Kazimir Malevich’s Airplane Flying: Suprematist Composition does not depict an airplane. Instead, it was intended to convey the sensation of mechanical flight using thirteen rectangles in black, yellow, red, and blue placed in dynamic relationships on a white ground. Movement is created by the diagonal orientation of the rectangles in relation to the edges of the canvas. Groups of individual colors suggest distinct objects shown at varying distances as they increase or diminish in scale. Ascension is implied by the point of the yellow rectangle centered at the top of the composition, while the bright yellow and red rectangles float above the heavier dark blue and black rectangles.
The Last Futurist Exhibition
Airplane Flying: Suprematist Composition was first shown in 1915 at “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10” in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was not the most important painting in this first display of Malevich’s Suprematist paintings. That was Black Square, which was hung in a position of honor up by the ceiling in the corner of the room, the traditional location of a Christian icon in a Russian peasant’s house. In keeping with this exalted placement Malevich described Black Square as ”the first step of pure creation in art” and “the embryo of all potentials.” The 38 other paintings of geometric forms, including Airplane Flying, were implicitly generated from this basic form.
Suprematism as a new realism
Malevich declared Suprematism was a new “realism” in painting, a statement that may seem puzzling given that the paintings are all basic geometric forms on a white background. By making this claim Malevich rejected the conventional understanding of realism in painting as the representation of the world we see.
There are two different ways to understand Malevich’s alternative conception of realism. The first is formal: the painter’s basic formal elements of surface, color, shape, and texture are real things in themselves. They are not signs referring to anything else or images representing real things outside the painting. Black Square is a black square of paint on canvas, nothing more, nothing less. It makes no reference to any other object; it is a real thing in itself.
This formalist approach is a defining aspect of modernist art and literature, and it was a major concern of the Russian Futurist poets with whom Malevich often collaborated. They invented zaum, a “transrational” language that used linguistic forms — phonetic sounds, letters, syllables and words divorced from referential meaning — to communicate directly by means of feeling. Reduction to basic forms of verbal or visual language was intended to liberate the writer or artist from the conventions of the past and the limitations of the world as it exists. Zaum would pave the way to a new world and a new mode of being.
The second way to understand Suprematism as a “new realism” is in relation to a reality beyond the one we normally experience. Mystical traditions and theories of multi-dimensional, non-Euclidean space were popular within artistic and literary circles in the early 20th century. Malevich was particularly interested in the mystical geometry of Peter Ouspensky, who believed artists were able to see beyond material reality and communicate their visions to others. In a pamphlet written for The Last Futurist Exhibition, Malevich echoes this conception of the artist:
I transformed myself in the zero of form . . . I destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things, from the horizon-ring that confines the artist and the forms of nature.T. Anderson, ed. K. S. Malevich: Essays on Art 1915-1933, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1969), p. 19.
This is a description of the artist as a superior being who leads the way to a new consciousness. Suprematism was the result, a non-objective art of “pure feeling,” unconcerned with representation of the visible world.
Kazimir Malevich as a pioneer of abstraction
Malevich has long been considered, with Kandinsky and Mondrian, one of the pioneers of non-representational painting in the early twentieth century. A number of other artists also developed non-representational painting in this period, but for varying reasons their work was not widely known. Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian were prominent and active participants in the world of modern avant-garde art and published multiple texts explaining their theories. This greatly increased their visibility and influence.
All three were committed to the notion of the artist as a spiritual leader who perceives a greater metaphysical reality and whose art guides society towards its realization. They also all believed that they could communicate this spiritual reality using the basic formal means of painting.
Malevich’s approach was, however, different from the multi-year, carefully reasoned progression from naturalistic representation to non-objective painting undertaken (separately) by Kandinsky and Mondrian. Malevich leaped from a style closely related to Synthetic Cubism to Suprematism within a few months, and his explanatory texts were written afterwards to support what was largely an intuitive discovery.
Malevich retrospectively located the origin of Black Square in the basic geometric shapes of the stage designs he made in 1913 for the Cubo-Futurist opera, Victory over the Sun. This opera, created in collaboration with the Futurist poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh, told a story of time travelers overcoming old concepts of time and gravity. The theme of space travel and the character of the Aviator are directly relevant to Suprematist painting, which also reflects forms in aerial photographs widely reproduced in Russian newspapers during the early years of World War I.
The title of Airplane Flying: Suprematist Composition makes direct reference to this subject, but all Suprematist paintings depict geometric forms on a white ground in a manner that suggests abstracted objects floating in space. Malevich related this white ground to the cosmic infinite and the void that represents transformed consciousness. Combining mystic spiritualism with modern technology was common practice among Cubists and Futurists in Europe as well as Russia.
What’s in a name?
The titles of Malevich’s paintings in The Last Futurist Exhibition indicated that Suprematism was not a carefully refined and consistent theory of non-objective painting. Some works had non-referential titles such as Quadrilateral, while others referred to specific objects or people as in Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions. Whether a painting received a referential title or not often seems random: Quadrilateral is the original title of Black Square, while Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman is a similar painting of a red square.
The referential titles in Malevich’s early Suprematist paintings contradict his initial claim to have escaped the world of material things and reached a world of pure non-objective form. Although the works are non-representational, Suprematist paintings often refer to feelings provoked by specific material things. We have seen how non-representational forms may convey the sensation of flight in Airplane Flying: Suprematist Composition at the beginning of this essay. What sensations do the forms of Malevich’s Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack. Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension provoke in you?
- Kazimir Malevich, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting. (Moscow, 1916).
- Letter to Mikhail Matyushin (1915) quoted in John Milner, Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry (New Haven, 1996), p. 127.
John Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism, 1920-1934. Revised Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2017.
Charlotte Douglas, Kazimir Malevich (New York: Harry Abrams, 1994).
The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932 (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1992).
John Milner, Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).