modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism

suprematism and constructivism


people, terms, and concepts: abstraction, near-abstraction, pure-abstraction; painterly abstraction, biomorphic abstraction, geometric abstraction; formalism, faktura, tektonika, social agency, propaganda ('agit-prop')

Suprematism was defined by Malevich as follows:

"Under Suprematism I understand the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such ... . Every art work, regardless of how small and insignificant it may seem, originates in pictorial or plastic feeling."

Recall what Malevich meant by 'feeling': there is an important distinction between feeling as 'emotion' (anger, sadness, jealousy, etc.) and feeling as 'sensation' (exhilaration, balance, heaviness, soaring, etc.) -- Malevich aimed for the latter, and not the former. This is why he should not be considered an expressionist, but a formalist -- his works are about feelings arising from line, shape, color, and form, not from human interactions. How did Malevich try to convey sensations through form?  What was the Basic Suprematist Element?  How can it be seen as the starting point or reference point for all of Malevich’s other works?  What kind of sensation was Malevich aiming for in the White on White, below? Be able to analyze the formal choices that he makes in the alignment, colors, compositions, etc. of his works to convey different sensations.  Why did artists such as Malevich see abstract art as having the potential for universal communication, across all cultural, ethnic, and class boundaries?

Russian Constructivism, is similar to Suprematism in its formalism and emphasis on geometry, although it tended more toward 3-D work such as reliefs, sculptures, and installation art, and is remarkable for its use of nontraditional and industrial materials such as wood, sheet metal, and glass.  What was their philosophy of faktura and tektonika?  In what sense does the the emphasis on those principles reverse a 400+ year tradition of Western art?  How is Constructivism, like Suprematism, a fundamentally formalist movement?  (Think now about the concept of formalism as exploring and staying ‘true to one’s materials.’)

Suprematism, Constructivism, and Social Agency

Both Suprematism and Constructivism were embraced by the Communists in the years shortly following the Communist Revolution (1917), and were even used for propagandistic purposes (agit-prop).  This is obvious in the El Lissitzky poster and in Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International below -- but how is it also true of Constructivist sculptures such as the Tatlin Relief?  Think about how Tatlin’s idea of faktura relates to the Communists’ desire to transform the economy from agriculture to industry. Recall also that the Constructivists, following the Communists’ rejection of any distinctions of class or social status, admitted no differences between artists, designers, craftspeople, and industrial workers:  all are simply ‘people who make things with materials.’

Malevich, Suprematist works at the 0,10 exhibition, 1915

Malevich, Suprematist Composition:  White on White, 1918

Tatlin, Relief, Russian Constructivism, 1916

Tatlin, Monument for a Monument to the Third International, Russian Constructivism, 1919

El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites with Red Wedge, Suprematism, 1919