The Pictorial Trans-Rationalism of Kazimir Malevich

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Introduction. Trans-rationalism or Russian zaum' (literally "beyond reason") formed the most radical tendency in Russian Futurism and was the leading artistic and literary movement in the Russian avant-garde in the early 1910s. Embodied in an absurd poetic language opposed to standard logic and grammar, Trans-rationalism was developed in late 1912, mainly by Alexei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, David Budiuk, and Vasily Kamensky, the Moscow poets who during 1910-1912 called themselves "Hylaea," or unofficially "Budetliane" (Khlebnikov's neologism for "men of the future"). In 1913, they adopted the name Cubo-Futurists to indicate their links to French Cubism and Italian Futurism. Kruchenykh's conception of trans-rational language strongly impressed Kazimir Malevich who called Kruchenykh "the alpha of the trans-rational." (1) In 1913, Malevich joined the Cubo-Futurist poets and began to render illogical combinations of unrelated objects, words, letters, and numerals, juxtaposing, for example, a cow with a violin and a gentleman's top hat with a spoon or with the number "0." While some avant-garde artists, like Olga Rozanova, Alexei Morgunov, and Ivan Puni, also painted absurd pictures, it was Malevich who established the principles of visual trans-rationalism, laying the basis for his Suprematist art of non-objective geometric shapes.

The importance of Malevich's trans-rationalism for the formation of Suprematism has been recognized by scholars. Charlotte Douglas, an influential writer on Malevich, for example, wrote that, like Kruchenykh who splintered and reordered words, Malevich destroyed obvious relationships between objects, sliced objects, and arrived at geometric planes in the settings and costumes for Kruchenykh's 1913 transrational opera, Victory over the Sun. In trans-rationalism and Suprematism, Malevich searched for metaphysical truths, focusing on "the widening of the possibilities of analytic logic" to establish the principles for a new art. (2) Larissa Zhadova recognized a clear progression in Malevich's illogical pictures from objective themes to domination of colored planes, and noted that trans-rationalism was for Malevich a catharsis that liberated him from external influences and led him to Suprematism. (3) For John Bowlt, trans-rationalism was Malevich's "bridge to Suprematism in all its aesthetic forms." (4) And, in the opinion of Rainer Crone and David Moose, Malevich "played on convention to highlight ... [the] deficiencies" of his trans-rational work, and thusly, later in his Suprematism, "he was able to distance himself from convention". (5)

The accepted notion regarding Malevich's trans-rational imagery is that the artist formed a new, non-objective art by destroying the conventional logic of objects through a variety of contradictory associations provoked by his illogical puzzles. Douglas noted that Malevich's unrelated images "simply turn the mind back on itself until interpretation is abandoned," (6) while Crone and Moose asserted that varied explanations of Malevich's illogical works result from "our conditioning, which dictates that paintings should be unraveled, interpreted in representational ways." If the representation is not coherent, then we aspire "to attach conventional meaning to parts we hope to recognize." Malevich's 1914 Englishman in Moscow (Fig. 6) serves to illustrate their point. According to Douglas, the Englishman is "a hermetic picture [that alludes to the] occult notions of Cubo-Futurism, [representing] the knowing mind, rather than the eye that sees merely surfaces." (8) John Milner considered the Englishman a "cryptic portrait" of Kruchenykh whom Khlebnikov called a "little London ghost." (9) Nikolai Fitrich associated Malevich's image both with Lewis Carroll's illogical world and the Christian symbolism of the "Parable of the Burning Candle," (10) and Alexandra Shatskikh believed the Englishman to be a portrait of the one-eyed David Burliuk. …