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The Cover
May 11, 2005

An Englishman in Moscow

JAMA. 2005;293(18):2191. doi:10.1001/jama.293.18.2191

The 19th century ended in a burst of color and light. The 20th began in a more subdued manner, like a bad hangover. In Paris, Picasso and Braque seemed almost cautious as they tiptoed around their motifs. The result was matter and form broken into planes that nearly hid the identity of the original motif. In order not to distract the viewer from this analytical method, color was subordinated, becoming almost monochromatic. To the Italians, on the other hand, even this fragmentation of the surface was too tame; a painting should show motion as well, and not only motion, but speed. Thus were born the two 20th-century movements, Cubism and Futurism, that would have a profound effect on a young painter working hundreds of miles away in Moscow. He in turn would influence such avant garde movements as Dada; in some respects, he even anticipated Surrealism. But his lasting contribution, from 1915 on, was an entirely new, uniquely Russian art form that he labeled Suprematism. Representational figuration disappeared from the canvas. So did color. In their place was a simple geometric figure, based on the rectangle, and rendered in white against a background that was also white. The subject of the work was now no longer the representational figure nor even the geometric figure, but space. The object was secondary: its sole purpose was to call attention to the space within which it existed and ultimately to space itself, without color, without dimension, in other words, to infinity.