Victory over the Sun
Russian Avant-Garde and Beyond
In 1913 the premiere of the opera Victory over the Sun in St. Petersburg heralded the birth of Russian Futurist theater. For its creators – some of the avant-garde’s leading lights – this radical work represented the triumph of a new aesthetics over obsolete artistic traditions, of technology and science over nature, and of the utopian ideal of creating a new world. Futurism, which originated in Italy and took a distinctive ideological direction in Russia, emphasized the speed, energy, and power of the machine in order to address the perpetual changes of modern life.
Victory over the Sun combines a disjointed libretto by Aleksei Kruchenykh, written in a pseudo-language called zaum (“beyonsense” or “transrational poetry”), with dissonant music composed by Mikhail Matyushin. Kazimir Malevich designed the costumes and created the geometric, abstract scenery.
Kazimir Malevich, Bully, New Person, Many and One, costume designs for the opera Victory over the Sun by M. Matyushin and A. Kruchenykh, 1st Futurist Theater, St. Petersburg, 1913, Graphite and watercolor on paper, St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music, Photo © The St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music
In the opening scenes, the sun, representing the decadent past, is torn from the sky, locked in a concrete box, and given a funeral by “Futurian Strongmen.” For Scene 5 of the 2nd “Doing” – as the opera’s acts were called – Malevich designed a curtain with the outline of a square (see the sketch below). He later saw this image as the first sign of his Black Square, which emerged full-fledged in 1915, and of Suprematism.
Kazimir Malevich, Set design for the opera Victory over the Sun by M. Matyushin and A. Kruchenykh, 1st Futurist Theater, St. Petersburg, 1913, 2nd Doing [Act], 5th Scene, Graphite on paper, St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music, Photo © The St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music
I am the apostle of new concepts in art and the surgeon of the mind.
– Kazimir Malevich
The political, social, and cultural ferment of early-20th-century Russia had a strong utopian dimension, and avant-garde artists dreamed of fashioning a new world through new art. In this context of transformative energy, Kazimir Malevich asserted the supremacy of a few essential forms and colors. He saw the pure geometric abstraction of his Suprematism, which he developed into a philosophy of life, as the essence of revolutionary creativity.
Malevich’s painting of his Black Square, a defining moment in the history of modern culture, overturned centuries of representational art. Malevich was convinced that he had found the perfect form – the end and the beginning, zero and infinity – from which everything could be developed anew. When Black Square was first displayed in Petrograd in December 1915, in the seminal group show The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10, Malevich provocatively positioned the painting high up in the corner – the place usually reserved for icons in the Russian Orthodox home. In doing so, he drew attention to what he considered the most important work in the exhibition and endowed it with transcendent power.
The Suprematist movement founded by Malevich attracted fervent disciples. In 1920 he and his colleagues and students at the Vitebsk People’s Art School established UNOVIS (Affirmers of the New Art). They incorporated the forms of Suprematism into diverse artistic disciplines, so that the black square became a visible feature of everyday life.
Malevich’s work displayed in The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10, Petrograd, 1915. Photograph from the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
One of Malevich’s most faithful disciples, Nikolai Suetin was also among the master’s closest collaborators. He was affiliated with the progressive UNOVIS group, which dedicated itself to promoting Suprematism and adopted the Black Square not only as its trademark, but also as the keystone of its curriculum. UNOVIS also took Suprematism into the public sphere in Vitebsk and decorated the town’s trams, building facades, and streets with its nonobjective forms. Malevich himself painted several different versions of the Black Square in the course of his life. As if trying to reach the secret of Suprematism with his own hands, Suetin also painted a Black Square in the early 1920s.
In 1922 Suetin left Vitebsk for Petrograd, where he worked in and later become artistic director of the State Porcelain Factory. He designed Suprematist porcelain pieces, as did Ilya Chashnik, another outstanding disciple of Malevich (see below). When Malevich died in 1935, it was Suetin who organized the funeral and designed a gravestone in the form of a Suprematist black square on a white cube. However, because of the Soviet rejection of abstract art, in the 1930s he focused on the applied arts and avoided explicit references to Suprematism.
Left: Ilya Chashnik, Lenin. Year of Sorrow platter, 1924, Porcelain, Private collection. Right: Nikolai Suetin, Black and White plate, 1929, Porcelain, Private collection, Nikolai Suetin © the collector
Malevich believed that Suprematism would pass through three phases, which were reflected in his paintings of black, red, and white squares. Black represented the origin, the “zero degree” of painting, and the beginning of nonobjectivity (abstraction); color established movement in space; and white embodied the culmination of Suprematism – pure nonobjectivity – as well as the endlessness of space.
The two Suprematist paintings seen below were most likely displayed in 1915 in the Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10. Four Squares, a variant of Black Square, consists of individually painted black and white squares, positioned diagonally. Suprematism and Composition, with their colored forms juxtaposed at varying angles, exemplify the energy of the dynamic phase.
Kazimir Malevich, Left: Four Squares, 1915, Oil on canvas, Radischev Art Museum, Saratov, Right: Suprematism, 1915, Oil on canvas, Ivanovo Art Museum, Ivanovo
El Lissitzky was a staunch supporter of Soviet Communism, believing that the social and political upheavals of his time would result in an utterly new human being. Through his inventive children’s book Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions he sought to familiarize the young generation with the revolutionary language of Suprematism and abstract art. Lissitzky wrote and designed the book in Vitebsk in 1920, and it was published two years later in Berlin.
Of Two Squares tells the story of the birth of a new world and its struggle with the old one, condensed into six pages and employing remarkably economical means: a palette limited to red, black, and white; two squares; one circle; some three-dimensional geometric forms; and a telegraphic accompanying text. Constantly moving, the red and black squares crash from outer space into a chaotic black world, but chaos is overcome when the red square, symbolizing the new world order, triumphs over the black square and sends it flying away.
El Lissitzky, Five proofs for Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions, Lithograph, 1922, Private collection, Photo Courtesy of the collector
One of the most talented exponents of Suprematism, El Lissitzky was an artist, designer, typographer, photographer, and architect. In order to take Malevich’s concept in a three-dimensional, or “volumetric,” direction, Lissitzky introduced the Proun (standing for “Project for the Affirmation of the New”), which he called “a transfer station on the way from painting to architecture.”
El Lissitzky, Figurines: The Three-Dimensional Design of the Electro-Mechanical Show Victory over the Sun, Portfolio of 11 lithographs, 1923, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
In the early 1920s, almost ten years after Victory over the Sun premiered, Lissitzky conceived of an entirely new staging for the Futurist opera. Instead of actors, gigantic puppets – “figurines” – would be operated by an “electro-mechanical” apparatus. His puppets resembled gigantic Prouns with a human aspect. Lissitzky’s project was never realized, and in fact could not be realized in the technological reality of the time. However, he left behind a 1923 portfolio containing color lithographs of the main characters (see above) that testifies to this ambitious and innovative endeavor.
Lissitzky’s Prouns (see below) represented the artist’s unique synthesis of Suprematism and Constructivism, the austere abstract style that had a profound impact on design, architecture, and industry in the 1920s. The holistic approach and social agenda of Constructivism were well suited to the needs of the Soviet Union in its early years, and Lissitzky saw his Prouns as prototypes for the architecture of the future.