WHAT IS SUPREMATISM?
These few notes are only intended to deal with certain problems which have arisen in the field of art criticism from the observation that one cannot speak of 20th Century art without mentioning the Suprematist revolution. A Malevich fashion is currently to be seen which, just as much as the Kandinsky fashion in its time, provokes much emotional discourse carrying with it a mixture of snobbery and sensationalism to the detriment of rigour. In fact, many people are nowadays convinced that ‘wishful thinking’ is more interesting than rigour.
We are still a long way from having all the information needed to form definite conclusions about the meaning of Suprematism. Many events from the story of Russian art in the tens’ and twenties’ remain hidden in shadow. The greater part of the writings of Malevich are not published in Russian and the inevitable inaccuracies of translation give rise to ambiguities. Lastly, important works (canvasses, architectones, drawings) remain inaccessible, stored away in Soviet museum reserves or kept in private collections. Mistakes and omissions are the natural outcome of such a lack of information. It would be pointless to blame western researchers for these faults. It should not be forgotten that it is thanks to these same western researchers who have at a great price assembled the diverse elements of a story doomed to mental oblivion, that Russian art from the first quarter of the 20th Century in general, and Malevich in particular has escaped the amnesia of humanity’s collective memory. For it has now won back in Russia itself a following, which though still feeble, holds out much promise for the future.
One can understand the errors and omissions arising from such unfavorable conditions. However, it is altogether different when it comes to the distortions and tendentious interpretations made from areas of concrete knowledge. It is here that rigour must intervene and calm the ardours of a wayward imagination. By enquiring: ‘What is Suprematism?’ we are led to ask questions about ideas often invoked in a vague and confused way concerning this enigmatic ‘ism’ among the ‘Kunstismen’ of the 20th Century.
1. Suprematism is anti-constructivist.
Only too often we find Constructivism and Suprematism lumped together. Upon seeing some geometric form, the unwise critic immediately cries Constructivism. Despite superficial similarities between Constructivism and Suprematism, the two movements are nevertheless antagonists and it is very important to distinguish between them. The confusion arises from the fact that several artists, either formerly part of the Suprematist movement like El Lissitzky, or who had once worked under its influence like Liubov Popova and Rodchenko, soon became exponents of the culture of materials. They celebrated this latter in their creations, deliberately opting for the way opened, from 1914, by Tatlin’s reliefs. Constructivism aims to employ the material as foundation, it involves the cult of the object. For Constructivism, ‘the object is work of art and the work of art is object’. It is firmly based on a materialistic and utilitarian philosophy. Its aim is the functional organisation of life under all its aspects. The easel-painter must give way to the artist-engineer, to the productivist, the painting to the ‘shaping’ (oformlenie) of life. The principles of Constructivism, though already accepted in practice, were not formulated until 1922 (‘Constructivism’ by A. Gan, Tver; ‘And yet it moves’ by I. Ehrenburg, Berlin; two numbers of the Berlin review ‘Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet’ by El Lissitzky and I. Ehrenburg…).
By contrast, Suprematism, whose first writings date from the end of 1915, was born of an awareness of the insignificance of the object. For Malevich, the object as such does not exist, it dissolves in the energy stimulus (vozbuzhdenie) of non-objective beingness. Suprematism is therefore an active negation of the world of objects. It endeavors to exhibit a world without objects and without objectives, die gegenstandslose Welt, the only one to have a real existence. When Malevich speaks of Suprematist ‘utilitarianism’ or ‘economy’, he means neither functionalism nor rational schematisation. Suprematist economy and utilitarianism seek to transform ‘this green world of flesh and bones’, the world of ‘nutrition’, into a world of desert, of absence, aimed towards the unveiling of essential beingness. Although Suprematism is both painting in ontological action and meditation on being, it does not, however, neglect the technical problems of construction. The skill (umenie) is very important for Malevich (we should remember his vast pedagogic work in Unovis in Vitebsk and at Inkhuk in Petrograd), but it is neither the major factor nor the aim of creation. Artistic mastery should yield to the demands of the flux of being in the world and should not exhibit the material in its skeleton-like nudity as Constructivism does. It ought to show the non-existence of form and colour. This is why the squares, circles and crosses of Suprematism are quite unrelated to the squares, circles and crosses occuring in nature – they are the irruption of non-existence, and constitute FORMING and not INFORMING elements.
2. Is Suprematism mystical?
The word ‘mystical’ has been misused so often in the field of Russian art that one hesitates to apply it to the thought and works of Malevich. In this particular case, there is no question of vague and imprecise religious agendas nor theological states of the soul. But if one accepts that mystical vision bypasses the intermediaries and transforms the ordinary perceptions of the five senses into a contemplation of the world in its total being, then it can be asserted that Malevichian Suprematism is mystical. This does not, however, attribute special status to Malevich since true art has always and will always be linked to this direct penetration of the total beingness of the world. The mysticism of Malevich stands out all the more because of its fundamental antagonism to the dominant postrevolutionary thought of Constructivism and materialism. There are, however, similarities in approach and in thought not only to certain aspects of Buddhism (undoubtedly through the books and articles of P.D. Uspensky) but also with the apophatic theology of the Greek Fathers and with Hesychasm. Though not wishing to overestimate these elements among so many others in Suprematism, one cannot ignore them.
3. Suprematism as absolute Non-objectivity.
There are many ambiguities in the names applied to the different manifestations of the plastic arts which in the 20th Century no longer represent the elements of reality as we see them around us. The most usual term to designate this art which refuses all reference to any known thing in the perceptible world is that of ABSTRACTION. Though this term with its nuances may be appropriate for Kandinsky or even Mondrian, it will not do for Suprematism which is not the triumph of ‘abstraction’ but of ‘bespredmetnos’ (non-objectivity).
In abstraction, there is always a RAPPORT WITH THE OBJECT, there is always an interpretation of the world by rapport to a REPRESENTATION (in the sense of the ‘Deutung’ discussed by Erich Auerbach in his celebrated book on mimesis). But Malevich is clear on this subject: Man CAN NOTHING REPRESENT. The artist must only favour the epiphanic appearance of beings as manifestations of being in the world. Whereas abstraction wants to know the object in its essence such as we intuitively know it and not according to our normal eyesight, Suprematist non-objectivity refuses all reference to the world of objects and only recognises ONE WORLD, that of the abyss of being. Where Kandinsky’s abstraction is still dualist-symbolist, where Mondrian’s abstraction is a system of pictorial and semiological equivalences, Malevichian non-objectivity is the radical destruction of the bridge by which metaphysics and traditional art spanned this ‘great abyss’ separating a world accessible to reason or intuition from a world which is not. For Malevich there is but one sole world – absolute non-objectivity. It is the SENSATION of this world which consumes all vestige of form at the two poles of Suprematism – the Black Square and the White Square.
Though Malevich, with pedagogic intentions, wanted to explain in his Bauhaus book in 1927 what conditioned artistic vision in different epochs in terms of the environment, this is not to say that Suprematism is the pictorial reproduction of that environment (an aerial view of the earth). It means that the environment has made possible the Suprematist consciousness. Aerial vision has not given rise to new geometrical forms, abstractly conceived by viewing forms from above. It explains the Suprematist liberation from the terrestial gravity of objects, their annihilation in the ‘liberated nothingness’. Malevich calls Suprematism a ‘new realism’ in so far as it embraces the only true reality of the non-objective world.
4. Suprematism as an All-embracing Philosophy.
The pictorial is for Malevich the privileged site for Suprematist revelation, but the latter is not limited to what is traditionally called the plastic arts. Suprematism reaches out to all branches of human activity. It wants to transform life in its entirety (economical, political, cultural, religious). If the perspective inherited from the Renaissance, or the inverted perspective of iconic art has been radically suppressed, this is because man’s place in the universal movement is not totally new. Suprematism is not humanist. It is not the triumph of man as the centre of the universe, the centre of converging or diverging vision, but the triumph of ‘liberated nothingness’. Man in general and the artist in particular, is the emitter and transmitter of the energies of the world which pass through him. He himself is this world. He is not the enterpreter but the prophet in the etymological sense of the word. It is by light of this new perspective that the new world must be erected. It will be built out of pain, for the figurative resists, and whenever there is resistance, there is war. Wars and revolutions are inevitable phenomena in the world march towards the liberation from the burden of the figurative, reinforced through the centuries by humanity’s anthromorphism and its need of comfort and convenience.
It would be hazardous to identify the ideas of Malevich with any kind of idealism, subjectivism, psychologism or pantheism. Rather they are phenomenological, in Heiddeger’s sense – and a few years before him – in so far as they constitute a ‘deciphering of being in its beings’.
Catalogue, Suprématisme, Galerie Jean Chauvelin, Paris, 1978