Supreme Abstraction

Malevich, Kasimir The Aviator  1914
Oil on canvas  49 1/4 x 25 5/8 in. (125 x 65 cm.) 
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Malevich, Kasimir. Suprematism 1915
Oil on canvas 34 1/2 x 28 3/8 in. (87.5 x 72 cm.) 
State Russian Museum, St. Petersbur

Form: Oil on canvas. Geometrically abstract though still has a sense of depth. uses dark muddy looking colors with bright saturated ones.

Iconography: "He sought to distill into painting, experiences of consciousness that eluded representation. Malevich invented a language of geometric forms that presented a wholly conceptual reality. It seems more than coincidental that he relied upon the metaphor of flying in order to describe his radical innovation. Malevich envisioned himself as an aviator who has flown through the blueness of the sky and punctured it, piercing the firmament, coming to exist in a free infinite realm: "I have torn through the blue lampshade of color limitations, and come out into the white; after me, comrade aviators sail into the chasm-I  have set up semaphores of Suprematism. Sail forth! The white, free chasm, infinity is before us."
With suprematist abstraction, Malevich is saying that he has found the purest from of abstraction, and is intent on creating new realities with it. 

Context:"Suprematism began in Russia c.1913 and was based around artist Kasimir Malevich. It was first launched publicly in 1915 by him through both a manifesto and exhibition titled '0.10 The Last Futurist Exhibition' in Petrograd. Malevich built up pictures from geometric shapes without reference to observed reality, producing an art that expressed only pure aesthetic feeling rather than with a connection to anything social, political or otherwise. To Malevich the purest form was the square while other elements were rectangles, circles, triangles and the cross.Malevich presented an art of dynamic purity to stir emotions and promote contemplation, and dispense with subject matter (although some painting titles refer to reality eg., 'Suprematist composition: Airplane Flying'), perspective and traditional painting techniques. His paintings were carefully constructed with the focus centering on the visual qualities of shape and space, free from the constraints of real world objectivity. Suprematism promoted pure aesthetic creativity. Malevich, his colleagues and students designed textiles, typography and architectural structures in the Suprematist style, even to the extent of creating ideas for buildings and satellite towns, which were never realised however due to their impractibility. Several of Malevich's pupils became prominent Soviet artists although only Nikolai Suetin took up the Suprematist style, developing Malevich's concepts int a practical system of design which he applied to architecture, furniture, book production and ceramics. Although initially Malevich had a small group of followers (including Rodchenko, Tatlin, Gabo and Pevsner), it was always destined to be a short-lived movement because of its rigid parameters and hence its limited creative potential. Malevich's assertion that art could be composed without reference to the real world was highly influential both in Russia where it made possible Constructivism, and world-wide where it became the catalyst for a variety of styles of abstract art, architectural forms and utilitarian designs.  Suprematism was a revolutionary movement, fundamental in shaping a new artistic vision of the world, but by 1918 however, Constructivism had replaced it as the preferred style. Although Malevich continued painting, by 1930 his art had returned to the figuative." 
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"Born near Kiev; trained at Kiev School of Art and Moscow Academy of Fine Arts; 1913 began creating abstract geometric patterns in style he called suprematism; taught painting in Moscow and Leningrad 1919-21; published book, The Nonobjective World (1926),on his theory; first to exhibit abstract geometric paintings; strove to produce pure, cerebral compositions; famous painting White on White (1918) carries suprematist theories to absolute conclusion; Soviet politics turned against modern art, and he died in poverty
and oblivion. He began working in an unexceptional Post-Impressionist manner, but by 1912 he was painting peasant subjects in a massive`tubular' style similar to that of Léger as well as pictures combining the fragmentation of form of Cubism with the multiplication of the image of Futurism (The Knife Grinder, Yale Univ. Art Gallery, 1912). Malevich, however, was fired with the desire `to free art from the burden of the object' and launched the Suprematist movement, which brought abstract art to a geometric simplicity more radical than anything previously seen. He claimed that he made a picture `consisting of nothing more than a black square on a white field' as early as 1913, but Suprematist paintings were first made public in Moscow in 1915 and there is often difficulty in dating his work. (There is often difficulty also in knowing which way up his paintings should be hung, photographs of early exhibitions sometimes providing conflicting evidence.) Malevich moved away from absolute austerity, tilting rectangles from the vertical, adding more colors and introducing a suggestion
of the third dimension and even a degree of painterly handling, but around 1918 he returned to his purest ideals with a series of White on White paintings. After this he seems to have realized he could go no further along this road and virtually gave up abstract painting, turning more to teaching, writing, and making three-dimensional models that were important in the growth of Constructivism. In 1919 he started teaching at the art school at Vitebsk, where he exerted a profound influence on Lissitzky, and in 1922 he moved to Leningrad, where he lived for the rest of his life. He visited Warsaw and Berlin in 1927, accompanying an exhibition of his works and visited the Bauhaus. In the late 1920s he returned to figurative painting, but was out of favor with a political system that now demanded Socialist Realism from its artists and he died in neglect. However, his influence on abstract art, in the west as well as Russia, was enormous. The best collection of his work is in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam."
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Piet Mondrian Landscape Near Amsterdam c1900
Form: Oil, charcoal, and pastel on canvas.

Iconography: Although this peivce is more realistic then his later peices, there is still a hint of him moving toward his later devices. The foreground seems to be a combination of different color shapes. Thre distinction comes when you add the background to it. "The subject matter, landscapes at first, became concentrated on natural elements that best lent themselves to communicate the language of visual phenomena, such as trees, windmills, water and dunes. Mixing charcoal, pastel, watercolor or gouache, the experimentation began early with his drawings in which, as early as  the 1899 'Forest', trees are treated as the natural element 'parexcellence'. He felt that its graphical form embodied the basis of the art of drawing and of art in general: “I find that the great line is the primordial element in a subject; color comes afterwards” (

Context: "For him it is not by imitation that we can understand the significance of life: it was more through analysis, or more precisely through perpetual speculation: “Experience is my only teacher”. Therefore, the artistic path that started with naturalistic representational figuration of the old masters (during his studies at the Fine Art Academy of Amsterdam), going through virtually every artistic movement (between 1900 and 1911), reached the logical destiny of abstraction or neo-plasticity (from 1912 until his death). This coincided perfectly with his mental and spiritual path, i.e. the Theosophical doctrine that meant going further than communicating with the divine and aspiring at finding the secret of creation — taking it further by participating in the work of the ever-expanding universe. “The artist is born from the past and  goes as far as his imagination can take him”. During his visit to Paris in 1911, his painting style was even more profoundly impacted. The fateful encounter with Van Gogh's hatched lines and brilliant color as well as the Cubists’ re-interpretation of plastic form ushered him gradually into the absolute simplification of his work. Unlike the Impressionists, Pointillists and Fauvists, who were concentrated on breaking with the canons of color rather than form, or even the Cubists, who broke with tradition in forms but still used tones of color,  Mondrian pushed the simplification further in both areas." (
Mondrian is seen in almost every important art movement of his time. What is important about what we see here is the fact that he was an exceedingly talented artist, but that he is not known for these early works, only for his later abstractions such as "Broadway Boogie Woogie." Since he studied art in the tradition of the Old Masters while in Amsterdam, it can be assumed that this is one of the studies he did while living there.

"Our collective memory is marked forever by Mondrian's colorful geometrical abstractions, and this exhibition, dedicated to his 1892-1914 period, clearly brings out the extraordinary path this 'polyglot' of many an artistic language chose. We see how, after many years of experimentation, there resulted a significant ‘quantum’ leap, abandoning representational art. For those of us who were only familiar with his apparently simple geometrical compositions, his versatility and facility with painting are amazing, as can be seen from an early 1883 still-life composed ‘à la Chardin’ and executed like an old Dutch master. He changed style and technique incessantly, traveling through Realism, Pointillism, Expressionism and Fauvism to settle in the realm of Cubism and formal abstraction. What at first seems like an assimilation of the old masters by an  assiduous student, developed through the years through intensive and inquisitive research. We witness the discovery of the mysterious world of visual phenomena, its infinite source of interpretation, its close relationship with the psyche, its linkage with the spiritual, and its universality of intelligence." 

Piet Mondrian. Molen (Mill); Mill in Sunlight, 
1908 Oil on canvas
114 x 87 cm (44 7/8 x 30 1/4 in) 
Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague
Form: Oil on canvas

Iconography: We can see Mondrian moving away from his earliest style of realism. Here he is using bright, saturated colors, pointallism, fauvism, abstraction, a modge-podge of techniques to create this piece. The composition is that of a VanGogh, the subject sits in the middle of the canvas, the movement is created by the colors and the brushstrockes rather than asymetry.His use of a mill as the subject shows he is still connected to his Old Master training, landscapes, horses, trees, and windmills being favorites.

Context: The mill under the sun, shows Mondrian’s confrontation with this classical hollandaise
 theme. The painting reflects the influences of the “fauvism”, and Van Gogh’s painting principles.The mill, appears against the light painted by several superimpositions of paintbrushes. The use of the “pointillism technique” allows Mondrian to dematerialize the form, and the utilization of“fauvism composition” to allow him reach new levels of abstract reality. 


Piet Mondrian. Horizontal Tree c1909

Piet Mondrian. Flowering Apple Tree
Form: Oil on canvas. abstract geometrical forms

Iconography: "Focusing inwards is rejected by Mondrian when the object is rejected. Focusing  inwards is involvement. Involvement with objects entails suffering.  Growth is seen as an irresistible force moving through the tree - a river of life, spreading, demanding space into which it can expand. Pictures such as The Red Tree reflect not simply a tree seen now, but the way it has evolved, has lived, has been formed, is still in formation, will wither and die. In pictures such as The Blue Tree the urgency of the need to grow is such that it is as if the whole growth were telescoped into one explosive moment like a shellburst. Coursing with life, the trees are twisted images of torment and despair. 

Context:  In the paintings of chrysanthemums - that most centripetal of flowers - there is a sense of concentration that is agonising. It is as if the artist were trying to hypnotise himself  by gazing into this flower and as if he were trying to hypnotise the flower into suspending its process of growth, the process that will make the petals fall away, the flowers wilt and die (as it is seen to do in two of the paintings in the series). The rapt quality of the image seems to embody a longing to deny time, the flower is held together with a sort of desperation. In the series of images of trees that followed, the forces of growth can no longer be held in."Intense involvement with living things is involvement with death. If you follow nature, wrote Mondrian in 1920, you have to accept 'whatever is capricious and twisted in nature'. If the capricious is beautiful, it is also tragic: 'If you follow nature you will not be able to vanquish the tragic to any real degree in your art. It is certainly true that naturalistic painting makes us feel a harmony which is beyond the tragic, but it does not express this in a clear and definite way, since it is not confined to expressing relations of equilibrium. Let us recognise the fact once and for all: the natural appearance, natural form, natural colour, natural rhythm, natural relations most often express the tragic . . . We must free ourselves from our attachment to the external, for only then do we transcend the tragic, and are enabled consciously to contemplate the repose which is within all things.' "Mondrian could find a repose to contemplate in natural things so long as he could see them with their energy held in check, as with the chrysanthemums. The object was tolerated so long as it seemed to contain its energy. Looking at the trees, he recognised the forces flowing out of them - so that the tendency towards the centrifugal first appears among these images - felt the need to release those force from objects and objectify them in another way. Attachment had to be transferred from natural objects to things not subject to death. To an artificial tulip, which would be everlasting. To lines which were not lines tracing the growth in space of a tree but were lines not matched in nature, lines proper to art, lines echoing the bounding lines of the canvas itself."
- From David Sylvester, "About Modern Art: Critical Essays, 1948-1997"

"With the 1911 'Gray Tree', the artist-tree reappeared to draw the 1912 'Apple Blossom', this time beholding the sky with it's eye-shaped leaves, such as the thousand eyes of knowledge on the wings of a seraphim. And the primordial essence of a tree was reached with the 1912 'Tree II', a web of lines and flat color abstracted into the binary language of lines in which color became captive. The many faces of his trees were representative not only of all the different artistic currents he observed and experimented with, but corresponded also to his own interior metamorphosis as a man, artist and philosopher. If the trees in the 'Forest' bear the hallmark of the Symbolists, the 'Blue Tree' has a hint of the Pointillists, the 'Apple Blossom' is post-Cezanne early figurative Cubist, and his 'Tree II' shows that he was set to go even further than the Cubists, just to be in harmony with himself and in phase with his own philosophy that was so influenced by his Theosophical beliefs: to achieve knowledge, inspiration must be helped by experimentation. He believed that the secret of creation is revealed permanently and human intelligence has a role in this revelation. Similar to a tree, the artist is in fact a born 'Theosophist' sitting at the edge of the universe in between the ‘rational’ of earthly philosophy and the ‘irrational’ of celestial theology. If a tree was essentially line or the essential element of a visual language and the primary artist of a landscape, water and transparency were the receptacle, the canvas, the finished work in which the colors reflected and repeated in rhythmic echoes and, above all, the element that offered the stabilizing factor of equilibrium. For a Theosophist, even the irrational is part of the cosmic order and equilibrium where all elements fight for the final harmony. Since the 1892 'Singel' of Amsterdam's serpentine water, through the mirror-like water in 'Summer night' of 1906, the reflection in 'Gein: Trees on the riverbank' of 1907, the melancholy of dawn is transformed into the transparent vertical and horizontal lines of an 'Oval composition' of 1914, where capturing repetition and reflection is essential, not the representation of a natural phenomenon such as water." 


Piet Mondrian. Composition 1916

Piet Mondrian. Composition with Color Planes and Gray Lines 1, 1918
Oil on canvas 49 x 60.5 cm (19 1/4 x 23 7/8 in) Private collection
Form: Oil on canvas.abstract geometrical forms, dark lines with muddy and bright colors are paired

Iconography:  She notes in these paintings by Mondrian, whose work has become synonymous with the grid, two signal opposing generative tendencies. Composition No. 1, in which the lines intersect just beyond the picture plane (suggesting that the work is taken from a larger whole), exemplifies a centrifugal disposition of the grid; Tableau  2, whose lines stop short of the picture’s edges (implying that it is a self-contained unit), evinces a centripetal tendency. Krauss argues that these dual and conflicting readings of the grid embody the central conflict of Mondrian’s—and indeed of Modernism’s—ambition: to represent properties of  materials or perception while also responding to a higher, spiritual call. “The grid’s mythic power,” Krauss asserts, “is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction).” 

Context: We have now moved completely away from his earliest works and nto the realm of pure abstraction. "In 1918 Mondrian created his first “losangique” paintings, such as the later Composition No. 1, by tilting a square canvas 45 degrees. Most of these diamond-shaped works were created in 1925 and 1926 following his break with the De Stijl group over Theo van Doesburg’s introduction of the diagonal. Mondrian felt that in so doing van Doesburg had betrayed the movement’s fundamental principles, thus forfeiting the static immutability achieved through stable verticals and horizontals. Mondrian asserted,
however, that his own rotated canvases maintained the desired equilibrium of the grid, while the 45-degree turn allowed for longer lines. Art historian Rosalind Krauss identifies the grid as “a structure that has remained emblematic of modernist ambition.” 
These begin the series of paintigs for which Mondrian is best known. He has created numerous works based on the theme of 'Composition', always with grids and various colors, though his earliest were black and white. The importance of these works cannot be denied, for though we see that he was an extremely talented artist, these are the only works with which his name is now mst readily known. It begs us to ask the question, does society have an ever-inceasing penchant for simplistic art, or is it just too jaded to be bothered with the works of the Old Masters?