Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1915

Introduction: Exploring Malevich's iconic Black Square

As one of the most iconic works in modern art, Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square represents a radical departure from traditional artistic norms. Born out of the tumultuous backdrop of early 20th-century Russia, Malevich’s masterpiece emerged as a groundbreaking symbol of artistic rebellion and innovation. 

Contrary to popular belief, the painting’s minimalist appearance belies its profound significance, serving as a powerful testament to Malevich’s visionary approach to art.

Malevich’s journey to the creation of the Black Square began with his involvement in the Russian Futurist/Cubo-Futurist opera Victory over the Sun in 1913. Initially conceived as a design for a stage curtain, the Black Square evolved into a transformative artistic statement that would redefine the very essence of painting. 

When Malevich painted the first version of the Black Square in 1915, he unleashed a revolutionary force that challenged the entrenched traditions of representational art.

The Black Square not only marked the inception of Malevich’s Suprematist movement but also signaled a paradigm shift in the trajectory of artistic expression. 

Malevich’s manifesto for the Suprematist movement articulated his fervent desire to liberate art from the shackles of the objective world, emphasising pure form over representational content. 

Through Suprematism, Malevich sought to create works that transcended the boundaries of visual representation, resonating with viewers on a deeply emotional and spiritual level.


In the tumultuous social and political landscape of early 20th-century Russia, Malevich’s Black Square emerged as a beacon of defiance against conventional artistic conventions. 

Its debut at The Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10 in 1915 marked a watershed moment in the history of art, challenging viewers to question their understanding of creativity and expression. 

As Malevich painted four variants of the Black Square, each imbued with its own pattern, texture, and color, the painting became a symbol of artistic evolution and experimentation.

Despite its minimalist appearance, the Black Square encapsulates a wealth of symbolism and meaning. Malevich envisioned it as a universal language of shapes and colours, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers to evoke a profound emotional response in viewers. 

Through its stark simplicity, Malevich’s masterpiece beckons us to contemplate the infinite possibilities that lie beyond tangible reality, inviting us to embark on a journey of perception and interpretation that knows no bounds.

Kazimir Malevich, 1915, Black Square, oil on linen canvas, 79.5 x 79.5cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Early Life: Background of artist Kazimir Malevich

Dynamic Suprematism 1915 or 1916. Image Courtesy: Tate 1978

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich was born February 23, 1879, in Kiev, Ukraine. Hailed as a pioneer of abstract art, his roots traced back to a working-class family of Polish descent, where financial struggles and personal adversities were woven into the fabric of his early life. Despite the hardships that surrounded him, Malevich’s innate artistic talent manifested itself from a tender age, offering glimpses of the creative genius that would later define his legacy.

Formal training beckoned Malevich, leading him to enroll at the Moscow School of Painting, where he honed his craft and expanded his artistic horizons. However, his artistic journey was not merely a product of academic instruction; it was deeply intertwined with his upbringing in a culturally diverse environment. Kiev’s rich tapestry of traditions and influences served as a fertile ground for Malevich’s artistic exploration, shaping his distinctive style and vision.

He was influenced by various styles, from Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. Malevich’s early encounters with Russian Orthodox iconography and folk art left an indelible imprint on his artistic sensibilities. These formative experiences infused his work with a profound sense of spirituality and symbolism, laying the groundwork for his later forays into abstraction. Blending elements of tradition with the avant-garde currents of modernist movements, Malevich embarked on a quest to push the boundaries of artistic expression.

The iconic Black Square, hailed as Malevich’s magnum opus, stands as a testament to his complex relationship with the past and the future. Rooted in the rich tapestry of his cultural heritage, yet propelled by an unyielding drive for innovation, the Black Square epitomizes the fusion of tradition and avant-garde vision. Malevich’s revolutionary artwork serves as a bridge between worlds, transcending temporal and spatial boundaries to captivate the imagination of generations to come.

Malevich’s upbringing in a diverse cultural environment influenced his later artistic style, blending elements of Russian Orthodox iconography with modernist movements. Malevich’s early exposure to folk art and religious symbolism laid the foundation for his exploration of geometric shapes and spiritual themes in his revolutionary artwork. Malevich’s revolutionary approach to painting was quite consciously displayed, as he sought to break between representational painting and abstract painting.

Image Courtesy: Smarthistory

Artistic Influences: Suprematism and abstract art movements

Black Square and Red Square. Image Courtesy: ATX Fine Arts

Malevich’s artistic journey culminated in the creation of his iconic Black Square, a painting that defied conventional artistic norms and became a cornerstone of modern art. Malevich created four variations of the Black Square, with each believed to have been painted in the late 1920s or early 1930s, despite the “1913” inscription on the reverse side. The Black Square emerged as a symbol of a new era in art, challenging viewers to rethink their approach to painting. Critics refer to Black Square as a zero point of painting, marking a break between representational art and abstract painting.

Suprematism, an abstract art movement pioneered by Malevich, sought to break free from representational constraints and embrace pure geometric forms. Malevich’s Black Square epitomizes the movement’s radical departure from traditional artistic norms, symbolizing a new way to look at art. Malevich exhibited the Black Square at The Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10 in 1915, where it quite consciously displayed a black hole in a sacred corner. Malevich described the Black Square as a desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of the objective world, declaring it as the first Suprematist painting.

The simplicity and starkness of the Black Square emphasized Malevich’s belief in art’s ability to exist independently as pure form and shape. Through Suprematism, Malevich aimed to evoke emotional responses based on pure aesthetic experiences rather than recognizable objects or images. This approach to painting marked a revolutionary shift in the history of art, inspiring subsequent generations of artists to explore new possibilities in visual expression.

Creation of Black Square: Symbolism and significance

Stage Curtain & Victory over the Sun

The initial iteration of the Black Square originated as a component of a stage curtain design for the 1913 Cubo-Futurist opera, “Victory over the Sun,” a collaborative project conceived by poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchyonykh, along with musician Mikhail Matyushin.

These individuals shared Kazimir Malevich’s avant-garde outlook on art, which was encapsulated in a manifesto advocating for the rejection of rational thought and the dismantling of Western systems and hierarchies.

Two years after completing the Black Square, Malevich showed the painting in “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10,” in St. Petersburg, Petrograd. 

Positioned amidst a constellation of Suprematist paintings, the Black Square occupied a prominent place in the exhibition space. Placed high in a corner, reminiscent of the traditional hanging of Russian Orthodox icons, Malevich aimed to emphasize the painting’s spiritual significance and designate it as the quintessential emblem of his distinctive artistic style.

The Suprematist movement was defined by a radical approach to painting that focused on colour and shape at its core. Utilizing reduced geometric forms and a restrained yet vibrant color palette, Malevich liberated himself from representational constraints, enabling a pure focus on the act of painting itself. 

It is noteworthy that the debut of the Black Square coincided with the tumultuous backdrop of World War I and the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. While audiences were familiar with futurist and cubist experiments, Malevich’s artwork represented an unprecedented departure, symbolizing the dawn of a new artistic epoch.


The creation of the Black Square in 1915 marked a revolutionary moment in the history of art, challenging traditional notions of representation and pushing boundaries of abstraction. 

The simplicity and starkness of the black square on a white canvas may appear minimalistic, but its symbolism runs deep. It signifies a break from realism and celebrates pure form, inviting viewers to contemplate the essence of art itself. Malevich intended for the Black Square to embody spiritual energy, presenting it as a portal to another realm where material constraints are transcended.

Moreover, the Black Square represents a glimpse into the future, anticipating the rise of geometric abstraction and modernism in art. Its radical departure from conventional techniques opened up new possibilities for artists to explore shape, colour, and composition in innovative ways. 

By stripping away unnecessary elements and focusing on elemental forms, Malevich paved the way for subsequent generations of artists to experiment with non-representational art as a means of expressing universal truths and emotions. The significance of the Black Square lies not only in its visual impact but also in its enduring influence on avant-garde movements across mediums.

Image Courtesy: FondationBeyeler

Zero Point of Painting

Image Courtesy: ArtinContext

Malevich’s Black Square is not merely a painting; it embodies a profound philosophical concept – the zero point of painting. This notion encapsulates Malevich’s radical agenda and marks a pivotal moment in the evolution of artistic expression. According to Malevich’s own words, “The true movement of being begins from zero, in zero.”

In his transformative journey, Malevich embraced the void, declaring, “I transformed myself in the zero of form and emerged from nothing to creation, that is, to Suprematism, to the new realism in painting – to non-objective creation.” This profound declaration reflects Malevich’s departure from representational art towards a realm of pure abstraction.

From a contemporary perspective, Malevich’s concept of nothingness resonates with the notion of tabula rasa, a space devoid of preconceived ideas. This concept, famously embraced by the Dadaists in 1916, underscores the importance of breaking free from conventional artistic constraints.

Malevich’s manifesto, “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism,” published concurrently with the exhibition of the Black Square, elucidates his transition to the “zero of form.” This radical shift allowed Malevich to transcend the confines of academic art and embrace a new realm of artistic possibility.

Pencil Inscription

In 2015, during an examination of the Black Square using a microscope, researchers at the Tretyakov Gallery made a fascinating discovery: a faint inscription in pencil on the white paint in the lower left corner of the composition. The inscription, barely discernible, appears to read “Battle of negroes,” with the second part of the phrase, likely “during the night,” rendered illegible. This enigmatic message bears resemblance to a caption from a 1893 comic strip by French writer Alphonse Allais, titled “Combat de Nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit” (“Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night”).

Irina Vakar, the head researcher for the 2015 study, expressed skepticism about Malevich’s involvement in adding the inscription, suggesting it was more likely a later addition by someone mocking The Black Square. Vakar noted that the pencil marks appeared to be added after the underlying paint had dried, suggesting that they might have been incorporated long after Malevich finished the piece.

However, some scholars have entertained the possibility that Malevich himself inscribed the message. In his book “Arts incohérents, Discoveries and New Perspectives,” French writer Johann Naldi explores the hypothesis that Malevich was aware of Paul Bilhaud’s monochrome painting, “Combat de nègres pendant la nuit” (1882), and that it may have influenced the Black Square. Likewise, art historian Andrew Spira explored the connection to Bilhaud’s artwork but remained hesitant about Malevich’s involvement in the inscription, raising doubts about whether he was truly the one responsible for its creation.

Image Courtesy: Artland Magazine
Kasimir Malevich’s paintings in the Museum of Modern Art. Image Courtesy: KHANACADEMY

Controversy: Initial reactions and criticisms

Initial reactions to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square painting were mixed, with many critics dismissing it as simplistic and lacking artistic skill. Some argued that a black square on a white canvas was not art at all, but rather a mockery of traditional painting techniques. Critics also pointed out the controversy surrounding the piece’s title, questioning whether such minimalism could truly represent anything meaningful.

On the other hand, supporters of Malevich defended the Black Square as a bold statement against conventional art forms, praising its avant-garde nature and revolutionary approach to abstract expressionism. They saw it as a radical departure from the constraints of realism and an exploration of pure form and emotion. Despite the initial criticisms, Malevich’s Black Square has endured as an iconic work that challenges viewers to rethink their understanding of art and beauty.

Legacy: Influence on modern and contemporary art

Dynamic Suprematism 1915 or 1916. Image Courtesy: Tate 1978

Legacy has always been a powerful force in the world of art, shaping and influencing modern and contemporary movements. It is particularly evident in the case of Malevich’s Black Square, a work that defied traditional artistic norms and paved the way for abstract art. Its impact can be seen in the minimalist and conceptual art of today, reflecting an ongoing dialogue with Malevich’s radical ideas.

By challenging the constraints of representational art, Malevich created a space for artists to explore new forms of expression and push boundaries. His legacy lives on through artists who continue to experiment with shape, color, and composition in ways that challenge viewers’ perceptions. This enduring influence underscores the importance of looking back at pioneering works like Black Square as we navigate contemporary art landscapes filled with innovation and experimentation.

Conclusion: Impact and enduring legacy of Black Square

The enduring legacy of Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square lies in its revolutionary impact on the art world. This simple yet profound work challenged traditional notions of art and opened the door to a new era of abstract and conceptual art. Its iconic status transcends time and continues to inspire contemporary artists, sparking discussions about the nature of art, representation, and expression.

One cannot underestimate the significance of the Black Square as a symbol of artistic freedom and innovation. Kasimir Malevich’s bold move to present a black geometric shape as art was a testament to his avant-garde spirit and commitment to pushing boundaries. The legacy of the Black Square serves as a reminder that true creativity knows no bounds and that sometimes it takes a radical departure from convention to truly make an impact on the world.

Author: Jessica Hartley