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LESSON ONE: New Visions of the World

Kazimir Malevich: Airplane Flying, oil on canvas, 581×483 mm, 1915 (dated 1914) (New York, Museum of Modern Art); photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY Kazimir Malevich: Suprematist Composition: White on White, oil on canvas, 79.4×79.4 cm, 1935 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); photo © The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Kazimir Malevich: Airplane Flying, oil on canvas, 581×483 mm, 1915 (dated 1914) (New York, Museum of Modern Art); photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Kazimir Malevich: Suprematist Composition: White on White, oil on canvas, 79.4×79.4 cm, 1935 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); photo © The Museum of Modern Art, New York

INTRODUCTION

During an exceptionally charged moment in European history, Kazimir Malevich began exploring an entirely new form of painting. In 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, followed, in 1917, by the overthrow of Russia’s Romanov dynasty and the October Revolution. A curtain of war was drawn across Europe. Paris, which had been the epicenter of avant-garde art, was suddenly inaccessible to many artists. Independently, Malevich to feel that Cubism and Futurism, the leading artistic movements of the time, were too confining, given what the artists wished to communicate. Living in Russia, he developed a distinct method of nonfigurative painting.

LESSON OBJECTIVES

  • Students will be introduced to Kazimir Malevich, who pioneered a different system of abstract painting.

  • Students will consider the artist's use of shape, line, composition, and color reflect his artistic ideology.

INTRODUCTORY DISCUSSION

  • Ask your class to come up with definitions of the word “modern”. Ask them to consider what it might mean to be a “modern” artist.

  • Invite your students to reflect on the kinds of choices (such as color, line, composition, subject matter, and scale) that an artist might make when creating a painting.

  • Ask your students what makes two lines perpendicular. Ask them what makes two lines parallel. Have them define “quadrilateral,” “rectangle,” and “square.”

IMAGE-BASED DISCUSSION

Begin by looking at Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying. Refrain from telling your students the title right away.

  • Have your students consider the kinds of artistic choices Malevich made. Ask them to describe the various shapes in the painting.

  • Ask your students to consider how the shapes relate to one another in the composition: Are they perpendicular, diagonal, layered, or separated? How much space exists between the shapes? Do the shapes seem to be pulling together or pushing apart?

  • Invite your students to describe the colors Malevich used in the painting.

    Introduce the title of the painting to your students.

  • Are there any other ways in which the painting reminds your students of flying in an airplane? Some students may feel that the painting is reminiscent of a landscape seen from above. Others may see elements of a propeller plane in the composition.

  • Ask your students to describe what it feels like to fly in an airplane. Ask them how they might connect an airplane in flight with what is represented in the painting.

  • Ask your students to describe what it is like to look out of an airplane window, based on their experience of flying or seeing aerial photographs or film.

  • Ask your students to summarize the artistic choices Malevich made in Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying.

    When Malevich painted Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, he was familiar with the leading artistic movements of the time. He had most recently been involved with Russian Futurism, a movement fascinated by the dynamism of trains, planes, automobiles, moving pictures, electricity, and other accomplishments of the machine age. The Futurists captured the speed and dynamism of modern life through fragmented forms and stippled brushwork.

    Malevich refers to Futurist impulses in the second part of the painting’s title, “Airplane Flying,” but his choice of color and composition and his lack of a recognizable subject mark a significant break with past styles. Malevich reduced his palette to primary colors alongside black and white. He developed a sense of movement not through brushstrokes but through the tension created by the proximity and irregularity of his flat shapes, placed on a diagonal axis rather than along a vertical or horizontal one. Malevich called his new language of painting “Suprematism.”

    Malevich presented Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying in his 1915 exhibition The Last Futurist Exhibition, in St. Petersburg. He published a pamphlet to accompany the exhibition, a practice that would become critical for Malevich, as his radical painting style inspired confusion and sometimes even outrage. Malevich wrote, “Color and texture in painting are ends in themselves. They are the essence of painting, but this essence has always been destroyed by the subject[. . . .] Painters should abandon subject and objects if they wish to be pure painters. . . .” Malevich also commented on realism, writing that “The new realism in [Suprematist] painting is very much realism in painting, for it contains no realism of mountains, sky, water. . . .” He closed with a dramatic call to arms: “We, Suprematists, throw open the way to you. Hurry!—For tomorrow you will not recognize us.” [Kazimir Malevich, in “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting” (1916), Art in Theory, 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 173–83.]

  • Ask your students to summarize some of the central points Malevich made in the above statement. What did the artist think painting had to abandon in order for it to be truly modern? How did he want to change painting?

  • Ask your students to reflect on the word “realism.” In his statement, Malevich referred to traditional artistic tools of illusion (such as the use of perspective and naturalistic colors, and the shading and modeling of forms), which create recognizable images of landscapes, people, and objects. Ask your students to consider why Malevich thought that flat, geometric forms were more “real” than traditional realism.

  • Ask your students to look at Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White. Refrain from telling them the title of the work. Your students may feel challenged by this painting and ask questions such as “Is this art?” or “How much does this cost?” Let them know that these sorts of questions reflect the radical nature of the painting. What other kinds of questions does the painting inspire? What questions does White on White raise about Malevich? What questions does the painting pose about the role of the viewer? Ask your students what they see in the painting that inspires these kinds of questions.

  • Ask your students to clearly describe the painting’s shapes and composition. If the inner quadrilateral were placed in the very center of the painting, would it change the way that they see the work? What colors did Malevich use in the painting?

  • Introduce the title to your students. Ask them to recall some of the principles about Suprematism they discovered when looking at Malevich’s earlier work, Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying. What similarities and differences do they see between the two works?

    With Suprematist Composition: White on White, painted three years after Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, Malevich relinquished concrete titles in favour of abstract ones. The diagonal orientation of the form remained, but the primary colors and the black disappeared. Instead, Malevich began to look at white as the ultimate color (white light embodies the full color spectrum). The work’s accompanying explanation elevated painting to an astrophysical level:

    I have ripped though the blue lampshade of the constraints of colour. I have come out into the white. Follow me, comrade aviators. Swim into the abyss. I have set up the semaphores of Suprematism. [Malevich, in “Non-Objective Art and Suprematism” (1919), Art in Theory, 293.]

    Malevich was deeply interested in space-time physics and the notion of the fourth dimension, ideas that had been introduced in the 1880s. With White on White, Malevich was not only trying to record the disorienting modern experience, he seemed to be reaching for the stars as well. As fellow Russian artist El Lissitzky noted, “We have made the canvas rotate. And as we rotated it, we saw that we were putting ourselves in space.” [Varnedoe, A Fine Disregard, 267.]

ACTIVITIES

  1. Envisioning Space

    Malevich was influenced by the writings of Charles Howard Hinton, who popularized his ideas about the fourth dimension in a series of essays at the turn of the twentieth century. Edwin A. Abbott, a contemporary of Hinton, was also interested in the notion of an unseen fourth dimension, and in 1884 he published a popular tale called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. The story describes a square (a “Flatlander”) living in a two-dimensional world, unable to comprehend the notion of a third dimension. Abbott used the following example to illustrate our own limitations in envisioning space of a higher dimension:

    Does this [notion of a fourth dimension] still seem strange to you? Then put yourself in a similar position. Suppose a person of the Fourth Dimension, condescending to visit you, were to say, “Whenever you open your eyes, you see a Plane (which is of Two Dimensions) and you infer a Solid (which is of Three); but in reality you also see (though you do not recognize) a Fourth Dimension, which is not color nor brightness nor anything of the kind, but a true Dimension, although I cannot point out to you its direction, nor can you possibly measure it.” What would you say to such a visitor? Would not you have him locked up? [Edwin A. Abbott. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 2–3.]
  • Assign your students to read and report on the central ideas of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.

  • Ask your students to write about what they imagine life would be like in two dimensions. What would the world look like?

GROVE ART ONLINE: Suggested Reading

Below is a list of selected articles which provide more information on the specific topics discussed in this lesson.


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