Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Its name derived from Malevich’s belief that Suprematist art would be superior to all the art of the past, and that it would lead to the “supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts.” Heavily influenced by avant-garde poets, and an emerging movement in literary criticism, Malevich derived his interest in flouting the rules of language, in defying reason. He believed that there were only delicate links between words or signs and the objects they denote, and from this he saw the possibilities for a totally abstract art. And just as the poets and literary critics were interested in what constituted literature, Malevich came to be intrigued by the search for art’s barest essentials. It was a radical and experimental project that at times came close to a strange mysticism. Although the Communist authorities later attacked the movement, its influence was pervasive in Russia in the early 1920s, and it was important in shaping Constructivism, just as it has been in inspiring abstract art to this day.
Constructivism was the last and most influential modern art movement to flourish in Russia in the 20th century. It evolved just as the Bolsheviks came to power in the October Revolution of 1917, and initially it acted as a lightning rod for the hopes and ideas of many of the most advanced Russian artists who supported the revolution’s goals. It borrowed ideas from Cubism, Suprematism and Futurism, but at its heart was an entirely new approach to making objects, one which sought to abolish the traditional artistic concern with composition, and replace it with ‘construction.’ Constructivism called for a careful technical analysis of modern materials, and it was hoped that this investigation would eventually yield ideas that could be put to use in mass production, serving the ends of a modern, Communist society. Ultimately, however, the movement foundered in trying to make the transition from the artist’s studio to the factory. Some continued to insist on the value of abstract, analytical work, and the value of art per se; these artists had a major impact on spreading Constructivism throughout Europe. Others, meanwhile, pushed on to a new but short-lived and disappointing phase known as Productivism, in which artists worked in industry. Russian Constructivism was in decline by the mid 1920s, partly a victim of the Bolshevik regime’s increasing hostility to avant-garde art. But it would continue to be an inspiration for artists in the West, sustaining a movement called International Constructivism which flourished in Germany in the 1920s, and whose legacy endured into the 1950s.