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Abstract

Although Malevich’s abstract Suprematist paintings are canonical images of modern art, standard avant-garde or modernist paradigms have little purchase on them. This dissertation proposes that Malevich’s modernism was the product of an attempt to make sense of both Russian and Western art of the recent past. Such an approach shows that Malevich’s art is both an idiosyncratic elaboration of Russia’s own image-making traditions and a self-conscious attempt to participate in Western European modernism. To make this case, I sketch an alternative to the story of post-Enlightenment aesthetics that ground received histories of modernism. Emphasizing the weakness of a secularizing tradition in Russia, I look to texts by Russian religious and secular thinkers to understand Russian modernism in the visual arts as a departure from traditional ideas of modernist medium specificity. Malevich’s autobiography demonstrates his sympathy with this alternative tradition. This is not to say that Malevich sought to create a purely national art; in fact, I begin by showing that Malevich’s early career was defined by its “mimesis” of predominantly French painting. This practice of creative imitation dislocated styles from their original socio-historical contexts, thereby generating a “meta-modernist” practice. Suprematist painting too challenged notions of mimesis apropos abstract art. A critical reading of Malevich’s Suprematist manifestos discloses their constitutive contradictions between virulent attacks on objects and the persistence of the tradition of painting. I conclude by demonstrating that Malevich’s late works, rather than a form of artistic reaction, self-consciously put on view the local and international origins of the artist’s practice.

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