The Square: From Malevich To Instagram


From Russian art in the early 20th century to today’s obsession with Instagram, the use of the square in art and design has stubbornly persisted through time. When Polish-born visual artist, Kazimir Malevich unveiled his iconic Black Square to Petrograd in 1915, he claimed to have produced the first painting “without any attribute of real life”. It was created to represent nothing: art for art’s sake. In tune with the broad cultural shifts happening within western civilisation in the early 20th century, Malevich and his contemporaries rejected conventional thought in order to break preconceived norms, and promote artistic freedom. It became emblematic of the ‘zero point’ of painting, with Malevich stating, “it is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins”. Following his death in 1935 however, the famous Black Square was relegated to storerooms, gaining a pseudo-mythical status in the process as it – and artworks like it – was quashed by Stalin. A resurgence eventually followed and it was rediscovered in Russian archives after the soviet leader’s death in 1953. Since then, it has been on display from the 1980s, and was recently exhibited at the Tate in London. Currently the pride of the Tretyakov Gallery, it is still as striking, bold and relevant as it was 100 years ago and continues to inspire artists and designers worldwide.

Kasimir Malevich – Black Square (1913) [image: Flickr]
Running parallel to these events in the Soviet Union, Alex Steinweiss’s introduction of album artwork to record covers was a seismic shift in modern art and design. His graphic design revolution in 1938 completely upended the music industry and broadened public perception of the square in art. Before this, vinyl packaging had been purely utilitarian; a protective cover, secondary to the record it contained. But by harnessing the square as a window to the product inside, Steinweiss permanently altered the consumption of music as a commodity. The expectation of what a record could and should provide evolved to give more creative scope to the musicians, and to make a record collection a source of greater personal pride to an owner. An undeniably important element of this was the square album cover encasing an LP. Today, despite the disposable mindset of our Snapchat era, the move of music from an analogue to digital environment hasn’t seen the square frame of its album artwork sacrificed. Rather than being displaced, the importance of striking visuals can even supersede musical content itself. Most recently, high profile acts such as Radiohead and Beyoncé have probed into unique inbound marketing techniques most effectively, through manipulations of social media and music videos.

Alex Steinweiss changed the world of music through graphic design. The first record cover he designed was for a Rodgers & Hart compilation album in 1938 (Pictured)

A study conducted in tandem with the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, demonstrated that humans display a subconscious emotional preference towards rounded shapes over jagged edges. So – why is the square still relevant? The current landscape of the digital age is juxtaposed with our love-affair with nostalgia. Despite – or perhaps as a result of – our constant connectivity, the desire to connect with the past is perennial. In the face of a medium saturated with the instantaneous and perfect, products that are tactile and humanised in their flaws retain a distinct allure. Vinyl record sales are the healthiest they’ve been for 20 years. The use of analogue cameras has seen a stubborn increase despite decades of consistent improvement in digital lenses. Ask anyone who came of age around the year 2000 and they’ll call themselves an ‘80s kid’ or a ‘90s kid’; the term ‘millennial’ is not used by the group it represents. Far more comfortable attaching their identity to a decade than to an arbitrary generational collective, this perhaps demonstrates the psyche of a younger generation obsessed with bygone ages.

With an estimated 500 million monthly active users worldwide, Instagram is a social media juggernaut. In what was initially a throwback to the age of the Polaroid, it has tapped into a square-centric design to re-popularise old-school photographs. Apps like Dojo have further popularised design centred around simple squares, with a clean and classy menu interface reliant on eye-catching photos and informal slang terms as headings. These kinds of trends indicate a shift towards a similar minimalist, flat logo style.

The Impossible Project has revitalised the Polaroid camera.

As a result of our leech-like dependence on smartphones, a huge degree of personalisation is exerted over handheld devices by their users. Humans want to feel like they’re at the forefront of innovation, and an aesthetically outdated application doesn’t sit well with sufferers of FOMO (fear of missing out). Whilst using the brash impact of squares as a striking visual statement can be traced back to the dawn of Suprematism over 100 years ago, it doesn’t seem to have become any less effective as a marketing tool over time. Whether companies akin to The Impossible Project would have achieved the same degree of success if it weren’t for Instagram’s romanticised revamp of the square photo is hard to say. The question lies in how long this wave of nostalgia is to be ridden. The current generation is like the thief at the window: between two worlds. And by catering to that, you’re banking on its next move. Is it on its way in, or out?