, on common land, in common factories, and in accordance with a common system.”
In his theory of non-objective art, Malevich reworked Lenin’s conception, interpreting the principle of dialectics, the significance of economic fundamentals, and the question of freedom in a communist society, as conditioned by the necessity of consolidation for achieving a supreme goal, collective creative work according to a single plan, and the superiority of the collective over the individual. His The Question of Imitative Art (1921) states that humanity continually perfects itself, dialectically moving along the path of the struggle between the old and the new and creating new socio-political and artistic forms resulting from energy regulated by an economic principle. The communist political and economic avant-garde prepare the foundations of a new world and call all humanity to the highest unity. Art must shape itself according to a new pattern, general plan, and system, and create a single, all-powerful, “economic image.” Art is a form that moves toward perfection along the economic path of development, taking the general direction of other forms of life. Malevich’s notion of an economic art image implies economy as a dimension of art form. A square or, in his terms, a “quadrangular cell” in the Suprematist system, is the most “economic” art image or form of energy (figs. 1, 3, 5).
Malevich’s attitude to the question of freedom displays his reaction to Lenin’s view that “one cannot live in society and be free from society.” In Lenin’s opinion, socialism could not achieve complete freedom because the socialist state must suppress the previous oppressors and their culture in order to create democracy for the vast majority of the people. Only in a classless and stateless society based on communist consciousness can a truly complete freedom be realized. In accordance with Lenin’s notions, Malevich thought that an individual’s freedom of action independent of the community undermined the unity of the whole and reinforces his isolation. Every person became “incorporated in the communist system of united action, common freedom, and rights.” The common economic action gave birth to “collective individualism” where each person became a unit in the general unity in which all collectives gain perfection. An individual’s creative invention “becomes a common part in the world machine,” and through the freedom of the collective, every person realized his individual freedom. Suprematism placed personality in the system of united creative action, “in the plan for creative construction.”  These ideas indicate Malevich’s search for a perfect, multi-component composition in which combinations of geometric units composed individual “collectives” of shapes within the unity of the Suprematist construction.
Malevich’s “world machine,” which implied a metaphorical, universal system which organized its components in accordance with a general plan, transferred Lenin’s pragmatic representation of socialism as “a single countrywide state ‘syndicate’” to the level of conceptual abstraction. For Malevich, Lenin’s “state syndicate” indicated the initial point of movement toward the highest unity of purely creative action. The economic and political avant-garde prepared “territory for the pure action” of the new art of Suprematism, corresponding to “the united masses.”
Even so, when Malevich discusses the attitude of the new to the old, his approach differs from that of Lenin. According to the latter, dialectics points out that “remnants of the old, surviving in the new, confront us in life.” The new both rejects the old and stems from it, developing its most progressive trends to proceed toward a higher goal.
“Only a precise knowledge and transformation of the culture created by the entire development of mankind will enable us to create a proletarian culture.” However, in Malevich’s opinion, none of the old forms of economic development, human consciousness, and art could exist any longer, for “Revolutionary Perfection” revealed a new truth. The earlier, “imitative art” was dependent on every external phenomenon of life, reflecting it in a multitude of objective forms. The new art was to be based on creativity as “the human essence,” “as the aim of life, and as the perfection of oneself.” The old art of beauty and pleasure had to be completely rejected in favor of non-objective art originating in creativity.
Malevich similarly reinterpreted Lenin’s conception of the leading role of party organization in politics and art. Lenin started from life in society, and he built his political conceptions and organized his party in accordance with his comprehension of social processes. A revolutionary party had to imbue spontaneous movements of social forces with political consciousness, to arm them with revolutionary theory. The success of the party in spreading its ideas depended on their relevance to the actual class interests of society. Genuine communist art had to be aware of its political function of conveying communist party ideology.
In 1921 in Vitebsk, Malevich and his pupils organized a Suprematist party: “Unovis” (Affirmers of New Art). He claimed that “new art is passing over to party organization” and had become closely connected with communism. He saw communism as the supreme social and spiritual perfection implying simplification of form and richness of content. Communism simplified social structures and relations, destroyed the previous variety of social, national, religious, and all other differences between individuals, moved them from labor to creation, from the material to the spiritual, and realized the highest social unity. Communism manifested the development from the complex to the fundamental, from variety to unity and unification. Malevich believed that his doctrine would be adopted by the Suprematist party of his pupils, who would develop Suprematism into a massive creative work that would penetrate into mass consciousness, just as the idea of communism captured the consciousness of the proletariat through the organized activity of Lenin’s party.
One problem was rooted not only in the apparent collision of Lenin’s sate political party and Malevich’s unofficial art organization. According to communist aesthetics, art must spring from the masses, mirror their social life and fundamental interests, and be intelligible to and loved by them. However, Malevich based his belief in the possibility of making Suprematism socially relevant and accessible to the masses not on the people’s actual spiritual, aesthetic, and social needs, but on human creativity in general and the fundamental human faculty of perceiving pure forms.
Malevich’s failure to realize the social and political functions of Suprematism was predetermined by its unintelligibility, as opposed to the accessibility of the realist art supported by the communist party art critique. In 1920 this critique condemned art “formalism,” including Suprematism, for its “idealistic philosophy,” which was hostile to communism, and for “offering the workers absurd, perverted tastes.” Suprematism, led by its own logic of development, indeed undermined the basis of dialectical materialism. Lenin defined dialectics as the unity of contradictory, mutually exclusive, and interrelated opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes in the world, including nature, human mind, and society. The unity of opposites was realized in the endless, spontaneous “self-movement” of all processes in the world. The splitting of a single whole into its contradictory parts and the struggle of opposites determined the development of the world. Transformation into the opposite, the destruction of the old, the emergence of the new in the old, and the repetition of certain properties of a lower phase at a higher stage all indicate a spiral progression. Dialectics as a theory of cognition was based on the equal action of opposites and stated that “absolute truth” is the sum total of “relative truths” which gradually deepen knowledge of the world’s processes.
Malevich’s 1915 Black Square (fig. 1), a single whole whose splitting gave birth to all Suprematist units and to the initial, black phase of Suprematism (fig. 2), became the starting point for his Suprematist dialectics.
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, oil on canvas, 79.5 x 79.5 cm. State Tretykov
Kazimir Malevich, Black Cross, 1915, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. Musée national
d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
The Black Square did not reflect anything and represented “nothing,” the “zero of forms” that is the “zero” of objective shapes. On the other hand, the black square is a “something” portrayed against the white background of the canvas. Malevich noted that the canvas was a window through which we discover life. The Suprematist canvas used white to represent a true impression of the infinite. The black square must therefore be seen as “something” living in the infinity of “nothing.” In fact, the picture, displaying the black square superimposed on the white square of the canvas, produces a state of indeterminacy because we face an endless line of dialectical opposites or the signifying components of the binary structures of light and dark, positive and negative, reason and madness, etc.
The color Suprematism of 1915-1917 started with the 1915 Red Square (fig. 3), and generated complex colorful compositions representing a variety of static, dynamic, and rhythmic constructions of shapes in their dialectical integration and disintegration (fig. 4).
Kazimir Malevich, Red Square (Pictorial Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two
Dimensions), 1915, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 cm, Private collection.
Kazimir Malevich, Dynamic Suprematism, 1916, oil on canvas, 102.4 x 66.9 cm,
Museum Ludwig, Cologne.
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918, oil on canvas,
79.4 x 79.4 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism (Construction in Dissolution), 1918, oil on canvas,
97 x 70 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
White Suprematism (figs. 5-6) completed the spiral of the movement from elementary, monocolored, black compositions to complex, multicolored constructions and back to simple, monocolored, white structures; each phase started with the fundamental shape of a square that developed into more complex constructions. The spiral progress of Suprematism manifested dialectical transformation of the elementary into the complex and of the old into the new at a higher level of development. Contrasts, tensions, and motions of color forms aspired to disappear into the unity of the white infinity. Malevich described white Suprematism as “the whole new white world building,” the “pure action” of “self-knowledge” attained in the process of the human perfection. “Painting as color matter has become simply colorless, non-objective energy. Does this not embrace the meaning of all meanings, all doctrines about the world?”
In the terms of dialectical materialism, white Suprematism meant approximation to absolute truth, which, in one of its aspects, denoted communism. When he arrived at this point in 1922, Malevich revealed a fundamental, insoluble paradox. Absolute truth as established by man either in communism or in God meant supreme perfection, a completely static state in which there are no opposites and development. It is a state of eternal rest, non-thinking, nonexistence, i.e., nothingness, incomprehensible to human consciousness. Absolute truth was the limit of a system that became imperfect because the universe is infinite and has no bounds of perfection. Human striving for perfection is senseless in infinity, where everything is nothingness. Man can comprehend nothing in the absolute and in infinity, but this eternal “nothing” exists as non-objectivity.
Malevich’s philosophical skepticism resulted in two monochrome, white canvases shown by his Suprematist group at an art exhibition in Petrograd in 1923. The canvases, placed under the ceiling in the building of the Academy of Art, were accompanied by Malevich’s 1923 manifesto, The Suprematist Mirror. It states that the meaning of the “world as human distinctions” was realized in our fundamental concepts, including the notions of God, the soul, life, art, science, the intellect, movement, space, and time, and equaled “infinity” or “nothing”, that is, “zero,” a conceptual sign of the world’s invariable non-objective essence.
Malevich’s conceptual action should be clarified in the context of his reaction to the communist party’s endeavors to purify mass consciousness from idealism and formalism in the early 1920s. While dialectical materialism asserts that human consciousness exactly reflects objective reality, approximating the truth, Malevich’s white canvases or objects of reality demonstrated the absurdity of this postulate. If one white canvas means “nothing,” two more white canvases also equal “nothing.” Even so, the canvases represent themselves as “something” in the exhibition space and the number of the canvases designates a quantity of “something.” The opposites, “nothing” and “something,” are dialectically transformed into one another. The sum total of relative truths indicates a new unity of the opposites. The sum of two “nothings” becomes a new “something,” but this procedure cannot discover any truth, except that the truth is nothing.
In 1924, when Lenin was already dead and, as Malevich asserted, had been canonized and deified, the artist stressed that “a leader is afraid of everything that does not reflect his ideas,” but “pure art” is subordinated “neither to religion nor to economic-political doctrines.” Suprematism did not reveal truths but “warns man against concretizing something, against making exact conclusions.”
It cannot be inferred here that Malevich’s views had changed only as a result of the official art critique’s attacks on formalism in the early 1920s. He saw Suprematism as an open system of art thinking, the method of analyzing any phenomenon in the world, and his attitude to communism changed as his exploration of the questions of dialectics, the absolute, and perfection in art, life, and human thought deepened.
 Kazimir Malevich, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting(Moscow, 1916), in Kazimir Malevich, Essays on Art 1915-1928, ed. Troels Andersen (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1968-1978), 1:19-41.
 Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution (1918), in Vladimir Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960-1970), 25:381-492.
 Vladimir Lenin, “The Tasks of the Youth Leagues,” speech delivered at The Third All-Russia Congress of The Russian Young Communist League, in Vladimir Lenin, Collected Works, 31: 283-99.
 Kazimir Malevich, The Question of Imitative Art (Smolensk, 1920), in Malevich, Essays on Art, 1:165-82.
 Vladimir Lenin, “Party Organization and Party Literature” (1905), in Lenin, Collected Works, 10:44-49.
 Lenin, The State and Revolution, 381-492.
 Malevich, The Question of Imitative Art, 165-82.
 Lenin, The State and Revolution, 381-492; idem, “The Tasks of the Youth Leagues,” 283-99.
 Malevich, The Question of Imitative Art, 165-82.
 Lenin, “Party Organization and Party Literature,” 44-49; idem, What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement (1902), in Lenin, Collected Works, 1:119-271.
 James C. Vaughan, Soviet Socialist Realism: Origins and Theory (London: Macmillan, 1973), 1-14.
 Malevich, The Question of Imitative Art, 165-82.
 Vladimir Lenin, O literature i iskusstve [On Literature and Art] (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaya literatura, 1960), 659-550; Vaughan, 1-14.
 Malevich, The Question of Imitative Art, 165-82.
 Vladimir Lenin, “O proletkul’takh” [On the Proletkults], letter from the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party, in Lenin, O literature, 589-91.
 Vladimir Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy (1909), in Lenin, Collected Works, 14: 131-38; idem, “Summary of Dialectics,” in ibid., 38:221-22; idem, “On the Question of Dialectics,” in ibid., 38:359.
 Malevich, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, 19-41.
 Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism: 34 Drawings (1920), in Malevich, Essays on Art, 1:123-27.
 Kazimir Malevich, The World as Non-Objectivity, in ibid., 3:112, 145.
 Kazimir Malevich, God is Not Cast Down (Vitebsk, 1922), in Malevich, Essays on Art, 1:191-95.
 The exhibition Petrograd Artists of All Directions 1919-1923 opened in the building of theAcademy of Art in Petrograd on May 17, 1923.
 Kazimir Malevich, The Suprematist Mirror (1923), in Malevich, Essays on Art, 1:224-25.
 Kazimir Malevich, “Iskusstvo” [Art], in Kazimir Malevich, Chernyi Kvadrat [Black Square], ed. A. Shatskikh (St. Petersburg: Azbuka, 2001), 255-303.