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Black Square

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Black Square
ArtistKazimir Malevich
Mediumoil on canvas
Dimensions79.5 cm × 79.5 cm (31.3 in × 31.3 in)
LocationTretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Black Square (Russian Чёрный квадрат) is a 1915 oil on linen canvas painting by the artist Kazimir Malevich The first of four painted versions, the original was completed in 1915 and described by the artist as his breakthrough work and the inception for the launch of his Suprematist art movement (1915–1919).[1]

A leading member of the Russian avant-garde, Malevich was born in 1878 in today's Ukraine.[2][3] In his manifesto for the Suprematist movement Malevich said the paintings were intended as "desperate struggle to free art from the ballast of the objective world" by focusing only on form.[4] He sought to create paintings that all could understand and that would have an emotional impact comparable to religious works.

The 1915 Black Square was the turning point in his career and defined the aesthetic he was to follow for the remainder of his career; his other significant paintings include variants such as White on White (1918), Black Circle (c. 1924), and Black Cross (c. 1920–23). Malevich painted three other versions; in 1923, 1929, and between the late 1920s and early 1930s. Each version differs slightly in size and texture.

The original painting was first shown at The Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10 in 1915. The last is thought to have been painted during the late 1920s or early 1930s. Malevich described the 1915 painting as the "zero point of painting"; since then, it has had a significant influence on minimalist art.[5][6][7]


Malevich, c. 1900

A self-taught artist, Kazimir Malevich's early works, created while still a teenager, incorporate the style and motifs of Ukrainian and Russian folk art and Eastern Orthodox icons.[8] In the early 1900s, when he was heavily influenced by late 19th-century Impressionism. He moved from his birthplace of Kyiv to Moscow in 1907,[6] where he came into contact with the leading Russian avant-garde artists such as Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov.[9][10]

He first used the motif of a black square while working as the stage designer for the premiere of the Cubo-Futuristic opera Victory over the Sun by the painter and composer Mikhail Matyushin's (1861–1934), staged at the Luna Park Theater in Saint Petersburg on 3 December, 1913.[11] Although the opera is ostensibly a comedic farce, the plot satirises the religious dogma and Tsarist autocracy then dominating pre-revolution Russia.[11] Its libretto was written by the poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922), and follows protagonists seeking to "abolish reason" by capturing the sun and destroying time. The opera ends with a world in darkness, which Khlebnikov intended to represent the a future after the destruction of Russian tradition.[12] These ideas resonated with Malevich's year zero views on the purpose of contemporary Modernist art.[13]

Malevich's sketches for the costumes seem largely influenced by Cubism and Futurism. However, a number, including those known today as Futurist Strongman, Grave Digger and A Certain Evil Intender, are in colour but contain distinct black squares and rectangles.[14] During the pivotal scene depicting the death of the sun, black squares appear eight times: on a curtain and the backdrops, and on the coats and hats of the sun's pall bearers.[11][13]

According to the art historian Frances Spalding, the square on the curtain "suggests the sun's coffin",[8] while other critics view it as an expression of the victory of active human creativity over the passive form of nature: a black square appeared instead of a solar circle.[citation needed] He was immediately aware of the design's potential, wrote pleading letters to Matyushin to retain it when the composer was planning a 1915 performance of the opera. In the letters, Malevich claimed that the square "will have great significance in painting" and is the "embryo of all possibilities; in its development it acquires a terrible strength."[14]


Suprematist works by Malevich at the 0,10 Exhibition, Saint Petersburg, 1915

Malevich created the first version in 1915 using broad strokes of thick black oil paint onto a 79.5cm x 79.5cm linen canvas. The border and edges were applied with various shades of white and grey paint.[12]

Malevich was a prolific and talented self-publicist and has been described as both a "brilliant, grandiose, messianic figure" and a "fanatic pamphleteer".[9] Sensing a breakthrough, he declared the painting as a milestone in both his oeuvre and "in the history of art". He later wrote that he was so excited at the breakthrough that he was unable to "sleep, eat, or drink for an entire week after".[1]

Triptych at the Russian Museum, featuring the 1924 version

The painting was first shown at the 1915 The Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10 at the Field of Mars square in Saint Petersburg (then Petrograd).[15] Its hanging in the icon corner emphasised the collision between Modernism and traditional Eastern Orthodox culture.[16] Over the following decades, Malevich made three other oil on canvas on canvas variants (in 1924, 1929, while the final version is thought to date from the late 1920s or early 1930s).[17] He created numerous lithographs of the image, used it to decorate his signature, and applied it to lapels he gave to his students.[1][18] The reverse contains the inscription "1913", however, this is thought to refer to the year of the design's conception that year for Victory over the Sun.[8] He continued to refer to it as The main Suprematist element. Square. 1913. According to an overview of the work by Tate Modern, Malevich may have given an earlier date to appear more ahead of the curve during the early years of Abstract art.[13]


Black Square is widely regarded by art historians as foundational in the development of both modern and abstract art.[19] Malevich said the paintings began the Suprematism movement, which emphasised colour and shape. The title "Suprematism" is derived from the word supremus (Russian: Супремус), which translates as "superior" or "perfected", which Malevich said reflected his desire to "liberate" painting from mimesis (imitation) and representational art.[8]

Although the movement gained many supporters among the Russian avant-garde, it was overshadowed by constructivism, whose manifesto better reflected the ideology of the early Soviet government and which had a larger influence on later 20th century art.[citation needed] Today Suprematism is almost exclusively associated with Malevich and his apprentice El Lissitzky.[13]


Malevich produced three oil on canvas copies of the original painting. The first copy was completed in 1923. The second copy was painted around 1923 in collaboration with his students Anna Leporskaya, Konstantin Rozhdestvensky and Nikolay Suyetin.[12] The third Black Square (also at the Tretyakov Gallery) was painted c. 1929 for Malevich's solo exhibition, perhaps as a stand-in for a solo exhibition as the original was by then in poor condition.[12][17]

The final Black Square is the smallest and may have been intended as a diptych along with the smaller again Red Square for the 1932 exhibition Artists of the RSFSR: 15 Years in Leningrad, where the two squares formed the centerpiece of the show.[17]


Avant-garde art fell from favour after Joseph Stalin took absolute control of the USSR in the late 1920s. Stalin was notoriously suspicious of people who traveled outside the Soviet Union, and Malevich came to the attention of Stalin's secret police as a possible dissident in early 1927 when he traveled to Berlin to attended the Grosse Kunstausstellung exhibition where around 70 of his paintings and drawings scheduled for display.[13][20] Malevich was aware that progressive artists were likely to be suppressed in Russia, and made attempts to relocate to Germany, where the Nazi party was already targeting so-called "degenerate art",[13] that is art that did not conform to the idealised Aryan way of living, which was based around, according to the historian Tony Wood a dedication to "family, home and church", and was "ironically...a mirror image of the socialist realism of the hated Communists."[20]

Malevich was arrested for several days in 1930. His work was officially banned in the USSR shortly after his early death in 1935 after Stalin's favoured social realism was designated the official art of the union, and many other art forms were suppressed.[13]

Although Black Square wasn't exhibited again until the 1980s, today the work is frequently regarded as historical significant in Modern art, and one of the most recognisable 20th century paintings.[17]


The painting has degraded considerably since its creation.[21] According to the American art critic Peter Schjeldahl, "the painting looks terrible: crackled, scuffed, and discolored, as if it had spent the past eighty-eight years patching a broken window. In fact, it passed most of that time deep in the Soviet archives, classed among the lowliest of the state's treasures. Malevich, like other members of the Revolutionary-era Russian avant-garde, was thrown into oblivion under Stalin. The axe fell on him in 1930. Accused of 'formalism', he was interrogated and jailed for two months."[6]


  1. ^ a b c Jakovljevic (2004), p. 19
  2. ^ Helmore, Edward. "As the Met reclassifies Russian art as Ukrainian, not everyone is convinced". The Guardian, 19 March 2023. Retrieved 30 May 2024
  3. ^ "Kazimir Malevich B. 1878, Near Kiev, Russia (Now Kyiv, Ukraine); D. 1935, Leningrad". Guggenheim. Retrieved 30 May 2024
  4. ^ Blanshard (1949). p. 4
  5. ^ Mazzoni, Ira. "Everything and Nearly Nothing: Malevich and His Effects". DeutscheBank/Art. Archived from the original on 22 May 2016. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  6. ^ a b c Schjehldahl, Peter. "The Prophet: Malevich's Revolution". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 18 May 2015. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  7. ^ Schjehldahl, Peter. "The Shape of Things:After Kazimir Malevich". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 18 May 2015. Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d Spalding, Frances. "Kazimir Malevich: the man who liberated painting". The Guardian, 4 July 2014. Retrieved 12 April 2024
  9. ^ a b Brenson, Michael. "Malevich's Search for a New Reality". New York Times, 17 September 1990. Retrieved 12 April 2024
  10. ^ Drutt (2003), pp. 46–47
  11. ^ a b c Drutt (2003), p. 25
  12. ^ a b c d Wolfe, Shira. "Stories of Iconic Artworks: Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square". Artland Magazine, 2020. Retrieved 13 April 2024
  13. ^ a b c d e f g "Five ways to look at Malevich's Black Square". Tate. Retrieved 1 March 2024
  14. ^ a b Kovtun; Douglas (1981), p. 235
  15. ^ Drutt (2003), p. 47
  16. ^ Roald, Lang (2013), p. 50
  17. ^ a b c d "Kasimir Malevich. Black Square". Hermitage Museum. Retrieved 18 April 2024
  18. ^ Meinhardt (1994)
  19. ^ "Art Terms: Modernism". Tate. Retrieved 1 March 2024
  20. ^ a b Wood, Tony. "The man they couldn't hang". The Guardian, 11 May 2000. Retrieved 18 April 2024
  21. ^ Philip Shaw. The Art of the Sublime – 'Kasimir Malevich's Black Square' Archived 6 July 2016 at the Wayback Machine. Tate Research Publication, January 2013. Retrieved 6 July 2016.