House under construction is one of the earliest examples of Suprematism, a movement that made its debut in Malevich's contribution to 'The Last Futurist Exhibition: 0, 10', held in St Petersburg from 17 December 1915 to 15 January 1916. It is not known if the Australian National Gallery's painting was shown in this exhibit, however, stylistic similarities strongly link it to works of this period.1
The title, House under construction, which is inscribed in the artist's hand on the back of the canvas, also links it with the first Suprematist works. The catalogue for the '0, 10' exhibition lists a number of titles which refer to a subject, for example, Pictorial realism of a football player, Pictorial realism of a boy with a knapsack, or Pictorial realism of a peasant woman in two dimensions. The majority of the works in the exhibition, however, are given less descriptive titles—either Pictorial masses in motion (nos 48–59), or Colour masses in two dimensions in a peaceful state (nos 60–77). After thisexhibition Malevich dropped discursive titles and listed his works simply as Suprematist painting.
It may be that in these early paintings the narrative titles indicate the initial idea that prompted the composition before this source was transformed into completely abstract form. Andrei B Nakov has also suggested combination of arbitrary title with abstract painting would be in keeping with the alogical juxtapositions of Malevich’s earlier pre–Suprematist works.2
While it seems certain that House under construction belongs with the first Suprematist works, it is difficult to date the painting with precision. Inscribed on the reverse of the canvas, with the title, is the date ‘1914’. It is generally acknowledged, however, that the first Suprematist paintings were not painted before the middle of 1915. Certainly no Suprematist works were exhibited before the ‘0, 10’ exhibition held in December 1915. Malevich’s correspondence with Mikhail Matiushin indicates that he began searching for a new style in the last months of 1914 and had evolved the principles of Suprematist painting by the spring of 1915.3 From the letters we know that Malevich worked furiously through the summer and spring of 1915, both to build up a coherent body of works to launch his new movement and because he feared imminent conscription into the army. One exhibitor at '0, 10’ remembered that Malevich’s paintings were still wet when they arrived at the exhibition rooms, indicating that they had only recently been painted.4 It therefore seems unlikely that Malevich could have painted House under construction in 1914.
In placing the date 1914 on the back of House under construction, it is more likely that Malevich was linking emergent Suprematism with his 1913 sketches for the sets and costumes of the opera Victory over the sun. These, he claimed, ‘gave me a mass of innovations, except no one noticed’.5 His design for the backcloth in Act II, sc.i, incorporated a bisected square to which he attached great importance. Malevich’s statement in 1919 that ‘Suprematism arose in 1913’ then probably refers to its genesis in his 1913 design and, by extension, subsequent dates refer to the date a particular work was conceived, though not necessarily executed. Malevich considered House under construction an important work. He included a lithographed drawing of it in his publication Suprematism 34 Drawings (Vitebsk: Unovis) 1920. Here it appears to be placed in a developmental sequence, starting with a version of his painting Black square 1915. As Malevich had just mounted a large retrospective exhibition in Moscow between December 1919 and January 1920, and was in a position to take stock of his work, the layout of the publication probably reflects this. A manuscript titled ‘Suprematism, the supremacy of pure non–objective art with ideal material and imagery, the phases of its development’, thought to have been written by Malevich soon after 1923, charts the development of Suprematism in a systematic way.6 Thumbnail sketches of his works illustrate points in the essay. Again House under construction is included in this survey as number 12, one of several examples of dynamic Suprematism flat forms evolving from squares from 1913.
Interestingly, House under construction is shown upside down in Suprematism 34 Drawings, reflecting, no doubt, the fact that it was hung this way in Malevich’s 1919–20 retrospective exhibition in Moscow. The Gallery’s painting is not unique in this respect, as Malevich experimented with the hanging of a number of his abstract paintings between 1915 and 1927. By the time the manuscript was prepared, perhaps a year or two later, Malevich had turned the composition again so that the elements rose from the bottom to the top, as indeed he hung the painting at his Berlin retrospective in 1927, and as it has hung ever since. It appears certain that Malevich would make detailed preparatory drawings for his Suprematist paintings. The drawing for Football match 1915, for example, is virtually a duplicate for the finished painting.7 No preparatory drawing is known for House under construction, but it seems likely that the composition was worked out in advance. Certainly X–ray photographs of House under construction show no alteration to the composition and infra–red reflectographs and examination of the surface itself show all the major elements neatly positioned in the composition with pencilled outlines, reinforcing the notion of transfer from an existing plan. The few alterations to this blueprint are in the nature of fine–tuning: the borders of a number of rectangles have been slightly expanded to consolidate their weight in the composition. More interesting are the changes to the colour in many of the smaller elements — those fine rectangles radiating out from the top left–hand corner and bottom right–hand corner. Originally black, these have been overpainted in vermilion to create an axis in red from corner to corner, a change calculated to enhance the sense of a dynamic diagonal thrust in the painting.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.128.
- Andrei B. Nakov, ‘Malevich, and the Beginning of Suprematism’, Art and Australia, vol. 14, nos 3 and 4, January–April 1977, pp.280–5. Andrei B. Nakov, writing about House under construction in 1977, makes a number of useful comparisons with other paintings to make this point. It would be a very convenient means of dating House under construction if it had been part of the ‘0, 10’ exhibition held in 1915. The fact that the titles in the catalogue are difficult to match against particular paintings, and that the photograph used to positively identify Malevich’s paintings in the exhibition shows only twenty–two of a possible thirty–eight paintings, does not exclude this possibility.
- Nakov, op. cit.
- Malevich’s correspondence with Matiushin between 1914 and 1915 is used effectively to argue this point in Dr Ergenii Kortun’s 'The Beginning of Suprematism', From Surface to Space: Russia 1914–16, Cologne: Galerie Gmurzynska, 1974, pp.32–49.
- Madame Pougny is reported to have made this statement to C. Sandberg, then director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; see Malevich Architectones Peintures Dessins, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980 (exhibition catalogue), p.126.
- From a letter to Matiushin dated May 1915 now found in the Pushkin House Archives, St Petersburg, published in 'Ezbegodnik rukopisnogo otdela Pushkin skogo doma na 1974 god', Leningrad, 1976, and quoted in Charlotte Douglas, Swans of Other Worlds: Kazimir Malevich and the Origins of Abstraction in Russia, UMI Research Press, 1976, p.64.
- Manuscript published with notes by Simon Pugh as 'Suprematism: An Unpublished Manuscript', Studio International, vol. 183, no. 942, March 1972, pp.100–2.
- Drawing for 'Football match 1915, pencil on paper, 16.2 x 11.2 cm, private collection; Football match, 1915, oil on canvas, 70 x 44 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010