Abstraction and Non-Objective Art

Cubism is an abstract art form, but it is not non-objective because there is still recognizable subject matter.  Several artists in the early 20th century followed Kandinsky’s path towards non-objective art.  They sought to transcend material reality to get to the deeper essence of things.

Getting to Know Brancusi (High Museum)

Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, 1924 Museum of Modern Art
Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space, 1924
Museum of Modern Art

The Romanian sculptor Constantin Bancusi strove to capture the essence of things, rather than their outward visible appearance.  In a series of sculptures on the theme of a bird, Brancusi stripped away all inessential detail until he arrived at this culminating piece.  Cast in bronze, the simple shape suggests a propeller, a feather, and the sleek shape of a bird, while also evoking the aerodynamic essence of flight.

Brancusi’s Bird in Space, Smarthistory

1913 | “Mlle Pogany” by Constantin Brancusi

Screen shot 2015-04-28 at 6.40.03 AM

Read about the trial of Brancusi’s Bird in Space:

Suprematism:  Russia, 20th Century
The Russian artist Kazimir Malevich also strove to capture the essence of things.  He founded a movement in Russia called Suprematism, which referred to the supremacy of his new art over the old tradition of representation.  He described Suprematism as “the art of the taut, industrial environment.”  Malevich wanted to free his art from what he called “the burden of the object,” believing that recognizable subject matter distracted from the deeper essence of what he was trying to express.  The breakthrough came in 1913 with a drawing titled Basic Suprematist Element, which was a pencil drawing of a black square on a white sheet of paper.  Malevich believed he had discovered a pure, non-objective form that expressed the spirit of a new, liberated age:

“Malevich described his aesthetic theory, known as Suprematism, as “the supremacy of pure feeling or perception in the pictorial arts.” He viewed the Russian Revolution as having paved the way for a new society in which materialism would eventually lead to spiritual freedom.”
Museum of Modern Art 

Kazimir Malevic (Artventure TV)

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, c. 1923, Oil on canvas, 106 x 106 cm, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

“The Square is the face of the new art and the first step of pure creation in art. Now our world of art has become new, non-objective, and pure.”
Kazimir Malevich

Tate Shots:  Malevich:  First Look

Why This Black Square is ARt (Little Art Talks)

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915
Museum of Modern Art

Malevich’s compositions typically consist of geometric forms “floating” in a white “space” symbolic of infinity.  He often cited aviation as a source of inspiration for his work, as in this work titled Suprematist Composition:  Airplane Flying.  Modern aviation brought a new perspective on space and time; in the air there is no horizon or sense of perspective; there is only an expanse of infinite space.  Malevich evokes this sense of limitless expanse in this composition since we can’t tell if we are looking up, down, or sideways.  With no horizon to orient us, we have become free of our conventional boundaries and limits.


“To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.”

“Feeling is the determining factor … and thus art arrives at non-objective representation through Suprematism.”

“No more ‘likenesses of reality,’ no idealistic images, nothing but a desert!”

“Suprematism is the rediscovery of pure art which, in the course of time, had become obscured by the accumulation of “things”.”

“The black square on the white field was the first form in which nonobjective feeling came to be expressed. The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling.”

Constructivism:  Russia, 20th Century
Constructivism was founded in Russia in 1913 by Vladimir Tatlin who discovered Cubism and Futurism in Paris. He was joined by Antoine Pevsner and Naum Gabo who published the “Realist Manfesto” proclaiming a new kind of “constructed” art that was “real” rather than “representational.”  Inspired by the beauty and functionality of machines, the Constructivists made sculptures that looked like they were factory made with modern synthetic materials such as plastic, lucite, and steel.

Naum Gabo, Column, 1923 (reconstructed 1937)Guggenheim Museum
Naum Gabo, Column, 1923 (reconstructed 1937)
Guggenheim Museum

Made out industrial materials (perspex, wood, metal, and glass), Gabo’s Column was designed as a maquette for a larger monument that was never built.  Completely non-objective, the work rejects the imitation of nature in favor of exploring a new kind of beauty rooted in the materials and forms of modern industry and technology.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Spatial Construction No. 12, 1920.  MOMA
Aleksandr Rodchenko, Spatial Construction No. 12, 1920. MOMA

Click to launch video:  http://www.moma.org/audios/embed/244/2441

Productivism and the “Culture of Materials” Russia 20th Century
The Bolshevik Revolution radicalized many Russian artists.  Influenced by Marxist ideas, they rejected the “bourgeois” values of capitalist society, and art came under attack as a bourgeois luxury and status symbol.  The Productivists (many of them former Constructivists) believed that art should be “functional” rather than provide idle pleasure.  They argued that artists should leave the studio and “go into the factory” to apply their skills to practical design.

Varvara Stepanova, The Results of the First Five-Year Plan, 1932 (State Museum of Contemporary Russian History, Moscow)
Varvara Stepanova, The Results of the First Five-Year Plan, 1932 (State Museum of Contemporary Russian History, Moscow)

Many artists turned their energies towards the production of propaganda for the new Soviet State.  Varvara Stepanova was a Russian painter, photographer and designer, who used the new technique of “photomontage” to communicate the new government’s ideals:

“In Stepanova’s photomontage, everything is carefully constructed. The artist uses only three types of color and tone. She alternates black and white with sepia photographs and integrates geometric planes of red to structure the composition. On the left, Stepanova has inserted public address speakers on a platform with the number 5, symbolizing the Five Year Plan along with placards displaying the letters CCCP, the Russian initials for USSR. The letters are placed above the horizon as is a portrait of Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. The cropped and oversized photograph of Lenin shows him speaking; his eyes turned to the left as if looking to the future. Lenin is linked to the speakers and letter placards at the left by the wires of an electrical transmission tower. Below, a large crowd of people indicate the mass popularity of Stalin’s political program and their desire to celebrate it.”
Jessica Watson, “Stepanova, The Results of the Five-Year Plan,” Khan Academy

Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International, 1919-1920
Vladimir Tatlin, Monument to the Third International, 1919-1920

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International is an example of the kind of “applied” or “practical” design advocated by the Productivists.  The building was designed to house the new revolutionary government of the Third International.  Made of glass and steel, the building takes the form of a tilted spiral, and would have been taller than the Eiffel Tower had it been built.  Three glass units within the spiral tower in the shape of a cube, cylinder, and cone were intended to rotate once per year, month, and day.

The Monument to the Third International reflects the utopian ideals of the Russian Revolution, but with the rise of Stalin the Productivists fell out of favor, and a new style of “Socialist Realism” was imposed on Russian artists.  The official style of “Soviet Realism” called for a realistic style, and “positive” images of party leaders and workers.  Like in Nazi Germany, art became propaganda for the state.


Web Resources

Suprematism @ Theartstory.org

Suprematism (Museum of Modern Art)

Russian Constructivism @ Theartstory.org

Next lecture

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.