Chapter 22: Suprematism and De Stijl

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Russian Avant-Garde

During the first decade of the 20th century, Natalia Goncharova and other Russian artists worked hard to assimilate the new styles and attitudes of modern European art. They were able to see many examples of modern art in traveling exhibitions and reproductions in books and magazines. The extensive collections of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin in Moscow also provided Russian artists with opportunities to view many works by prominent European modernists.

Goncharova was a remarkably prolific and eclectic painter who produced an enormous number of works that show her immersion in contemporary European styles and techniques, such as cubism and expressionism. Goncharova’s subjects were at odds with her aggressively international and forward-leaning style. Peasant labor was a popular subject for many Russian modern artists between 1910 and 1913, especially for those associated with Neo-Primitivism, which included Goncharova and her partner Mikhail Larionov, as well as Kazimir Malevich and Aleksandr Shevchenko. Although they were deeply engaged with the developments of European art, Russian modernists were also committed to explicitly Russian themes and subjects—and peasants were a particularly significant subject for them.

Belief in a specifically Russian identity had deep historical roots in Russian culture, which had defined itself in ambivalent relation to Western European culture since the 18th century. Russian modernists maintained this long-standing ambivalence. They embraced many of the ideas and formal innovations of European modernism, but they insisted on interpreting and developing them in distinctively Russian ways.

Peasants who had worked the land for centuries were widely considered to embody the Russian national identity and soul. To assert their difference from Europe, Russian intellectuals described Russian peasants and the land itself as Eastern and Asian or Oriental. Russian peasants were often portrayed as true primitives, uncorrupted by European civilization. Ironically, by embracing the primitive Russian peasant, Russian modern artists were following European precedents, most famously that of Paul Gauguin, who admired and painted the primitive lifestyle of the French peasants in Brittany before he moved to the Pacific Islands.


In addition to the Neo-Primitivism of Goncharova and Larionov, other artists took alternate approaches to capture and comment on their contextual environment. One of these movements was called Suprematism, led by Kazimir Malevich. 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.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 Oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm (State Tretyakov Gallery).
Figure 22.1 Black Square, Kazimir Malevich, 1915, oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery.

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."

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 a representation of the visible world.

Malevich has long been considered, with Kandinsky and Mondrian, one of the pioneers of non-representational painting in the early 20th 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 toward its realization. They also all believed 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 afterward to support what was largely an intuitive discovery.

Figure 22.2 Suprematist Composition: White on White, Kazmir Malevich, 1918, oil on canvas, 79.4 x 79.4 cm. The Museum of Modern Art.
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Video Transcript

We're in The Museum of Modern Art looking at a painting by Kazimir Malevich, a type of painting that is called Suprematism. Suprematism was born during the years of World War I and the period of the Russian Revolution, which overthrew the absolutist Tsar and ultimately replaced it with a communist government, quite a tumultuous time in history. This painting was made in 1918, one year after the October Revolution. The Tsar had represented not only corruption and autocratic rule but also an ancient tradition. The hundreds of years of Tsarist rule and the art that supported that is upended.

 This was a really utopian painting, which is hard to see right now because Soviet history is so discredited. It's hard to regain the optimism that existed in 1918 among the intelligentsia, including painters like Malevich. So utopian meaning that artists and art could pave the way and help support a better future, and part of the idea was that painting like this would sweep away the naturalism that had been so much a part of bourgeois society in the 19th century and would point to a future where everybody could participate, not only the wealthy. And if you want everyone to participate and you want everyone to understand art, then you need to remove those culturally specific references that appear in still lifes and genre paintings and landscapes, or in religious painting, and go back to pure geometric shapes. 

Malevich believed that pure geometry was an expression of scientific rigor that was also spiritually based, that could move every man at a fundamental level. He was appealing to feeling, which is hard to understand as we look at this painting of a square slightly askew within another square. It couldn't be more reduced, except if you look at it closely you see the warm white of the outer square and then that cooler blue. And you'll notice that the blue and the white don't really touch, is a reserved line that is the blue-white, and the warm white are painted close to each other, but not next to each other. So it asks us to look closely, but in some ways, it also doesn't reward us all that much because this is so pared down. It's so conceptual that this painting was an embodiment of ideas. 

One of the ideas that Malevich was interested in at this time was ways of representing the three-dimensional that were not reliant on the Renaissance tradition that had ruled painting for hundreds of years. So, for example, when we first look at the canvas, it looks flat. It looks like two squares, but then because of the tilt of the inner square, it might actually seem to be moving towards us. I also get the sense of one flat object lying on top of another. So we have this idea of two dimensions, then three dimensions, and perhaps even a fourth dimension. The idea that the smaller square is moving either in or out over time. This moment of optimism and utopia for artists is really brief because, when Stalin comes in, there'll be a demand for a new kind of art, an art that rejects this radically utopian abstraction and instead calls for a realism that celebrates the state, that celebrates labor, the working classes that were supposed to benefit from the Communist Revolution. I think for me, the lesson with Malevich is that we really need to go back to that historical moment, the sincerity of the early 20th century of artists who, with all their heart, wanted to aid in a revolution that would transcend an old and corrupt order and give us a new world. That ambition, that desire, cannot be doubted.

Questions to Consider

De Stijl

While in Holland, Piet Mondrian founded the movement called De Stijl (The Style) with the artist Theo Van Doesburg. The two shared many ideas about art as an expression of relationships, particularly the relationships between art and life. Because these artists believed that the evolution of art coincided with the modern progression of humankind, they thought that New Plasticism (Mondrian's name for his approach to the plastic arts) could, and should, encompass all of human experience. Van Doesburg founded the journal De Stijl to promote these ideas and demonstrate that their geometric abstraction, based on their theory of spiritual and pictorial progress, could form a total environment and impact modern life. Although Mondrian and Van Doesburg eventually parted ways, their movement to combine modern art and living was so influential that the abstract, geometric principles and use of primary colors they applied in painting, sculpture, design, and architecture still resonate today.

De Stijl is one of the most recognizable styles in all of modern art. Consisting only of horizontal and vertical lines and the colors red, yellow, blue, black, and white, De Stijl was applied not only to easel painting but also to architecture and a broad range of designed objects from furniture to clothing. This is not inappropriate. Despite its close association with Piet Mondrian, the artist thought of it not as his personal style, but as De Stijl–The Style; it was objective and universal, applicable to all people and all things.

Mondrian partially attributed his arrival at the elements of De Stijl to Theosophy, an occult philosophy promoted by thinkers such as Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner. Theosophists sought knowledge of higher, spiritual truths than those available to science, and often claimed to have access to those truths through direct spiritual insight. Mondrian became a member of the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909 and painted a number of works around that time that explore mystical awareness.

While Theosophy certainly informed the spiritual goals of De Stijl, its influence on the actual style of De Stijl is less clear. The Dutch mathematician and Theosophist M. H. J. Schoenmaekers, whom Mondrian met in 1916, wrote an essay the year before in which he asserted that “The three essential colors are yellow, blue, and red.” He also declared that “The two fundamental and absolute oppositions that shape our planet are: the horizontal line of the earth’s trajectory around the Sun, and the vertical trajectory of the rays that emanate from the center of the sun.” These quotes are, however, just two examples from a torrent of wildly different suggestions that Theosophists made for visualizing the spiritual. 

It helps to think of the elements of De Stijl as building blocks: structural components that, in different combinations, can be used to make everything in the universe. Take, for example, De Stijl’s limited palette of red, yellow, and blue. These are what are called the “primary” colors because if you had perfectly pure versions of each of these colors, you could create every other color. Red + yellow in different proportions create every shade of orange; blue + yellow create the shades of green; blue + orange create brown, and so on. Similarly, by combining black and white, you can make every shade of gray in between.

Red, yellow, and blue are “primary” colors in another sense as well. Although you can mix red and yellow to make orange, or red and blue to make violet, you cannot mix violet and orange, or even red-violet and red-orange, to make pure, primary red. It is for this reason that the artists of De Stijl could not have chosen orange, lavender, and teal. Not only are those colors impure (teal is a mixture of blue and green), they are also not fully representative of the color spectrum; if you had only those three colors you could never create red, yellow, or blue.

Color wheel with primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries.
Figure 22.3 Color wheel with primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries.

The justification for De Stijl’s use of only horizontal and vertical lines is somewhat trickier, and it helps to think of them not as lines, but as directional forces or vectors: dynamic structuring factors rather than stable structural components. If you recall from working with coordinate planes in mathematics, any regular line can be expressed in a formula that describes the movement of a point along a regular grid defined by x the horizontal axis, and y, the vertical axis.

To put this into what may be more familiar terms, think of an Etch-a-Sketch machine. There are just two control knobs, one for the horizontal motion of a black line on the gray screen, and the other for vertical motion. But by simultaneously manipulating both knobs, you can draw diagonal or curved lines to create triangles and circles — or a baseball cap, a human face, and even a chaotic scribble that would seem impossible to reduce to an x, y formula.

De Stijl’s horizontal and vertical lines are like the shape-making vectors controlled by the Etch-a-Sketch knobs. In the same way a printer combines just a few primaries to make any color, by manipulating the horizontal and vertical forces of an Etch-a-Sketch, you can draw anything in the universe, from a box, to a tree, to the Taj Mahal.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow, and Black, 1922, oil on canvas, 41.9 x 48.9 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art).
Figure 22.4 Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow, and Black, Piet Mondrian, 1922, oil on canvas, 41.9 x 48.9 cm. Minneapolis Institute of Art.

To give one more analogy by way of conclusion, the elements of De Stijl are the artist’s equivalent of the physicist’s fundamental building blocks: protons, neutrons, and electrons. With a bucket of each of these atomic building blocks, you could make anything in the universe, from hydrogen (one proton + one electron) to oxygen (eight protons + eight electrons + eight neutrons) to water (two hydrogen atoms + one oxygen atom) to a protein, a paramecium, and eventually even a person.

Similarly, if you have buckets of pure red, yellow, blue, black, and white paint, and a lot of skill on an Etch-a-Sketch machine, you could represent absolutely anything. It is in this sense that De Stijl is universal, The Style, and not just the personal style of Piet Mondrian or the style of some specific region or period in time. Although our own historical moment tends to celebrate cultural and individual differences and reject absolutes or universals, De Stijl has a decent claim to being, as its name asserts, The Style for all things, all time, and all people everywhere.

Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, Mondrian

Walking up to Piet Mondrian’s painting, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow can be a baffling experience. The canvas is small and uses only the simplest of colors: red, blue, yellow, white, and black. The composition is similarly reduced to the simplest of rectilinear forms, squares, and rectangles defined by vertical and horizontal lines. One would hardly suspect we are seeing the artist’s determination to depict the underlying structure of reality.

Mondrian’s earliest paintings were quite traditional in both subject and style. He studied at the art academies in The Hague and in Amsterdam in his home country of the Netherlands. Then, as with many artists during the early 20th century, he began to emulate a variety of contemporary styles, including Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, and Symbolism in an effort to find his own artistic voice. The impact of these modern movements can be seen in the development of Mondrian’s painting which, over time, shows the dissolution of recognizable objects into increasingly pared-down structures. His emphasis on line, color, and geometric shape sought to highlight formal characteristics. Mondrian was inspired by Cubism, a movement led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque that explored the use of multiple perspectives. Mondrian began experimenting with abstracted forms around the time he moved to Paris in 1912. However, he wanted to push beyond Cubism’s strategy of fragmenting forms (café tables were a favorite subject) and move toward pure abstraction. However, this change in Mondrian’s process did not take place overnight, and he continued to work in a studied, methodical way. In fact, his production of paintings within a series of canvases was part of Mondrian’s method and how he worked through thematic and compositional issues. Because Mondrian continued to rely on the series throughout his career, we can see the progression of his pictorial language even in his later, purely abstract work.

Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, oil on canvas, 46 x 46 cm (Kunsthaus Zürich)
Figure 22.4 Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, Piet Mondrian, 1930, oil on canvas, 46 x 46 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich.

His use of the term composition (the organization of forms on the canvas) signals his experimentation with abstract arrangements. Mondrian had returned home to the Netherlands just prior to the outbreak of the First World War and would remain there until the war ended. While in the Netherlands, he further developed his style, ruling out compositions that were either too static or too dynamic, concluding that asymmetrical arrangements of geometric (rather than organic) shapes in primary (rather than secondary) colors best represent universal forces. Moreover, he combined his development of an abstract style with his interest in philosophy, spirituality, and his belief that the evolution of abstraction was a sign of humanity’s progress.

Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow demonstrates his commitment to relational opposites, asymmetry, and pure planes of color. Mondrian composed this painting as a harmony of contrasts that signifies both balance and the tension of dynamic forces. Mondrian viewed his black lines not as outlines but as planes of pigment in their own right, an idea seen in the horizontal black plane on the lower right of the painting that stops just short of the canvas edge (see image above). Mondrian eradicates the entire notion of illusionistic depth predicated on a figure in front of a background. He achieves a harmonious tension through his asymmetrical placement of primary colors that balance the blocks of white paint. Notice how the large red square at the upper right, which might otherwise dominate the composition, is balanced by the small blue square at the bottom left. What’s more, when you see this painting in person you can discern just how much variation is possible using this color scheme—and that Mondrian used varying shades of blacks and whites, some of which are subtly lighter or darker. Seen up close, this variety of values and textures creates a surprising harmony of contrasts. Even the visible traces of the artist’s brushwork counter what might otherwise be a rigid geometric composition and balance the artist’s desire for a universal truth with the intimately personal experience of the artist.

Previous Citation(s)
On the Russian Avant-Garde: Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant, "Russian Neo-Primitivism: Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov," in Smarthistory, September 28, 2019, accessed August 15, 2023, On Suprematism: Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant, "Suprematism, Part I: Kazimir Malevich," in Smarthistory, September 28, 2019, accessed August 15, 2023, On Malevich: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A new world after the Russian Revolution: Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White," in Smarthistory, June 2, 2018, accessed August 15, 2023, On De Stijl: Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant, "De Stijl, Part I: Total Purity," in Smarthistory, September 28, 2019, accessed August 15, 2023, On Mondrian: Dr. Stephanie Chadwick, "Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow," in Smarthistory, April 27, 2016, accessed August 15, 2023,

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