Arts Curriculum

The Early 20th Century

The Early 20th Century

Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935). Morning in the Village after Snowstorm, 1912. Oil on canvas, 81 x 81 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 52.1327

From the mid-19th century until the Russian Revolution of 1917, the tsars had tried to remain popular by walking a tightrope between granting reforms and greater freedom and cracking down on dissent. The dramatic reforms of Alexander II were followed by the harshly conservative rule of Alexander III (1881–1894), which clamped down on the revolutionary movement, tightened censorship laws, and instigated a wave of anti-Semitism by blaming the problems of Russia on the Jews as a means to deflect attention from the real problem, the continued gap between the rich and the poor. In 1894 Nicholas II ascended the throne. Unfortunately, Nicholas II had little skill in governing.

The disarray and confusion in government and society worsened. Poor urban and rural workers looked for ways to better their lives. They were joined by a growing middle class who also resented the power of the rich. In 1905 unrest led to massive strikes and peasant demonstrations, and even rebellion in the armed forces. On government orders, over 100 workers who had gathered in front of the Winter Palace to ask for the tsar’s help were shot and killed, setting the stage for further unrest and, finally, concessions by the tsar to create Russia’s first democratically elected parliament: the Duma. Briefly, Russia became a limited constitutional monarchy, but it would collapse in 1917, when the Bolsheviks launched their successful coup.

For artists, this period in Russia was marked by frenzied artistic activity and creativity. Inspired by a close association with and increased exposure to current European artistic styles, the Russian avant-garde artists reinterpreted these styles by combining them with their own unique innovations. No longer did the Russians simply follow Europe’s lead; now they initiated new and exciting artistic experiments that would ultimately change the face and the direction of modern art.

Around 1906 Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, working in France, had developed an approach to painting known as Cubism. The Cubists fragmented objects and pictorial space in semitransparent, overlapping, faceted planes, merging various perspectives. The result was an incorporation of many views and many separate temporal moments on a single canvas.

Russian painters were introduced to Cubism through the works bought and displayed by wealthy patrons like Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. As they did with many other movements, the Russians interpreted and transformed Cubism in their own unique way. Some of the most outstanding Cubist works came from Kazimir Malevich.

A new style, Cubo-Futurism, developed in Russia around 1910. It was essentially a synthetic style, combining three approaches: French Cubism, Italian Futurism, and Neo-primitivism. Some of Cubo-Futurism’s most characteristic features include:

  • fragmentation of forms derived from Cubism
  • focus on movement, energy, and speed from Futurism
  • bold colors and lines from Neo-primitivism

Although it lasted only a few years, Cubo-Futurism was unique to Russia and the last major artistic style before many artists moved on to completely non-objective art.

About this work

Kazimir Malevich is the most celebrated Russian artist of his generation, but there is little in his youth that would suggest this path. The future leading avant-garde artist grew up in southern Ukraine far from any sizable city. The home of his childhood was simple, without art books or works of art. In his autobiography, Malevich recalls a day when he and his mother visited a shop with many pictures in it. For the first time, he recognized that paint could be used to record the impressions stored in his visual memory. “I shall never forget this great day,” he wrote.

In 1904 Malevich moved to Moscow. There he had an opportunity to see in person the French Impressionist paintings that he so greatly admired. He was profoundly impressed by Monet and Cézanne in particular.

Over the next several years Malevich would explore various styles and in 1912 he reached a turning point by developing a new independent style known as Cubo-Futurism. As the term implies, Cubo-Futurism combined both Cubism’s fragmentation of form and Italian Futurism’s emphasis on technology and motion.

As one of the most creative and inspired artists of the Russian avant-garde, Malevich was well qualified to become one of the leaders of the Cubo-Futurist style. His painting Morning in the Village after Snowstorm (1912) expresses both his artistic temperament and the essence of Cubo-Futurism. In keeping with Cubism, the composition is fragmented. The painting gives an impression of movement, and forms of nature, including human figures, appear to be machine made; this is the influence of Futurism. Morning in the Village after Snowstorm is, in its mastery of complex colors and shapes, a good example of the newly created Russian style, Cubo-Futurism, which Malevich saw as a logical continuation of Cubism and Futurism. This phase in Malevich’s career has been seen as a stopover on his journey toward abstraction and the eventual development of still another style he would pioneer, Suprematism.

This work also contains political and social dimensions. Malevich came from humble circumstances and it is clear in autobiographical accounts that vivid memories of his country childhood compensated for his lack of a formal art education. Malevich mines his memories of age-old village life, but paints this scene in the most progressive, groundbreaking style. Morning in the Village after Snowstorm demonstrates that his hard-won skills as a sophisticated painter were rooted in Russian folk traditions of popular woodcuts, frescoes, and icon painting. If art can be said to predict the future, then Malevich’s choice, on the brink of the Russian Revolution, to depict peasants seems not to have been coincidental.

Kazimir Malevich

Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935). Morning in the Village after Snowstorm, 1912. Oil on canvas, 81 x 81 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 52.1327

  • Before looking at the painting, close your eyes and imagine a painting entitled Morning in the Village after Snowstorm. Draw the image you imagined and/or write a paragraph describing the scene. What did you imagine this scene looked like? Share what you have created with your classmates. Now view Malevich’s Morning in the Village after Snowstorm. How is your work similar or different from Malevich’s vision?
  • Is this a real or imaginary place, or a mixture of both? What leads you to your conclusion? Describe this village. It may take some careful looking to discern what is going on.
  • The title of this work suggests that there are certain things that the artist wants us to look for. How does Malevich convey the time of day, the place, the weather conditions? Cite specific parts of the painting in your responses.
  • Color can convey atmosphere and emotion. Think about the environment that Malevich has created in this picture. Describe how color is used to convey atmosphere. If the colors in this work were changed, how would the impact of the work change?
  • This work has been classified by art historians as Cubo-Futurist, a style that synthesizes several other styles: Cubism, Futurism and Neo-primitivism. Which parts of it seem to define it as a Cubist work? In what ways does it show the influence of Futurist ideas? Can you see Neo-primitivist aspects as well? Explain.
Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935). Morning in the Village after Snowstorm, 1912. Oil on canvas, 81 x 81 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 52.1327

  • Malevich has titled this work Morning in the Village after Snowstorm. The title provides the viewer with a time of day, place, and weather conditions. Draw or paint your own work that depicts a particular time of day, place, and weather conditions. For instance, Evening in the Park before the Rain or Afternoon at the Beach when the Temperature Tops 90 Degrees. Describe why you chose these conditions and share the work you have created with your classmates.
    Visual Arts

    English / Language Arts

  • In comparison to previous ages, the world was moving very quickly at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to the social and political changes that were occurring in Russia at this time, industrial and technological changes were making an impact as well. The revolution in manufacturing and transportation changed economies and expectations. In Russia the opening of the Trans-Siberian railway opened vast areas of land for development. Photography was widely employed to document events; film and cinematography were developing as a new art form. Research the impact that these inventions had on how artists chose to depict the world around them.
    Social Studies

  • The reign of Alexander III was a time of increased anti-Semitism, which was sanctioned and encouraged by the government. Jews experienced waves of violent attacks, called pogroms, in which thousands were murdered. The pogroms drove many Jews away. Between 1880 and 1914 about one million fled Russia. Most settled in Western Europe and the United States. Discuss the many reasons that people decide to leave their homeland. Interview someone who has immigrated to the United States and find out how and why they left the land of their birth.
    Social Studies