Mieczysław Szczuka’s “Funeral of Suprematism” (1927)
Translated from the Polish by Wanda Kemp-Welch. From Between
Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,
1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
The retrospective of Kazimir Malevich in the Polish Art Club (end of March and beginning of April), its character and trends remind me vividly of the first steps of modernism in Poland which also made its debut in the Art Club. Personally, I feel very close to the period (1919-24), it was the period of the formation of Polish modernism, its emergence. Later, others (besides its artists) undertook to further the movement giving it different forms.
At that time “Formism” was breaking down. Leon Chwistek was leaving the scene, Tytus Czyžewski was falling into folk primitivism — only the most talented of the Formists, Kamil Witkowski stood by his principles, which he still develops today.
At the time the group of the youngest artists brought to an extreme some of the problems of form in plastic art which had existed in Formism and put forward, independently, slogans so far completely new to Polish art. In 1924 Teresa Žarnower took the  initiative to unite the artists in the Blok group. (March 1924 — the first exhibition of the group and the first issue of programmatic periodical of the same name).
It is now 1927. The Blok group has split — there are different aims and tasks ahead of us.
But for our small group from the period before Blok — that did not at that time know Western or Eastern European Suprematism and Constructivism, movements that we were discovering for ourselves independently of outside influences — for us the retrospective exhibition of Malevich echoes and reminds us our own search and strivings from 1919-24.
Malevich’s exhibition is a few years too late for our country.
Kazimir Malevich is the founder of Eastern European Suprematism. Malevich was the first to confront the problem of flatness in painting (in consequence of technical possibilities of painterly materials).
Suprematism is the second step (after Cubism) towards creating painting for the sake of painting — painting as a thing in itself — “organically different from its environment.” Put forward like that, the issue of painting (agreeing with the slogan “art for art’s sake”) led to the attempt to change realistic museum painting into abstract museum painting.
Kasimir Malevich expresses this attempt.
“Suprematism finally breaks away from the deformation of nature. Flatness. Abstractionism. Geometrism of forms resulting from geometrism of the canvass stretcher.” (Blok no. 1) In practice Suprematism did not realize all the above postulates.
Most of all it could not achieve (an unattainable objective) — a complete flatness. In Suprematist paintings, even those painted exclusively with one color (e.g. white), parts of the painting differ in texture, i.e.brushwork, since the rough surface of one part of the picture absorbs more light and looks gray, whereas the polished part next to it reflects the light and becomes brighter. The two surfaces differ in the degree of saturation with light and give an illusion of three-dimensionality.
Eastern European Suprematism (Malevich and others) does not contain the picture within its frames — the background, treated as a purely material pictorial means, bearing a complex of geometric forms in close relationship, extends beyond the frame. This mistake is avoided by Western Suprematism, standing on the borderline of Constructivism (Mondrian and others). A certain literary character resulting from juxtaposition of abstract shapes thrown onto unrelated background is another feature of Eastern European Suprematism.
Let us proceed to an evaluation of Malevich’s works. Calling to mind the innovative values that he brings into historical perspective, we must state that Malevich is unable to compose the picture. The picture is a thing closed within itself — its boundaries are its frames — within these frames Malevich is unable to compose the surface of the picture: he creates a conflict between the background and an abstract composition thrown onto the background. This reflects on the whole the movement created by Malevich, that is Suprematism. Even in Malevich’s pre-Suprematist paintings — the lack of composition skill is clear. The examples could be his two landscapes, a little in Cezanne’s style. Both paintings are not contained in the frames, which are something accidental, whereas the boundary that the painting surface should delimit is outright false. Each of these paintings could be added on, it would even do them some good. Malevich’s paintings from his early Cubist period are as such — poor. They are a conglomerate of elements loosely connected with each other, and placed within the frames.
Early Cubism built the picture with plane elements — starting from the frame to the center of the surface.
All Malevich understood of this period from the whole process was a superficial linear graphics of Cubism; the essence of Cubism had escaped him, he was satisfied with impressions of Cubist works. (Evidence is the picture he painted under the influence of Picasso’s famous Speaker and impressions of the paintings of the Futurist, Severini).
The characteristic feature of Malevich’s psychology is an abhorrence of the word “construction,” applied to works of art. He is a Romantic who loves painterly means for their own sake. Malevich visualizes his artistic emotions as abstract shapes (somewhat neglected in their form). Not knowing how to create the pictorial whole — he looks around for help. He finds in the literary sensation and muddled metaphysics the material with which to model his pictures — insufficiently connected by their purely formal plastic foundations. His followers made a better Suprematism.
The contribution of Suprematism was to bring certain new plastic possibilities to art and then to end.
Besides paintings Malevich exhibited graphic diagrams — an attempt at a theoretical look at the problem of form in painting — and, on March 25 he gave a talk in which he spoke about himself and his views on art. Malevich strongly opposed a “utilitarian” treatment of art. “Art for art’s sake,” served by the artist-priest, life barred from demanding anything from art or the artist. Expositions of this kind (convenient for artists because they justified their passivity and laziness for social commitment) have to be quickly passed over. In exchange, I would like to turn Mr. Malevich’s attention to, let us say, mistakes that crept into his diagrams.
The first — photomontage — representing elements of Futurist paintings — fails to give any idea of the principles of Futurist pictorial construction. It relies on reproducing a multitude of sensations received from phenomena which surround and penetrate us in space and within (a shorter of longer) time span. From this multitude of phenomena the Futurist attempted to render in painting a simultaneity of phenomena using pictorial means — combining the most contradictory elements [sometimes impossible to express with pictorial means).
Instead, Malevich showed us a couple of photographs laid alongside one another — representing machines, balloons, dance halls etc.
The second mistake — Léger’s color scale was wrongly represented etc., etc.
Mystical and theological speculations in which Malevich attempted to contain his conception of art also had a bad effect on his presentation of the problems of artistic technique.
Diagrams included on the pages that follow illustrate our attitude to the kind of art practiced by Mr. Malevich and other artists like him.
[Originally published as “Pozgonne suprematyzmu,” Džwignia, no. 2-3 (1927)]