The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich (1879 – 1935) is one of the most iconic and debated paintings. It features exactly what its name suggests: a black square. Why would Malevich compose this art piece? What is its significance? In this essay, we will venture into three ways of looking at this famous painting.
For some background, the Black Square was painted with the aesthetic of Suprematism, which was invented by Malevich. The idea behind Suprematism is to use geometric forms in a limited amount of colors. Ultimately, it is about producing abstract art according to “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling” and not the direct rendering of objects (Malevich, Kazimir Severinovich, et al.).
In light of this, there are several ways of looking at the Black Square. One of the interpretations of it is that it does not depict anything in particular and that it was the first painting to do so. According to the Tate gallery, “He made his intention clear; he wanted to completely abandon depicting reality and instead invent a new world of shapes and forms. In his 1927 book The Non-Objective World, he wrote: ‘In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square’ (“Five Ways to Look at Malevich’s Black Square – List”). This quote could also refer to returning to a sense of simplicity, where the world is less identified. Malevich perhaps wanted to find a way to get rid of the rampant intellectualism in the art world at the time.
The Black Square was not painted perfectly. In fact, it does not align properly with the canvas. According to the website “Abstract Critical,” this has some implications: “There’s something tantalising about a wonky square. Its imperfection establishes a human dimension to what would otherwise be a cold, abstract ideal. This awkwardness and misalignment seems to activate the whole field of the painting” (“The Black Square”). The usually unwelcome or sharp shape of a square is given a human touch and warmth through Malevich’s rendering. It makes us look at basic geometric shapes in a new way.
Also, the Black Square could have been a new language for painting. A variation of the original painting was on the stage curtain for the opera Victory over the Sun. Collaborating with musician Mikhail Matyushin and poet Aleksei Kruchenykh, this opera aimed to dislodge western rational thought through the story and the made-up language called “zaum,” which consisted of only sounds and no meaning. In effect, Tate curator Achim Borchardt-Hume said: “Malevich, infused with the spirit of his friend’s linguistic experiments, invented at breath-taking speed a new painterly language made up solely from shapes and colours. He called this language suprematism” (“Five Ways to Look at Malevich’s Black Square – List”). So, the Black Square could be an experiment to transition the ideas from Victory over the Sun into paintings. It seems his collaborations inspired him to take up a new style and to express feelings beyond thought.
There are many more ways to look at and interpret this seminal piece of art. However, three common ways of viewing the Black Square are: as an effort to free the art world of realism, to give a sense of warmth and human touch to basic geometric shapes, and to implement the ideas set forth in the Opera Victory over the Sun into a fresh painterly language. But it seems the most important aspect of this painting is what each viewer of the painting gets. Besides, Malevich fought against rationality and I think he would not want the Black Square to be rationalized.
“Five Ways to Look at Malevich’s Black Square – List.” Tate, www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/kazimir-malevich-1561/five-ways-look-malevichs-black-square.
Malevich, Kazimir Severinovich, et al. Kazimir Malevich: the World as Objectlessness. Kunstmuseum Basel, 2014.
“The Black Square.” Abstract Critical, abstractcritical.com/note/the-black-square/index.html.