Suprematist Figure signed (lower right) and titled in cyrillic (verso) oil on canvas 71 x 44.5 cm. (28 x 17 1/2 in.) Executed circa 1931-1932
Provenance: The family of the artist. Solomon Schuster, Moscow. Acquired by the present owner from the above during the 1960's.
This work is sold with a certificate of authenticity from Charlotte Douglas dated 11 May 2004. We are grateful for her kind assistance in preparing the following catalogue entry:
Malevichs Suprematist Figure is a rare example of one of the artists most successful late styles. The result of an almost involuntary artistic evolution, it combines Malevichs lifelong interest in presenting peasants as stand-ins for an earth-bound humanity, with compositional lessons learned from the geometries of Suprematism.
The canvas is occupied by the large figure of a woman with one arm, shown full length and head-on. She is standing in a landscape that has been reduced to alternating bands of color, her head against a limitless, luminous, blue sky. The head and most of the skirt are divided along a central vertical axis into black and white halves. Clothing above the waist a blouse, an apron - is indicated by saturated red, blue, white, and yellow decorative planes. On the right side of the canvas, a small black hand emerges from a yellow sleeve bound with a red band. A red band also borders the lower edge of the skirt. A black leg and foot on the right is paired with a blue leg and foot to the left.
Although the figure is composed of flat planes of color, a vestigial three-dimensionality is produced by the black and white alternations, which impart a roundness to the forms of the head and the skirt, and by the overlapping of the colored forms above the waist, which create a shallow depth. The sky and landscape, on the other hand, give the illusion of great depth and distance. The sky is shaded from a deep blue at the top of the canvas to nearly white at the horizon line. The alternating warm and cool colored bands of the ground grow narrower as they progress from the lower edge up the canvas, so that the land appears to recede endlessly into the distance.
History: Malevichs career in art began around 1907, and until 1915 it traversed the now familiar modern stylistic sequence: Impressionism, Symbolism, Neo-Primitivism, Cubism, Futurism. He is best known, however, for the geometric paintings that he called Suprematism. These severe abstractions appeared for the first time at the 0.10 exhibition in Petrograd on 1 January 1916 . These canvases, depicting squares and rectangles, seemed so strange that they created a sensation, but few people knew what to make of them. Formally, Suprematism emerged from the evolution of the artists earlier Cubist and Futurist styles, and theoretically, from popular notions of four-dimensional hyperspace. The paintings were colorful compositions of straight lines and bars, rectangles, trapezoids, and occasional circles, all on a white background. These elements were frequently arranged so that they appeared to defy gravity, to float or fly into a deep space, rushing off into an upper corner of the canvas. Other works were more static, comprised of a balanced positioning of the geometric elements. Strategically placed around the walls of the exhibition room were canvases depicting single large black forms a cross, a horizontal bar, a circle and a black Square hung high on the walls across a corner.
During 1917-18, the Russian Revolutionary period, the color of the bright rectangular shapes became lighter and the edges more diffuse. By 1918 Malevich was painting, without color, white forms on a white background, the forms sometimes fading completely into the surrounding space. After these "white on white" paintings, Malevich turned to writing theoretical tracts and teaching as his principal occupations. No longer with a brush, he wrote, but rather the pen...It turns out that with a brush it is not possible to attain what you can with a pen". Ultimately, the artist declared an end to painting: There cannot be any thought of painting in Suprematism, painting became obsolete long ago, and the artist himself is a prejudice of the past.
In March 1927 Malevich left Russia on his one and only trip to Western Europe, to Berlin, with a stop in Warsaw along the way. Anticipating exhibitions, he brought with him some seventy works of art and theoretical charts, including most of his major works. He exhibited the paintings in a special section of the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung. When he returned to Leningrad in early June, he left all the works in Berlin, where they were still on exhibition. He never saw them again.
Faced with the absence of the major part of his work, and with possible important exhibitions in the offing, the artist began to repaint his entire oeuvre. He painted furiously, works of various subjects, in all artistic styles, and all at the same time Impressionism, Neo-Primitivism, Suprematism - mimicking superficially his earlier styles. And he gave them false dates, between 1909 and 1919 the time that he had originally given up painting. Having earlier made an extensive study of the theory of painting styles, he had complete confidence in his deception. In the two years between the autumn of 1927 and the autumn of 1929, Malevich painted a sufficient number of works to stage the large retrospective, held at the Tretyakov Gallery in November 1929, followed in 1930 by an abbreviated version of the exhibition in Kiev. After this exhibition he continued making new paintings, but gradually began to date his work more accurately.
Evolution of the Image: A strange thing occurred at the time Malevich was engaged in this repainting effort. Although he repainted the themes and subjects of the earlier work, the composition of the paintings was actually quite different. In the later paintings he maintained a strong presence of the cosmic, a legacy of Suprematism. In most of these pictures, no matter what their artistic style, his figures are separated spiritually and physically from the earth, and their heads are seen projected against an infinite sky, a compositional structure that reflected the artists current ideas and philosophy. In the 1920s and early 1930s Malevich represented the peasant/artist as a mediator between the ideal world and more down-to-earth concerns, and he adapted this idea repeatedly to his various retrospective styles.
Because Malevichs production in this short period was very fast, and he was painting in several styles virtually simultaneously, it is very difficult to establish the sequence of these late works. Nevertheless, some real evolutionary movement can be detected in his titles and imagery. The only two known figurative works whose titles refer to Suprematism are Suprematism in the Contour of Sportsmen [now known as Sportsmen, Russian Museum] and Suprematism in the Contour of a Peasant Woman [Woman with a Rake, Tretyakov Gallery], both dated (falsely) 1915. In choosing this date Malevich means us to understand that they were done after Suprematism, that is, here he intentionally is advancing a Post-Suprematist style, something he had not done before. In these two paintings both closely related to Suprematist Figure - the artist appears to be acknowledging an entirely new kind of painting. That is, he indicates that he has crossed beyond Suprematism, and that this time he is not abandoning painting, as had happened previously, but consciously and publicly returning to a kind of figuration that incorporates the colors and concerns of Suprematism.
It is in this context that we should view Suprematist Figure. The title, on the reverse of the canvas in Malevichs hand, is apparently unique in its direct reference to a figure as simply suprematist. Significantly, he has left the painting undated.
Exhibitions: After the 1927 Berlin exhibition, Malevich had only two major displays of his work in Russia: the large solo exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, that opened in November 1929, and continued in Kiev in 1930, and the 15th year jubilee exhibition called Artists of the RSFSR during 15 Years, that opened at the Russian Museum in Leningrad in November 1932.
No trace of Suprematist Figure has been found in the documents pertaining to the 1929 exhibition. It is significant also, that neither Suprematism in the Contour of Sportsmen nor Suprematism in the Contour of a Peasant Woman were included in that exhibition. Both of these works, however, did appear in the 1932 jubilee exhibition; they are the last works listed in the catalogue, which in general appears to list works chronologically. They are nos. 1255 and 1256. However, Suprematist Figure cannot be clearly identified in any of the documentary photographs or the 1932 catalogue.
The labels on the reverse of the Suprematist Figure perhaps refer to a catalogued private collection, rather than to an exhibition. The two visible numbers 12, and 209 (or 299?) do not correspond to Malevichs works in any catalogue of the period. Perhaps other labels have been lost. But it is also possible, and very understandable, that this work was never exhibited, but rather retained by the artist, or given to, or stored with, a friend or family member. This is not surprising; there are several such instances for paintings done in the 1930s. The opportunities for Malevich to exhibit were extremely limited at this time, and after the jubilee exhibition he managed to show only a few works.
Date: Taking into account details of the imagery, and the above discussions, it is my view that Suprematist Figure was created between 1930 and 1933, the most probable date being 1931-1932.