Historiography of Malevich’s Black Square: The Mystical Icon of Russian Avant-Garde

Paintings by Kazimir Malevich on view in “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10,” Black Square in the upper corner. St Petersburg, Russia. December 1915 – January 1916.

Looking at Malevich’s Black Square from 1915, I am interested in understanding how this work came to be recognized as a mystical icon. Malevich’s Black Square represents the birth of Suprematism at a very significant time in Russian society. Coming from Eastern Europe myself, I always thought this painting had the mysterious aura of a religious icon and my interest in its spiritual significance relates to my own research of contemporary artists turning towards mysticism. As with many canonical works of art, Malevich’s Black Square is surrounded by myth, but methodologies in art history break down myth. Drawing on Marxism to consider the social conditions in Russia at the time Malevich was creating his Black Square will help me better understand why the artist felt there was a need for a new movement that is spiritually charged. It will also be important to look at Malevich’s theoretical and philosophical influences, as well as his own theories for the development of Suprematism. Drawing on formalism, semiotics and looking at theories of the monochrome will be ways to interpret the painting’s position in the visual language of non-objective art. This research could make a contribution to the relationship of spirituality to Russian Avant-Garde art. I will be looking at recent academic articles and books, as well as sources from thirty years ago, in order to get a broad range of perspectives on this canonical work of art that represents an entire movement. 

Kazimir Malevich, The Black Square, 1915. Oil on linen. 79.5 cm. x 79.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Annotated Bibliography

Birringer, Johannes H. “Constructions of the Spirit: The Struggle for Transfiguration in Modern Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 42, no. 2 (1983): 137–150.

Through formal analysis of Malevich’s work, comparison to other Avante-Garde artists and theoretical analysis of Malevich’s own writings in Suprematism: The Non-Objective World, Birringer looks at the dilemmas in modern art with transcendence of representation.  This article is relevant to my interest in the spiritual dimension of Malevich’s Black Square because it raises questions about the artist’s need to give form to his inner spirit. 

Compton, Susan P. “Suprematism – The Higher Intuition.The Burlington Magazine 118, no. 881 (1976): 577-585.

Compton examines how Suprematism strived to distinguish itself from previous Russian Avante-Garde movements such as Futurism. Discussing the beginning of Suprematism, Compton draws attention to Malevich’s involvement in a Futurist opera Victory Over The Sun, for which Malevich designed the costumes and sets. Compton argues that it was during this time that Malevich conceptualized his ideas for The Black Square and makes a connection to The Fourth Dimension by Uspensky – a literary work about cosmic consciousness and higher intuition. 

Douglas, Charlotte. “Suprematism: The Sensible Dimension.” The Russian Review 34, no. 3 (1975): 266–281.

Douglas looks at the historical and philosophical motivation for Suprematism, while also focusing on Malevich’s biography to get a better understanding of the artist’s approach to the new art movement. Douglas explains Malevich’s ideas about sensations and feelings, referencing the artist’s own writings. This article is relevant to my research because it clearly explains what Suprematism meant for Malevich and how he viewed his Black Square as its own living organism.  

Fingesten, Peter. “Spirituality, Mysticism and Non-Objective Art.” Art Journal 21, no. 1, (1961): 2-6.

Touching upon the influence of Theosophy, Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, Fingesten looks at how non-objective art has contributed to the development of the mind and has created a shortcut to direct experience of feeling.  For Fingesten, Malevich is not a mystic like Kandinsky or Mondrian, but his art does strive towards pure vision. Approaching formalism, semiotics, and symbolism, Fingesten introduces “metasymbolism” as a term to describe artworks such as The Black Square,for it does not stand as a symbol for something in the external world but it symbolizes a deeper truth – a pure feeling – inside its formal world. 

Kurbanovsky, Alexei. “Malevich’s Mystic Signs: From Iconoclasm to New Theology” in Mark D. Steinberg and Heather J. Coleman, eds., Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. 

Kurbanovsky is mapping out Malevich’s evolution of creative thinking by drawing connections to philosophy and aesthetics. Approaching semiotics, Kurbanovsky makes a very interesting connection between religious icon paintings and Malevich’s Suprematist works. The Black Square is viewed as a mystic sign – a signifier for the impossibility of representing transcendence. This article by Kurbanovsky is highly relevant to my interest in the mysticism of The Black Square as it draws important connections to icon painting by using iconographic and semiotic methodologies. 

Lodder, Christina. “Man, Space, and the Zero of Form: Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematism and the Natural World” in Paul Crowther and Isabel Wunsche, eds., Meanings of Abstract Art: Between Nature and Theory. New York: Routledge, 2012. 

In this paper, Lodder looks at the relationship between nature and Suprematism. Although Malevich rejects nature as a subject matter for art, he considers each form as its own natural entity. Lodder looks at Melevich’s theoretical writings to show how Malevich viewed his Black Square as a living organism that communicated with the living. At first, this essay did not seem relevant to my research into the mystical aspects of The Black Square but a deeper relationship could be drawn between nature and spirit. 

Malevich, Kazimir. The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism. New York: Dover Publications, 2003.

After examining interpretations of The Black Square by different art historians and critics, it is interesting to read the artist’s own intentions for creating this painting. Malevich emphasizes artistic feeling above all else and describes how liberating it was for him to leave the objective world. In this manifesto, he does not make direct reference to other theories or philosophies but does compare his work to primitive symbols of Aboriginal man. This comparison raises questions as to why there is little to no writing from a post-colonial perspective on Suprematism. 

Railing, Patricia. “The Cognitive Line in Russian Avant-Garde Art.” Leonardo 31, no. 1 (1998): 67–73.

Through formal and semiotic analysis, Railing examines how Russian Avant-Garde artists like Malevich, Kandinsky and Rodchenko wrote about the functions of color and line in art. Railing argues that the line for Malevich indicates a cognitive process. Although the article is helpful in breaking down the formal elements of Russian Avant-Garde, it is not focused on The Black Square.

Rose, Barbara. “The Meanings of Monochrome” in Valeria Varas and Raul Rispa, ed Monochromes: From Malevich to the Present. Berkley: University of California Press, 2006.

Rose explores the history of monochrome art and its multiple meanings. She presents the duality of the monochrome – as both concrete and mystical. Rose states that this duality is first announced when Malevich’s monochromes appear. Although my interest lies in the mystical meaning of The Black Square, this article is relevant to my research because it presents multiple meanings of the monochrome and places Malevich’s work within the socio-political context of Modern Russia, where there was division between spirituality and materiality. 

Shatskikh, Aleksandra. Black Square: Malevich and the Origins of Suprematism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012. 

In this book, Shatskikh is concerned with the timeline of events before and after The Black Square was painted. The author also sheds light on Malevich’s effort to rewrite his own biography and history of Suprematism, clarifying important dates. Although it is a very detailed historiography of The Black Square, it is not relevant to my interest in the mysticism of the painting. The book was written in 2012 by a Russian author, which tells me that there is not a significant interest in the spiritual aspects of The Black Square in its home country.  

Reflection on Research Findings

A painting as mysterious as Malevich’s Black Square is not an easy painting to approach, however Malevich spent most of his artistic career explaining its importance and produced a manifesto that helps us understand the meaning behind this artwork. With most of the articles I sourced for this research, the authors chose to reference Malevich’s own theories. This indicates that The Black Square will always demand an explanation from the artist. I wonder how different the interpretations of this work would be if no manifesto existed. Because I chose to look at the spiritual and mystical aspects of this painting, it was interesting to see how spirituality in art can be approached in different ways. Looking at the formal aspects of the painting – the square, its color and the space could still be explained in spiritual terms. It was also useful to approach the painting through a semiotic reading to understand the metaphysical meaning of the work.

 I particularly enjoyed reading Alexei Kurbanosky’s approach to The Black Square as a sacred text and a mystic sign, as it was interesting to see a connection between Russian iconography and modern non-objective art. Another fresh approach to Suprematism was in Christina Lodder’s essay on the relationship between Malevich’s forms and the natural world. 

It proved to be much more difficult to find Russian or Ukrainian literature on The Black Square than I expected. However, Aleksandra Shatskikh’s recent book is an English translation of an extensive historiography of The Black Square. The book does not explore the mystical aspects of the painting which may indicate that contemporary Russian scholars do not find this aspect of the work significant to the Avant-Garde movement. It is interesting to see how the painting is viewed differently in the east and the west. 

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