Charlotte Douglas – Supremus – The Dissolution of Sensation

Excerpt from the book “Zaha Hadid and Suprematism”, published by Galerie Gmurzynska in collaboration with Hatje Cantz on the occasion of an exhibition at the gallery space in Zurich, designed by Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher.

Excerpt from the book “Zaha Hadid and Suprematism”, published by Galerie Gmurzynska in collaboration with Hatje Cantz on the occasion of an exhibition at the gallery space in Zurich, designed by Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher.


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Charlotte Douglas

Supremus—The Dissolution

of Sensation

The painting considered here is one of only two known works of this type

by Kazimir Malevich. An image of a single plane of color, it is exceptional in

its size, color intensity, and emotional impact. Historically, it documents

and clarifies an important moment in the development of Suprematism,

the time when the artist inaugurated a reinterpretation of his abstract

forms as visible signs of immaterial sensations.


The title on the reverse side of the painting under consideration is

Supremus, written by the artist in the Roman alphabet. After 1916

Malevich often gave his Suprematist paintings this title. He chose a

non-Russian, Latin word in order to universalize the nature of his abstract

style. A later related drawing bears the more descriptive title, Suprematist

Element at the moment of dissolution of sensation (objectlessness). An old

reproduction of the painting is annotated, “The first basic plane of color

energy at the moment of dissolution.”


This simple painting seems to be full of motion. A dark red plane appears

to descend toward the viewer from above, moving swiftly down and toward

the left. We see the plane as it advances, its lower corner has not yet

reached the bottom of the canvas. The strong red color adds to its weight

and momentum. The formal subject of the painting, a flying plane, is

created by visually opposing a sharply defined edge to an edge that is less

well defined, a common schematic device that is read as motion by

modern Western viewers. The planar form seems barely to fit on the

canvas—a favorite device of Malevich—which creates the impression of

an object of massive size.

The red plane is very carefully positioned on the canvas. Its two

leading corners are the only corners completely present. The entire trailing

edge is not quite visible to the viewer; its upper and lower corners

somehow are felt to be present, but nevertheless not fully in view.

Malevich worked diligently to orient the large form precisely on the

canvas. Pencil sketches show that he experimented with revealing the

upper right corner of the image, as well as the lower right corner. He tried

increasing the angle of approach to forty-five degrees, and attempted

to incorporate two parallel planes or two intersecting planes into the

composition. He tried devising arrangements of three or four planes at

once. The colorful pencil sketches—unusual for Malevich—testify to the

great significance that the artist placed on the color of the planes.



Although Malevich may have been the primary Russian artist to use a

“dissolving” edge in a programmatic way within an abstract style, he was

not the only one. The same device appears in the work of his close friend,


Ivan Kliun. In his Study for Suprematist Composition, black and green

flying elements streak across an orange trapezoid. Quite a different effect

may be seen in Composition. Here raspberry and lime-green planes hover

motionless in space, a result of the soft top edge of the red plane and its

narrowing at the bottom to a point.

In spite of the similarities, however, both of these works seem

decorative and devoid of emotional power in comparison with Malevich’s

Supremus—The Dissolution of Sensation (see illustration p. 93 under

Nakov title Dissolution of a Plane). There is only one known painting of a

single color plane that is closely comparable to it, and it is Malevich’s own

painting of a yellow plane with a dissolving edge. Suprematist Painting 1

was brought to Berlin by the artist in 1927, where it was exhibited at the

Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung. It is now in the Stedelijk Museum in

Amsterdam. Somewhat smaller than Supremus—which is about eleven

inches higher and three inches wider than Suprematist Painting—it is

nevertheless a similarly strong and important painting.

Malevich did not paint or position the yellow plane of Suprematist

Painting in the same way. Its fading edge is distinctly lighter in color than

its approaching sharp edge, and all four corners are visible on the canvas.

The fading trailing edge does not appear quite as straight. We see the

yellow plane in sharper perspective; although the angle of the leading edge

to the bottom of the canvas is similar, the top and bottom edges are not

parallel, which makes the plane appear somewhat skewed.

There is reason to suppose that Suprematist Painting and Supremus—

The Dissolution of Sensation were conceived at the same time. They bear

strikingly similar inscriptions of the artist’s name on the reverse. One of

Malevich’s many pencil sketches for these paintings shows a composition

of two planes with their leading edges parallel to one other. The lower

edge of the plane on the left angles sharply up and toward the center of

the composition, while the plane on the right appears to be “flatter,” that

is, oriented almost parallel to the plane of the canvas.

These two planes are very close to the forms in each of the two

paintings. Superimposition of the two paintings produces a configuration

similar to the drawing. One can imagine the artist being guided by the

individual planes in this preliminary sketch for the two paintings.


The most likely date for the painting is 1917 or 1918, that is, after Malevich’s

initial elaborations on Suprematism that were seen in 0.10 and other

1916 exhibitions, and before his series of White on White canvases, first

shown in 1919. We do not have definite evidence that Supremus—The

Dissolution of Sensation was exhibited, but probably it was, since Malevich

showed Suprematist works in two major exhibitions in Moscow during this

period: the Jack of Diamonds exhibition of November–December 1917 and

the Tenth State Exhibition: Objectless Art and Suprematism, which opened

in the spring of 1919.


During 1917–19, the Russian Revolutionary period, Malevich’s geometric

forms underwent a conceptual transformation. The artist stopped

thinking of them as modular objects seen in another dimension, and

began to understand them as emblems of physical sensations.

In so doing, Malevich was creating a new context and defense for his

art. He hoped that the shift would make sense of Suprematism on a more

sophisticated, and a more widely valued scientific and philosophical

basis. In a series of publications, he positioned Suprematism as the artistic

correlative of the “New Science,” the initial revisions of classical physics

that by the turn of the century seemed to many people to define the

twentieth century and modernity itself. The latest science, as Malevich

understood it, was the non-Newtonian, sensation-based physics and

physiology put forward initially by Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius, and

further developed by the energetics of Wilhelm Ostwald and Alexander

Bogdanov in Russia.

Mach in particular provided the artist with a vocabulary and a number

of the fundamental concepts for thinking about Suprematism. He

maintained that sensations are the only things that we truly know, and that



based on them we construct the rest of the world in our minds. The

world of objects, as such, did not exist for Mach. 2

Malevich came to look upon Suprematism as a style that mirrored

Mach’s world without objects, a world that was known or imagined only

from our sensations. Malevich considered Suprematism an “art of pure

sensation,” an art which denies the existence of matter and objects, and

whose only content is the sensations that impinge upon us from an

unknowable external world.

Malevich made changes in the early Suprematist style of painting to

correspond to his evolving ideas. In this period, the forms in the paintings

started to dematerialize, dissolving into the surrounding space. In both

Supremus and Suprematist Painting, the single planes of color are

Malevich’s vision of energetic sensations. They seem to approach the

viewer edge on, as if coming in from a cosmic distance, a notion that

connects the viewer with the physical cosmos, while complementing the

artist’s earlier themes of floating and flight. In several other works, white

forms painted on a white background seem to completely dematerialize. In

both cases, individual edges are indistinct and simply fade into the canvas.


The markings on the reverse side of Supremus reveal something about the

history of the painting. Apparently, Malevich sold the painting in 1919 to

the State Art Fund, which at that time had begun to collect works of art

for a series of projected new museums of modern art to be opened in

Moscow, Petrograd, and several provincial cities. After selecting the

paintings, the Museum Bureau’s Purchasing Commission numbered

them and marked their size on the reverse of the canvases, and noted

the work in a registration book.

On the reverse of the Supremus canvas is written in black paint,

“N 187” and “18 x 31.” The numbers 18 x 31 refer to the size of the canvas

in vershki, an older Russian unit of measurement (one vershok equals

4.445 cm or 1.75 inches). This measurement—137.8 x 80.0 cm—comes

very close to the actual size of the painting—133 x 78 cm.

The “N 187” on the reverse of the canvas indicates that the registration

number of the painting was 187. The notation for this number in the

Commission’s registration book is as follows: “Inventory 187. 18 x 32.”

It is listed as a work intended for distribution to provincial museums. The

decisions to buy the painting and to assign it to a provincial museum were

taken at a meeting of the commission that took place on August 12, 1919.

No particular museum is specified. 3 Suprematist Painting, by contrast,

was apparently retained by the artist and brought to Berlin in 1927, and so

does not have the Purchasing Commission’s notations on the reverse.

This circumstance establishes an outside limit for the date of the

painting, that is, the painting cannot have been done after the summer

of 1919. And it would probably not have appeared in any exhibition held

in Moscow or Petrograd after that date. It should be noted that many

avant-garde paintings were deaccessioned by provincial museums

during the Stalin era.

1 There is no title indicated on the reverse of this painting, nor are there inscriptions

on sketches related to it. It is therefore called merely Suprematist Painting by the

Stedelijk Museum.

2 Mach’s best known book in Russia, and the work most directly related to Malevich’s

ideas, The Analysis of Sensations, appeared in Russian editions in 1904, 1905, 1907,

1908, and 1911.

3 Information about the contents of the Purchasing Commission’s registration book

is available in N. Avtonomova, “K istorii priobreteniia proizvedenii K. Malevicha v

rossiiskie muzei v 1919–1921 goda,” in Russkii avangard; problem reprezentatsii i

interpretatsii (Saint Petersburg, 2001). The author of this article, however,

unconvincingly identifies this registration entry with a different painting. The lack of

exact correspondence between the size as indicated on the reverse of the painting

and the entry in the registration book is typical of these entries.


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