The Art Movement Suprematism: Definition & Artists

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn about Suprematism, a Russian art movement, developed by painter Kasimir Malevich in 1915. You'll understand this different type of art, one that didn't rely on images or narrative and then you'll test your knowledge with a quiz!

Development of Suprematism

In the early 20th century, Russia experienced huge changes in political, social, and cultural life. During World War I and within this upheaval, Russian artist Kasimir Malevich (1879-1935) founded Suprematism in 1915. He wrote about his ideas in From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: New Painterly Realism. His new art movement focused on geometry and a vocabulary of a few simple shapes like the cross, square, and circle and a limited color palette (meaning the range of colors the painter chooses to use). It was the first art movement that created total geometric abstraction: paintings that didn't rely on realistic images (for example, a landscape or portrait) or narrative and where the picture told a story. You sometimes also see this type of art called non-objective.

But why the term Suprematism? Frankly (and boldly), Malevich believed his new art would be superior to the art of the past. It would be purer, more truthful, and not distracted by reliance on realism. In 1915, he exhibited 35 paintings in St. Petersburg in an exhibit that heralded the birth of Suprematism. Below, you can view a photograph of that exhibit.

First Suprematist exhibit in 1915
Suprematist exhibit

Among the works is Black Square. In the image above, it's the painting hanging in the top of the gallery corner, higher than the other paintings. The prominent position was no accident, because Malevich considered Black Square the first Suprematist painting.

Black Square, 1915
Black Square

It's very simple. One black square dominates the canvas. The design grew out of a stage curtain Malevich had done for a futuristic opera earlier in his career. It's monochromatic, meaning it only uses colors of a single hue (in this case black) with shades of gray and white, and uses a single shape. Malevich returned to the black square throughout his career, and he did four versions of the painting.

In another work from 1915, Malevich painted a series of rectangles floating on a white surface. He called it Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles.

Suprematist Painting: Eight Red Rectangles
Eight Red Rectangles

In 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the tsar and took power in the October Revolution. Many Russian artists were involved with the Bolsheviks and supported the new state. The government embraced Malevich and his work, wanting to promote a new art for a new age. He was invited to teach as a member of the newly established state Fine Arts Department. He later taught at an art school in Vitebsk, where he introduced Suprematism to others.

Other Suprematist Artists

Malevich recruited other artists to be part of the Suprematist movement in Russia, some of whom became known for their work.

El Lissitzky (1890-1941) was a teacher, artist and graphic designer. He met Malevich when he was also invited to teach at the school in Vitebsk. He became a follower of Suprematism and created paintings and prints that he called his Proun series. No one is really sure what the word meant, but the works explored the relationship between two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculpture. In the image below, made of watercolor and ink, the cube is monochromatic but dimensional. It has three sides and hangs over a linear field that seems to float in space.

Untitled Proun image, ca. 1925
Proun image

Olga Rozanova (1886-1918) adopted her own form of Suprematism, with bold colorful shapes and texture, probably because she was also interested in fabrics. Her career was cut short when she died from diphtheria in 1918.

Rozanova untitled Suprematist work
Rozanova painting

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