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From WHAT IS SUPREMATISM?

Jean-Claude Marcadé

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 (rozbuzhdenie) 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'.

From the catalogue for: Kasimir Malewitsch – zum 100. Geburtstag; Galerie Gmurzynska,
Köln, Juni – Juli, 1978