Malevich, suprematism and UNOVIS. Or why couldn't just anyone paint the 'Black Square'

Art-Belarus + Chrysalis Mag  |  UNOVIS  |  SUPREMATISM  |  BELARUSIAN  |  21.07.2020

Malevich, suprematism and UNOVIS. Or why couldn't just anyone paint the 'Black Square'

Art-Belarus + Chrysalis Mag  | UNOVIS  |  SUPREMATISM  |  BELARUSIAN  |  21.07.2020

On July 21, 'Direction of Movement' exhibition is opening at the 'Art-Belarus' Gallery. It will feature paintings by the UNOVIS artists represented by scannable QR codes. Together with the Gallery, we prepared a series of articles about suprematism and works of the UNOVIS artists, that were to be presented at the exhibition. We want to tell their story in simple words, without excessive terminology, but with great love. The first article is about suprematism, Malevich's 'Black Square' and the UNOVIS.

On July 21, 'Direction of Movement' exhibition is opening at the 'Art-Belarus' Gallery. It will feature paintings by the UNOVIS artists represented by scannable QR codes. Together with the Gallery, we prepared a series of articles about suprematism and works of the UNOVIS artists, that were to be presented at the exhibition. We want to tell their story in simple words, without excessive terminology, but with great love. The first article is about suprematism, Malevich's 'Black Square' and the UNOVIS.

logo-v3-short2 (1)

1. What kind of exhibition is it and why the QR codes?

1. What kind of exhibition is it and why the QR codes?

Belgazprombank acquired a number of works by the UNOVIS artists for the corporate collection. However, the Belarusian audience didn't have an opportunity to admire them. About a month ago, the Investigative Committee arrested a hundred and a half paintings from the bank's collection. At the moment, the gallery exhibits three works by Ossip Lubitch, a School of Paris artist, provided by an anonymous private collector, as well as a color lithography by Marc Chagall, a portrait of Solomon Mikhoels by Boris Zaborov, and a portrait of an unknown general, painted by Hiacynt Alchimowicz from a private collection. All the paintings from the permanent exhibition are still replaced by QR codes. Entry to the Gallery is free, come and visit it any day except Monday. Working hours: 11 am — 8 pm.

Belgazprombank acquired a number of works by the UNOVIS artists for the corporate collection. However, the Belarusian audience didn't have an opportunity to admire them. About a month ago, the Investigative Committee arrested a hundred and a half paintings from the bank's collection. At the moment, the gallery exhibits three works by Ossip Lubitch, a School of Paris artist, provided by an anonymous private collector, as well as a color lithography by Marc Chagall, a portrait of Solomon Mikhoels by Boris Zaborov, and a portrait of an unknown general, painted by Hiacynt Alchimowicz from a private collection. All the paintings from the permanent exhibition are still replaced by QR codes. Entry to the Gallery is free, come and visit it any day except Monday. Working hours: 11 am — 8 pm.

SHARE:

2. Why Europe switched to scribbles and called it art?

2. Why Europe switched to scribbles and called it art?

Art has always been the mirror of the world. And we always need the context to understand it. In the next couple of paragraphs, we'll try to briefly describe the atmosphere at the second half of the 19th to the early 20th century.

All over Europe, bourgeois-democratic revolutions were taking place. They aimed to eliminate feudal systems and establish constitutional order. During the 19th century, more powerful productive forces were created than ever before. The Industrial Revolution, monopolies, urbanization, industrialization, scientific discoveries, development of technology, development of means of communication. Society and the role of the individual in it were changing. Accordingly, goals and objectives of art were changing, too. 

Roughly speaking, when society substituted horses with cars, the optics of human perception changed, and the need for a new visual language arose.

Art has always been the mirror of the world. And we always need the context to understand it. In the next couple of paragraphs, we'll try to briefly describe the atmosphere at the second half of the 19th to the early 20th century.

All over Europe, bourgeois-democratic revolutions were taking place. They aimed to eliminate feudal systems and establish constitutional order. During the 19th century, more powerful productive forces were created than ever before. The Industrial Revolution, monopolies, urbanization, industrialization, scientific discoveries, development of technology, development of means of communication. Society and the role of the individual in it were changing. Accordingly, goals and objectives of art were changing, too. 

Roughly speaking, when society substituted horses with cars, the optics of human perception changed, and the need for a new visual language arose.

3. How do figurative and abstract art work?

3. How do figurative and abstract art work?

What was happening to art at that time? From the 14th century to the early 20th century, European visual art was figurative — sculpture included, though today we are talking about painting. What does it mean? Those paintings depicted familiar shapes: a person, a cat, a glass, a tree — and a particular relationship between them.  As if a photographer captured a moment in a theatre play.

What was happening to art at that time? From the 14th century to the early 20th century, European visual art was figurative — sculpture included, though today we are talking about painting. What does it mean? Those paintings depicted familiar shapes: a person, a cat, a glass, a tree — and a particular relationship between them.  As if a photographer captured a moment in a theatre play.

  1. Joseph Wright of Derby — 'Romeo and Juliet: the Tomb Scene' / oil on canvas / 180 × 240 cm / 1790
  2. Pietro Ròi — 'The Death of Romeo and Juliet' / 1860
  3. 'Romeo and Juliet'. Igor Vladimirov's production at the Lensoviet Theatre / Leningrad / 1964 / Juliet — Alisa Freindlich, Romeo — Dmitry Barkov

We see Juliet holding a knife, dead Romeo lying next to her, an empty vial of poison next to him.  What do we feel when we look at the painting? Regret, compassion, bitterness. Why do we feel these emotions? Because we know the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, we know what happened, we know that Romeo is dead. And here we see the moment when Juliet dies a second later. It's a very intense and tragic scene. Now get away from the fact that you know the story of the unfortunate lovers, and take another look at the painting. What do you see in it? A girl with a knife in her hand, a guy next to her, and a bottle. How are these three objects connected? Why is the girl holding the knife, why is the guy lying there with his eyes closed, why is there an empty bottle? You can admire how skillfully the faces and the hands are depicted, but what emotions does the painting evoke? Bewilderment, probably. Is there anything new you've learned while looking at it? Just that you saw a painting with finely depicted details. Perhaps the gloomy colors and the girl's sorrowful expression will make you feel sad. But let's face it, it's hard to feel a cocktail of different emotions, when you stand in front of this painting without knowing the context.

And how, for example, can we evoke sadness and bitterness in a person without depicting the moment in the play? Here comes the abstract painting — the 'I could do that kind of painting' type. These are the paintings that refuse to tell us stories with 'words'. 

To understand it better, imagine this: you listen to instrumental music instead of a song with lyrics.  It wouldn't occur to anyone to say that they could easily compose 'Symphony No. 5'. So why do we say that we can easily create an abstract painting? Abstraction uses rhythm, accent, and color to inspire an emotion or convey an idea. Surely, all of these are also used in figurative painting. Still, there they serve as the means of depicting the objects: the corpse of Romeo, Juliet, the knife, and the vial are arranged in a certain way, and there is a certain distance between them — it's composition (rhythm). Romeo's complexion is greenish, and Juliet's dress is white. Why is that? Because Romeo is dead and because the white color of the heroine's dress symbolizes her purity and innocence. 

The idea of abstract painting came to Kandinsky when he incidentally turned a figurative painting upside down and noticed that it looked better this way. Imagine that we decided to get rid of all the objects that exist in reality, anything that might remind us of a table, a chair, a cat, or a person. We have left only color and abstract forms: shapes, geometrical figures, lines, dots — everything that can't be associated with the world of objects. And now we should paint them so that the viewers feel the emotions and enjoy the image as if they were enjoying music. It's not a very simple task, is it?  

We see Juliet holding a knife, dead Romeo lying next to her, an empty vial of poison next to him.  What do we feel when we look at the painting? Regret, compassion, bitterness. Why do we feel these emotions? Because we know the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, we know what happened, we know that Romeo is dead. And here we see the moment when Juliet dies a second later. It's a very intense and tragic scene. Now get away from the fact that you know the story of the unfortunate lovers, and take another look at the painting. What do you see in it? A girl with a knife in her hand, a guy next to her, and a bottle. How are these three objects connected? Why is the girl holding the knife, why is the guy lying there with his eyes closed, why is there an empty bottle? You can admire how skillfully the faces and the hands are depicted, but what emotions does the painting evoke? Bewilderment, probably. Is there anything new you've learned while looking at it? Just that you saw a painting with finely depicted details. Perhaps the gloomy colors and the girl's sorrowful expression will make you feel sad. But let's face it, it's hard to feel a cocktail of different emotions, when you stand in front of this painting without knowing the context.

And how, for example, can we evoke sadness and bitterness in a person without depicting the moment in the play? Here comes the abstract painting — the 'I could do that kind of painting' type. These are the paintings that refuse to tell us stories with 'words'. 

To understand it better, imagine this: you listen to instrumental music instead of a song with lyrics.  It wouldn't occur to anyone to say that they could easily compose 'Symphony No. 5'. So why do we say that we can easily create an abstract painting? Abstraction uses rhythm, accent, and color to inspire an emotion or convey an idea. Surely, all of these are also used in figurative painting. Still, there they serve as the means of depicting the objects: the corpse of Romeo, Juliet, the knife, and the vial are arranged in a certain way, and there is a certain distance between them — it's composition (rhythm). Romeo's complexion is greenish, and Juliet's dress is white. Why is that? Because Romeo is dead and because the white color of the heroine's dress symbolizes her purity and innocence. 

The idea of abstract painting came to Kandinsky when he incidentally turned a figurative painting upside down and noticed that it looked better this way. Imagine that we decided to get rid of all the objects that exist in reality, anything that might remind us of a table, a chair, a cat, or a person. We have left only color and abstract forms: shapes, geometrical figures, lines, dots — everything that can't be associated with the world of objects. And now we should paint them so that the viewers feel the emotions and enjoy the image as if they were enjoying music. It's not a very simple task, is it?  

Photo_2 (1)

Wassily Kandinsky — 'Overcast' / oil on canvas / 105 × 134 cm / 1917

Abstraction became the new visual language at the beginning of the 20th century. There was an urgent need to spread information quickly. It was necessary to find common ground with the masses — both educated people and those without education, those who had never read Shakespeare or 'Capital' by Karl Marx. Figurative painting, aimed at the sophisticated viewer, did not answer this need, while the abstract one did. One of the varieties of abstract art was suprematism, introduced by Kazimir Malevich in 1915.

4. Why couldn't just anyone paint the 'Black Square'?

4. Why couldn't just anyone paint the 'Black Square'?

Just like the chef who's tirelessly experimenting with creating the perfect dish, Malevich worked on creating suprematism as an ideal balance of color and form. 

The image of the black square first appeared during the preparation of the scenery for opera 'Victory over the Sun'. According to Malevich's idea, the black square symbolized the triumph of human creative forces over the passive nature, and so the black square had to replace the solar disk. As the square was finished, Malevich looked at the canvas and realized that he had achieved the peak of color intensity, its total maximum. Not because the square symbolized the victory, not because it was an opera scenery, but because he understood that he had just found the very key to creating a new language. And he knew perfectly well how great the potential of his discovery was. As if for a long time, he felt this new word at the tip of the tongue, but couldn't put his finger on it. The 'Black Square' happened to be the very word that he finally found. And it was a revolution on a global scale. 

This painting became a starting point for developing his theory, the concept of suprematism. Subsequently, Malevich created a series of suprematist paintings.

Photo_3

Kazimir Malevich — 'Black Square' / oil on canvas / 79,5 × 79,5 cm / 1915 

It is essential to understand that the 'Black Square' does not convey any particular idea. It is the beginning of the alphabet. You will agree that the alphabet or the notes do not carry any ideas on their own. But thanks to them, we can read Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment' and listen to Mozart's 'Requiem'. Malevich himself often repeated: 'I transformed myself in the zero of form.' That is why at the last exhibition of futurist paintings '0.10', the 'Black Square' was displayed in the corner, like an Orthodox icon, thus signifying a new worldview, a new way of expression, and a new basis.

Photo_4-v3 (1)

Black Square at the icon corner at the ‘0.10’ exhibition / 1915

5. What's so cool about Suprematism?

5. What's so cool about Suprematism?

Suprematism is all about color. Malevich knew that color itself was charged with energy (surely, he was not the first to discover it, and there were artists who acknowledged it before). Still, the important thing is that he came up with a way to demonstrate all the power and energy of color, to express it to the fullest, giving it 100%, using abstract geometric shapes with combinations of different colors and tones. At a fine dinner, we enjoy the combination of taste, flavor, and texture of the exquisite ingredients and compliment the chef. Suprematism works the same. Looking at a canvas, we feel the energy of a perfect compositional combination of artistic ingredients such as color and shape. If the dish is undersalted, it loses its balance and tastes bland. If the square is 'undersalted,' the black color looks 'bland,' the harmony is lost, and we can't truly enjoy it. Suprematism is the haute cuisine of fine art! 

Have a look at Malevich's 'Black Cross'. The image is flat, devoid of physical volume, it doesn't attempt to create the illusion of volume with light and shadow. It's just a flat black cross on a white background. But it looks as if it breaks out of the canvas, while simultaneously drawing the energy inside itself. It constructs the space around itself. Obviously, suprematism couldn't be limited to painting; therefore, it found its way into other areas of life as well. 

Suprematism is all about color. Malevich knew that color itself was charged with energy (surely, he was not the first to discover it, and there were artists who acknowledged it before). Still, the important thing is that he came up with a way to demonstrate all the power and energy of color, to express it to the fullest, giving it 100%, using abstract geometric shapes with combinations of different colors and tones. At a fine dinner, we enjoy the combination of taste, flavor, and texture of the exquisite ingredients and compliment the chef. Suprematism works the same. Looking at a canvas, we feel the energy of a perfect compositional combination of artistic ingredients such as color and shape. If the dish is undersalted, it loses its balance and tastes bland. If the square is 'undersalted,' the black color looks 'bland,' the harmony is lost, and we can't truly enjoy it. Suprematism is the haute cuisine of fine art! 

Have a look at Malevich's 'Black Cross'. The image is flat, devoid of physical volume, it doesn't attempt to create the illusion of volume with light and shadow. It's just a flat black cross on a white background. But it looks as if it breaks out of the canvas, while simultaneously drawing the energy inside itself. It constructs the space around itself. Obviously, suprematism couldn't be limited to painting; therefore, it found its way into other areas of life as well. 

Крест._1915 (1)

Kazimir Malevich — 'Black Cross' / oil on canvas / 79 × 79 cm / 1915

6. How did artists from Vitebsk change the world under the UNOVIS motto?

6. How did artists from Vitebsk change the world under the UNOVIS motto?

The new era was a collective one, and Kazimir Malevich understood it clearly.  He wanted to create a so-called 'Suprematist Party' to promote the language of color and shape through lectures, public demonstrations, and performances. That's how creative group UNOVIS ('Utverditeli Novogo Iskusstva' or 'Advocates of New Art') emerged in People's Art School in Vitebsk in 1920-1923, developing the ideas of suprematism. The students were trained there according to the principles established by Malevich. The ideology of UNOVIS was based on collective creativity: each student had individual projects and pursuits, but all their creative paths were united into a single whole — as a result, the new art could carry new functions at the new time.

Photo_6

Photo of UNOVIS members, Kazimir Malevich in the center

The UNOVIS artists brought the artistic system of suprematism from studios and galleries into the urban environment. Thus, in 1920-1922, at the government's request, UNOVIS members decorated Vitebsk for the celebration of May 1 and the anniversary of the October Revolution. They painted the speakers' tribunes, trams, cafés, shops, building facades, festive banners, and turned a quiet city into a "city of the future." It was a collective art at its best, and it was working for the masses. Naturally, the new government benefited from the language of suprematism. An excellent example is the propaganda poster by El Lissitzky — 'Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.' One doesn't need to be literate, to have a good knowledge of history, or be an expert in philosophy to feel the power of red crashing into the passivity of white. That's how great the chiseled triangle works with the smoothness of the circle.  

Photo_7

El Lissitzky — 'Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge' / chromolithograph on paper / 53 × 70 cm / 1919 –1920

But please remember: the idea of suprematism is much bigger and more profound than ideology. Again — it's like an alphabet or musical notes. Once you study them, you can express any idea. Suprematism is universal.

Thanks to UNOVIS, architecture, books, work clothes, household items, urban space, and interiors have changed beyond recognition. Ideas of suprematism anticipated design. Getting away from all things figurative, a group of artists from Vitebsk transformed the world of objects and created new living spaces we use to this day.

Photo_8

Kazimir Malevich — Suprematist Teapot and Two Cups / 1923

Photo_9

El Lissitzky — Collection of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky 'For the Voice' / 1923

On the right side of the book the artist introduced a thumb index with titles to help the reader quickly locate a desired verse. This pictographic index became one of the prototypes for modern computer interfaces.

Surely, everything we have described here is just a drop in the ocean, a simplification we make to give a general understanding of the subject. But just like our lives, art is made from a myriad of nuances. Understanding it, being able to feel it takes a huge investment of time and effort. It is crucial to learn constantly, to train one's senses — to develop the sense of aesthetics. I hope we gave you the key to understanding how important it is to respect both professionals and their work, and realizing that Malevich's 'Black Square' was created by a genius getting a glimpse of the future.

full-wide-unovis-v4 (1)
  1. Modern folding IKEA / Folding chair patented by El Lissitzky
  2. Lazar Khidekel — School in Leningrad / 1940
  3. Nina Kogan — Sketch of a suprematist tram decoration / Vitebsk

Аuthor: Valeria Lemeshevskaya
English translation: Tania Yermashkevich

Photo: Dmitry Poleshchenko

All materials are taken from the personal sources of the 'Art-Belarus' Gallery. Some of the images are taken from Wikipedia.

Reprinting of material is allowed only with the permission of the publisher.

If you found a mistake or would like to offer an addition to the published materials, please inform us.

SHARE:

UNOVUS Artists at the 'Direction of Movement' Exhibition

UNOVUS Artists at the 'Direction of Movement' Exhibition

 

 

ABOUT 

 

FOLLOW US 

INSTAGRAM

TELEGRAM

FACEBOOK 

YOUTUBE

 

© Chrysalis Mag, 2018-2020 
Reprinting of materials or fragments of materials
 is allowed only with the written permission