An Introduction to El Lissitzky*
by Peter Nesbitt  

To introduce El Lissitzky is to make a list: Lissitzky the architecture student in Germany before the Great War; Lissitzky the participant in the revival of Jewish culture around the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917; Lissitzky the passionate convert to geometrical abstraction and coiner of the neologistic title Proun for his paintings, prints and drawings; Lissitzky in Germany in the 1920s as a bridge between Soviet and Western European avant-gardes; Lissitzky the essayist, journal editor, lecturer and theorist; Lissitzky as a founder of modern typography; Lissitzky as architect of visionary skyscrapers and temporary trade fairs; Lissitzky in the Soviet Union in the 1930s as trusted propagandist for the achievements of Stalinism. Such is the bare outline of one of the most diverse careers in the history of modern art.1 The multifariousness of Lissitzky's activities in art and design matches the range of countries in which he worked (principally Russia, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland). And his network of friends and collaborators would read like a roster of the leading creative figures of the international avant-garde during the inter-war years.
    That Lissitzky was a crucial link between personalities, between movements and between countries in the first three decades of this century is clear. Often discussed as the 'bridge' between Russia and the West2 or between abstract art and utilitarian architecture, Lissitzky is, however, in danger of being defined only by his intermediate position, of existing merely as a transitional figure joining other, implicitly more important things. 
     This range of accomplishment has made it hard to categorize Lissitzky. For some, he is a twentieth century incarnation of the Renaissance Man, a universal genius untrammeled by limitations of genre or nationality. Diversity is then his strength, a sign of the common avant-garde goal of revolutionizing life in all its manifestations. For others, he has become a prime example of the second-generation epigone, a gifted jack-of-all-trades who is adept at integrating and synthesizing the achievements of the masters.3 At worst, the abrupt jumps of style and activity are taken as evidence of a fundamental lack of seriousness. 
      Certainly, an introductory survey that attempts a few words about most of Lissitzky's major accomplishments in broadly chronological order will probably not dispel this troubling sense of variety. However, some recurring pat-terns and concerns are discernible. In particular, Lissitzky's complicated relationship to architecture, both practical and ideal, provides a thread of continuity.
       Sometimes close, at other times distant, this relationship changed substantially over the three decades of Lissitzky's creative life, but it provided the context for much of his work. In this problem are reflected the tensions between the aesthetic and the functional, the utopian and the immediate, the exemplary and the normal, the lasting and the ephemeral - tensions that form leitmotifs for the discussion that follows. In this constant dialogue with architecture, Lissitzky was able to live out an attitude of wary fascination with the real world. Always reluctant to accept it, he was concerned to be an active participant in overcoming the status quo. This was, however, a participation that required working with and on the given material or the given situation. In living out these tensions, Lissitzky was naturally not unique. On the contrary, these problems were common to an entire generation of artists faced with the challenge of finding a suitable role for their creative talents in modern societies (whether nominally capitalist or socialist) defined by industrialization and mass politics. 

Lissitzky before the Proun

  Lazar Mordukhovich Lisitskii4 was born on November 23 1890 in Pochinok, a small town in the Smolensk district, on the railway line between Smolensk and Roslavl'. He lived for a time with his maternal grandparents in Smolensk, where he also attended secondary school. The Lissitzky family appears to have provided an educated, outward-looking, broadly speaking middle-class climate for the young boy. His father, who knew German and English, as well as Russian and Yiddish, translated Shakespeare and Heine and was sufficiently adventurous to visit America briefly in the early 1890s, though a plan for the whole family to emigrate was reportedly discouraged by their rabbi.5
     Lissitzky showed some interest in art in his early teens, taking lessons from the artist lurii Mosseevich Pen.6 However, when his application to study at the St. Petersburg Academy was rejected, probably for racial reasons, Lissitzky, like many of his contemporaries and co-religionists, decided to study for a profession in Germany. He enrolled to study architectural engineering at the Technical College in Darmstadt in 1909.7
      While a student in the years before the outbreak of the First World War, Lissitzky traveled widely. He visited France and Italy, as well as sites of architectural interest within Germany. Although he showed special interest in religious buildings, both Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, Lissitzky was also concerned with Japanese prints, popular crafts, and the canon of western painting and sculpture. His wide-ranging interests bespeak a curiosity that remained with him all his life. 
      The drawings and prints which survive from this period are very much of their time, exercises in the fin-de-siecle mode of a decorative ambiguity between two and three dimensional renderings. They can, without difficulty, be related to prevailing stylistic concerns of international art nouveau and its Russian manifestation in the World of Art circle in particular. Predominantly studies of buildings, some done in partial fulfillment of examination requirements, several of these works have a prophetic elegance and predilection for architectural fantasy. They also show an early interest in the complexities of organic growth, an important concern in the artist's later career.8
    At the outbreak of the First World War, Lissitzky, like other foreign nationals in Germany, was obliged to return home. In Moscow he enrolled in the Riga Polytechnic Institute, which had been evacuated to the capital. Four years later, on June 3, 1918, he received his diploma as an "engineer-architect".9 In the interim, he had worked in the architectural offices of Boris Mikhailovich Velikovskii (1878-1937) and Roman Ivanovich Klein (1858-1924), though not as a designer.10 In fact, the most important creative activity for Lissitzky during the war was provided not by architecture, but by his deep and rather sudden involvement in the revival of interest in Jewish national culture. The start of this phase of Lissitzky's life can plausibly be dated to mid-1916. To be sure, he had visited old Jewish synagogues during his pre-war years in Germany (though this was generally speaking part of his fascination with old religious buildings of all kinds, including the orthodox churches of Ravenna, Vitebsk and so on). This earlier consciousness of his ethnic and cultural background, however, does not compare to the intensity and single-mindedness with which the artist devoted himself to the so-called 'Jewish Renaissance' in the three years to mid-1919. 
      Lissitzky was part of a wide-spread movement of revival in Jewish culture which began during the Great War11 (or even slightly before, with the founding of the Jewish Ethnographic Society in St. Petersburg in 1912). This was then greatly encouraged by the removal of all Tsarist restrictions on Jews by the 1917 Revolution. The messianic hopes raised by the Revolution encouraged the search for a national identity that the new freedoms made plausible. Mark Chagall is the best known name among the visual artists involved in this resurgence. Others included the sculptor Josif Chaikov and the painters Natan Altman, David Shterenberg and Issachar Ryback. 
      During this period, Lissitzky exhibited paintings with titles such as Vozhd' [Leader], Ierikhon [Jericho], and Beyze kholoymes [Nightmares].12 He worked for Jewish publishing houses, designing covers, illustrations and trademarks. He participated in organizing exhibitions of Jewish art, such as the summer 1917 exhibition at the Moscow Lemer'se Gallery, whose catalogue he also designed ). And he undertook at least one trip, financed by the Jewish Ethnographic Society, to record monuments of earlier Jewish culture, the journey down the Dniepr River with Ryback to Mohilev, usually dated to 1916.13
     It is safe to suppose that Lissitzky welcomed the revolutions of 1917. He later stated that he had been a member of the cultural section of the Moscow Soviet after the February Revolution, and that he worked in the visual arts section of Narkompros after the October Revolution At the end of his life, he reported that he had been "commissioned to design the first flag of the VTsIK (All-Union Central Executive Committee) [which] Sovnar-kom (The Council of People's Commissars) carried across Red Square on May 1, 1918."14 At all events, the toppling of the Tsarist regime that had been so determinedly anti-semitic can hardly have failed to please the twenty-seven year old enthusiast for Jewish culture. To what extent Lissitzky's politics overlapped with those of the new government cannot be securely established, though in the early months of Bolshevik rule, niceties of political align-ment would surely not have interfered with general support for a revolutionary programme. 
      The events of 1917 certainly did not prompt Lissitzky to an immediate reassessment his artistic activities He proceeded as before, with the profession of architecture neglected in favour of art on Jewish themes. This interest would have attracted Lissitzky to Kiev, one of the leading centers of Jewish culture, and the home of the newly founded 'Kultur-Lige,' with which Lissitzky worked closely. The organization's statement of purpose, published in Kiev in November 1919, gives a good summary of Lissitzky's own goals in this period: 

The goal of the Kultur-Lige is to assist in creating a new Yiddish secular culture in the Yiddish language, in Jewish national forms, with the living forces of the broad Jewish masses, in the spirit of the working man and in harmony with their ideals of the future. The work area of the Kultur-Lige is the whole field of secular culture - the child before school and in school. Education for the Jewish young and adults in Jewish literature and Jewish arts. Our field is wide open, new horizons are always before us.15 

      Lissitzky probably arrived in Kiev in early 1919, after the Bolsheviks took temporary control of the much contested city in February. He worked for the art section of the local Commissariat of Enlightenment. As for actively supporting Bolshevik rule with pro-Soviet propaganda in the precarious military and political situation of the Civil War, he apparently did nothing (at least nothing worth mentioning in later autobiographical statements, when evidence of such activity would have been more than helpful). His activities were restricted to covers and illustrations for Yiddish publications, especially children's books. On April 22, 1919, for example, he signed a contract with the Yiddisher Folks Farlag to provide illustrations for 11 children's books in a series called Kindergarten,' which were to be written by Ben-Zion Raskin.16 Of these only three seem to have been published. The plan for the remainder probably thwarted by the recapture of Kiev by General Denikin's counter-revolutionary Armed Forces of Southern Russia on August 31 of that year. 
      When invited in July to take up a position at the art school in Vitebsk, an important town in his home region, Lissitzky surely welcomed the opportunity to leave a dangerous city and return to a familiar place.17

Vitebsk and the Birth of Proun

     Mark Chagall had been appointed Commissar in charge of artistic and theatrical matters for Vitebsk (his home town) and the surrounding region in September 1918. One major project had been the establishment of a 'people's art school" which opened at the end of January 1919 with a relatively distinguished faculty that included Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, Ivan Puni, Kseniia Boguslavskaia and Robert Falk. Vera Ermolaeva had taken over the directorship of the school in spring 1919 (allegedly to radicalize an institution which the authorities considered too traditional and middle-class) 18
      Chagall and Ermolaeva concurred in the appointment of Lissitzky to head the workshop for graphic arts, printing and architecture (an unlikely combination of subjects that seems tailored to suit his interests). For architecture, Lissitzky announced that he intended to give his students "the opportunity to become acquainted with the fundamental methods and systems of architecture and to learn how to express their own architectural ideas in drawing and in three dimensions (through working with models). "19 This curricular intention is the first clear evidence of Lissitzky moving on from Jewish and folkloric concerns and returning to his architectural training. 
      During the autumn of 1919, Lissitzky effected an astonishing reorientation of his creative energies, a conversion to geometric abstraction that is abrupt and total. For all the cubistic devices and quasi-modernist air of the later Jewish illustrations, there is really nothing to prepare the viewer for Lissitzky's complete allegiance to (and mastery of) non-objective art. The artist himself saw this step as a radical break with his past practice and it is difficult to disagree.20
      The catalyst for this change was the painter Kazimir Malevich, who arrived in Vitebsk to teach at the school in September 1919. Having traversed most of the international- ally current avant-garde styles, from Impressionism through Primitivism to Cubism, Malevich had himself made a radical leap into total abstraction, exhibiting a number of wholly non-representational canvasses at a Petrograd exhi-bition at the end of 1915.21 In the subsequent four years. Malevich had elaborated a 'system' of abstract art, based on two-dimensional, predominantly straight edged, coloured forms deployed intuitively over a neutral white ground. His canvasses' dynamically arranged squares and rectangles seem to float in infinite, cosmic space, emblems of pure energies and spiritual dimensions beyond earthly matter. Malevich's method, however, was not restrictive; diagonals, curves, overlappings, single elements and even some literary allusion could all be accommodated, as were most of the colours of the spectrum. This mode of painting Malevich dubbed Suprematism, as it built, he claimed, on the supremacy of pure feeling. 
      The power of this intransigent and wholly unprecedented painting, allied to Malevich's strong personality and penchant for extensive (and poetic) theorizing, quickly won Suprematism adherents among the Moscow avant-garde. Suprematism, it seemed, had brought traditional painting to an end-point, dealing it the death-blow symbolically represented by Malevich's canonic painting, the Black Square (1915). Art had been resurrected into a new world of pure sensation, a world where everything, including consciousness, would be restructured. 
      By 1919, Malevich had not only tested his new painting to the limit (by exhibiting a series of White on White canvasses), but he had also begun to draw out the implications of his 'discovery' for other creative fields. He had started both to codify a teachable programme and to apply Suprematism to other branches of the arts. This especially concerned architecture. 
      The insistent fact of the 1917 revolutions and the ensuing Civil War had created new pressures on artists. The social and political upheaval not only allowed many individual artists to take positions in the new cultural bureaucracy as replacements for Tsarist officials, but it also implied some new role for art, one that would be appro-priate to the new (and revolutionary) state. Although the Communist Party itself and many of the government functionaries had more immediately pressing military and political crises to overcome and were therefore not at first concerned with such matters, the future of art was hotly debated among the artists themselves. Understandably, a common theme was the question of the utility of that art, the purported need to make creative activity serve a useful purpose, either in the short term defense of the threatened Revolution or, more fundamentally, in the long-term service of society. Architecture, as the most obviously functional of the arts, acquired a privileged position through these debates, both as a metaphor for the needed construction of an ideal society and as a practice that would contribute real and useful things to the world.
     In this context, the extension of Suprematism into three dimensions constituted Malevich's response to the current debate. Not necessarily a capitulation to external demands for a socially responsible art, 'architectural Suprematism' had surely always been a possibility for an art that had implicitly envisaged universal transformation.22 Lissitzky, with his architectural training and sensibility, was able to develop aspects of Malevich's art and thought in a way that at least reduced the incongruence between a visionary abstract art and the imperatives of practical work.23
     When Malevich arrived in Vitebsk (like many others, probably a voluntary refugee from the atrocious living conditions in the major cities during the Civil War), he brought the fractious atmosphere of competing metropolitan splinter-groups with him. At the Vitebsk school, allegiance either to Malevich or to Chagall seems quickly to have become necessary, and the former rapidly built up loyal support in his 'campaign' against the latter.24 Lissitzky sided with Malevich, and remained, mutatis mutandis, a disciple of Suprematism for the rest of his life. Lissitzky was always ready to acknowledge his profound debt to his teacher (and teacher is an accurate word, even though the two were faculty colleagues in Vitebsk).25 It was to Suprematism that Lissitzky owed the genesis of his own abstract art, the paintings, prints and drawings that were the major focus of his attention over the following six years. This body of work has come to be known under the artist's neologistic acronym Proun (Project for the Affirmation of the New, a bi-syllabic word properly pronounced pro-oon'). Surely the artist's most substantial achievement, Proun and the aesthetic choices involved in its creation informed much, if not all, of his subsequent work.
     The Prouns are very diverse. Broadly speaking, a Proun is a composition with several geometrical elements,27 both two and three-dimensional, dispersed across an uninflected ground in a manner that defies expectations of normal (or, indeed, possible) spatial relationships. Elements are arranged with little attention to the conventions of gravity, which has apparently been overcome (or at least countered by an equivalent upward force) in the infinite expanse of the Proun world. Interlocking and interrelated forms disturb equilibrium and 'curve' space; perspective devices distort the regularity of shapes, thereby creating the implication of potential movement. Contrasts of shape, scale and texture enhance these dynamic tensions.
    Though many Prouns are built around three-dimensional, quasi-architectural elements (often rendered axonometrically),27 some are painted entirely with flat planes. Some introduce collage elements (such as metal, cardboard and paper), others use conventional oils and watercolours. Some surprisingly simple and ordered works stand beside the larger number of highly complex, 'irrational' compositions.
    Prouns deploy a space that tends to reach out in front of the picture plane, rather than back into infinity behind it.28 Most Prouns are essentially relief compositions, with the pictorial structure built up (literally so, in the case of work with textured collage elements) on a ground which is often visually anchored to the picture plane by one or more large, flat, geometrical forms reaching to the edge of the support.
    The variety of Proun reflects the undogmatic, open-ended nature of their creator's search for images that would both reject the representationalism of traditional art and affirm the utopian hopes for a thoroughgoing revolution in our understanding of material, space and creative activity.
    Lissitzky's own definition of Proun was couched in more poetic terms.29 For him, Proun fed "on the ground fertilized by the dead bodies of pictures and their painters." It had overcome the use of painting for imperial prestige, religious devotion and bourgeois comfort (just as the Revolution had overthrown the institutions supporting these uses). It had also gone beyond expressionism and simple abstract art, neither of which could rescue easel painting from its necessary demise. "The artist is turning from an imitator into a constructor of the new world of objects," in this case by pursuing Proun, which is "the creation of form (control of space) by means of the economic construction of transvalued material." The resulting image is not a painting but "a structure around which we must circle, looking at it from all sides, peering down from above, investigating from below . . . We screw ourselves into the space."30 Proun does not serve any particular goal, as it has the power to create such goals (and, indeed, the power to create new materials by creating the new forms which demand them). It transcends both the engineer and the traditional artist, somehow superseding the individual producer of paintings through the introduction of the principle of collective creativity.
    In all his writings about Proun, Lissitzky was careful to resist too close an identification with any body of knowledge on which he drew to elucidate his work. He often made parallels with science, mathematics, engineering and biolo-gy (as discussed below) but always pointed out that Proun could not be subsumed under any of these headings. As he later wrote in the catalogue of his solo exhibition in Berlin in early 1924:

The Proun creator concentrates in himself all the elements of modern knowledge and all the systems and methods and with these he forms plastic elements, which exist just like the elements of nature, such as H (hydrogen) and 0 (oxygen), and S (sulfur). He amalgamates these elements and obtains acids which bite into everything they touch, that is to say, they have an effect on all spheres of life. Perhaps all this is a piece of laboratory work: but it does not produce any scientific preparations which are only interesting and intelligible to a small circle of specialists. It produces living bodies, objects of a specific kind, whose effects cannot be measured with an ammeter or a mano-meter...31

    Lissitzky was keen to preserve this sense of indeterminacy surrounding the Prouns, seeing it almost as a guarantee of the continued presence and vitality of the artist's creative contribution. He was reluctant ever wholly to abandon the concept of art.
    Given that Lissitzky's own explanations of Proun stress undefinability (and that the explanations themselves are occasionally hard to interpret coherently), it is important to realize that he did not invent the term Proun until late 1920 or early 1921.32 Initially (that is, from late 1919 onwards), and fully in line with the announced objective for his teaching duties, Lissitzky gave explicit architectural titles to his work. Compositions that we now know under Proun titles originally carried plausible architectural designations, such as Town, Bridge,33 Arch, and House Above the Earth34; some-times, the names of towns were used, such as Moscow  and Orenburg (a town - now Chkalov - which Lissitzky visited in the early autumn of 1920 in order to give instruction in the techniques of visual propaganda). In the light of their intended architectural or urbanist meaning, these compositions can be treated as often rather literal proposals for 'Suprematist' construction of a more or less practical kind. Lissitzky is clearly translating the Suprematism of his mentor Malevich into a three-dimensional variant, but one that not only included the theoretical 'Suprematism of volume' (as he inscribed on the verso of an early work)35 but also individual and specific architectural tasks.
    That Lissitzky's compositions had a stable iconography can be shown with the example of Town. Not only is it easy to read this design as an aerial view of buildings and public areas, but Lissitzky also used it consistently when he needed to refer to urban centres. This occurs most notably in the famous propaganda board of 1919 or 1920, with its slogan exhorting a return to the factory workbenches. The Civil War and attendant disturbances had forced a large percentage of the urban population to disperse into the better-provisioned country-side, exacerbating the crisis in industrial production to catastrophic levels. Government policy required an urgent re-urbanisation, a theme that Lissitzky has rendered some what literally in this board with a diagonally placed arrow like element pointing upwards towards the Town configuration .36
    These explicit architectural references were, by and large, suppressed by the introduction of the more abstract, less determinate Proun titles. In the case of the 1921 lithographs, the word Proun was then further abstracted into the abbreviation P ). At the very beginning of Proun, an aestheticizing process, a 'de-functionalization' took place. This strategy played up the utopian potential of Proun, diverting attention from any immediate applicability or external occasion, in favour of a vaguer, but undeniably richer range of associations. The invention of a new word to designate this activity, a word that Lissitzky never himself explained, is symptomatic of this focus on unknown possibilities. In a sense, this brought Lissitzky back into line with the Malevichan project: geometrical abstraction as the kind of art which could most promisingly alert viewers to the potential for fundamental transformations in their sense of space, order, movement and material. These transforma-tions could themselves be metaphors (or even necessary preconditions) for the radical restructuring of society, but the connecting links that were to join the visual postulates of a Proun composition to the actual work of building a new society were now left unclear.
    This put Lissitzky at odds with the prevailing trend among the Moscow avant-garde. The year 1921 saw a crucial turning point for many artists, the decision to abandon art (both the traditional 'bourgeois' easel painting and similar activity carried on under the rubric of 'scientific' research into the nature of painterly materials and form). In November, twenty-five artists declared their renunciation of fine art in favour of productive work in industry and design. Artists such as Alexander Rodehenko, Varvara Stepanova and Liubov' Popova had pursued their abstract art to a point where they felt no further development was either possible or desirable. They adopted an explicitly utilitarian platform, and undertook a wide range of tasks, from advertising to textile and furniture design.34
    Lissitzky had little in common with such decisions. Still the disciple of Malevich's vision of utopian, even spiritual renewal, Lissitzky could not wholeheartedly support the materialism apparently underlying the position of Rodchenko, Popova and the others. While Lissitzky may have been eager in 1921 to contribute useful work in other fields (as in his teaching, his work for the Communist International, or his interventions in architectural debates) 38 his art resisted accommodation to specific social, political or industrial goals. Lissitzky did argue that Proun represented a new form of creativity and a rejection of traditional art, but spoke of a practical application only in the most general terms. Proun, he wrote, was a stopping place on the way to new form.39
    This difference with the Moscow avant-garde is not unexpected, given Lissitzky's stance on one of the fundamental questions facing artists after the Revolution. On one level, arguments were certainly conducted on which style of art (if any) was the most appropriate for the young Soviet republic (with some proposing abstraction as the artistic equivalent of the wholly new social order, others supporting realism as the style suited to the proletariat's taste). However, another debate was also profoundly affecting the course of relations between artists and the state. At issue was the definition of work. It is not surprising that this question should be a major focus after a revolution achieved by a party professing Marxism, a philosophy based on the centrality of labour in forming consciousness, value and history. How to treat creative work became, in short, a crucial problem.
    A clue to the importance of this debate is indirectly given by the fact that two of the most important artists to leave Russia in the early 1920s, Naum Gabo and Vassily Kandinsky, both explicitly cited their dissatisfaction with an official government policy that resulted from a certain rather doctrinaire conception of work. In the post-revolutionary
period, the relevant ministry set pay scales for artistic work with hourly rates varying according to the nature of the task undertaken. This literal view of creative work, which paid more for work that took longer, naturally tended to devalue the genius' who could create a masterpiece intuitively and quickly, while rewarding the slower mediocrity.40
    Those artists who tended to see creative work as closely allied either to scientific research or engineering (such as those grouped around the banner of Constructivism) would have been less likely to object to the government's practice than someone like Lissitzky, who valued subjective creativ-ity of a rather romantic cast very highly in these early years. His two essays of 1920, 'Suprematism in World Reconstruction' and Suprematism of Creativity',41 are both devoted in large part to demoting communism's conception of labour, proclaiming the death of old-fashioned 'artistic work' and heralding the arrival of universal creative energies. "The idea of artistic work'," Lissitzky wrote, "must be abolished as a counter-revolutionary concept of what is creative . . .It is only the creative movement towards the liberation of man that makes him the being who holds the whole world within himself Only a creative work which fills the whole world with its energy can join us together by means of its energy components to form a collective unity like a circuit of electric current." The first forges of the omniscient, omnipotent, omnific constructor of the new world must be the workshops of our art schools. When the artist leaves them, he will be set to work as a master builder, as a teacher of the new alphabet and as a promoter of a world which indeed already exists in man but which man has not yet been able to perceive. And if communism which set human labour on the throne and Suprematism which raised aloft the square pennant of creativity now march forward together, then in the further stages of development, it is communism which will have to remain behind, because Suprematism - which embraces the totality of life's phenomena -will attract everyone away from the domination of work
and from the domination of the intoxicated senses. It will liberate all those engaged in creative activity and make the world into a true model of perfection. [. .
After the Old Testament there came the New - after the New, the communist - and after the communist there follows finally the testament of Suprematism."42
    Lissitzky sensed that utopia was to be discovered within the true nature of the human being; the Constructivists expected to find utopia in material and the objective processes for manipulating it. Both views would have differed from the government's practical understanding of work. It is unlikely, however, that Lissitzky left Russia for Germany in late 1921 because of fundamental differences with the state similar to those cited by Kandinsky and Gabo. Lissitzky was not an exile. Rather, he left for the better working (and living) conditions of Germany, and for the chance to act as an unofficial representative of advanced Russian culture in the West.43

* selections from the Catalogue which accompanied the exhibition El Lissitzky (1890-1941)
organized by the Busch-Reisinger museum with the Sprengel museum Hanover, Federal Republic of Germany


I The present essay builds on the work of many writers about Lissitzky, who has enjoyed almost continuous attention of one kind or another in the West. For every decade, a major publication or exhibition devoted to Lissitzky could be cited: Lozowiek 1929, Tschiehold 1931 a and 1931 b, New York 1949, Richter 1958, Eindhoven 1965, Birnholz 1973 a, etc. Basic of course has been the magnificent monograph on the artist by his widow. Sophie Lissitzky-Kflppers, first published in German in 1967, with subsequent translations and revised editions. All scholars of Lissitzky owe a great debt to this volume and its initial publisher, the Verlag der Kunst in Dresden. For an appreciation of Sophie, see Frommhold 1971.

2 This side of Lissitzky could be exemplified by a page from his address book of the mid-1920s, now in a private archive. Under the letter M may be found the almost symbolic juxtaposition of addresses for Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, the twin giants of modernist abstraction.

3Khan-Magomedov 1979b, for example, comes close to this view.

4 This is Lissitzky's name as it appears on the 1918 diploma from the Riga Polytechnic Institute. His father and mother are named as Morduch Zalmanova Lisitzki and Sarra Leiboyna on the earliest official surviving document, a certificate for the Smolensk city school confirming Lissitzky's date of birth, parentage and upbringing by his maternal grandparents, which was issued in Smolensk on July 28 (Old Style), 1899 (TsGALI 2361/1A52/1-2). Hebrew, Yiddish and westernized versions of the artist's name, patronymic or surname are all possible (accounting for such variants as Eliezer, Markovich and so on). This catalogue has adopted the familiar El Lissitzky throughout.

5 The father's brother, Mark, and sister, Sarah, did in fact settle in the United States, having two children each. One of the artist's American cousins, Genevieve Lissitzky, became a well known author, living in New York City. In a personal interview (June 15, 1982), she kindly provided this and some further information on the Lissitzky family.

6 Also, his contribution to the 1905 revolutionary upheavals consisted of (and appears to have been limited to) some drawings for an almanac produced by himself and a friend in two copies. This modest effort can usefully be compared to the far more committed activities of some of Lissitzky's contemporaries and later colleagues, such as Mayakovsky and Erenbueg. Soon after the 1905 events, both became known to the police as active members of revolutionary parties. 

7Lissittky's admission to this college is a little mysterious. According to the entrance criteria then in effect, Lissitzky would have had "to furnish a diploma from a Russian Gymnasium and evidence of matriculation at a Russian university". For the latter we have no evidence. At all events, the student population at Darmstadt, which together with other schools in Hesse was among the most hospitable to foreigners, included 25% Russians in 1909/1910, and over 13% Russian Jews in 1912/1913 

8The most sustained case for finding in these works evidence of Dssitrky't later aesthetic concerns (especially his exploitation of spatial ambiguities) is made by Birnholz 1973 a, pp.2-13. One should be cautious, however, in overrating such continuities, as the works on which such arguments are based are precisely the ones which Lissitzky himself retrieved on a visit to Darmstadt in 1923 as being most aligned with his current work. (Letter to Sophie, August 7, 1923). He discarded a mass of material that might have presented a very different picture of his development.

9TsGALI 2361/1/53/1

10Also, from March-October 1912, Lissitzky had worked as a draftsman in the office of a building contractor (Braehman) in St. Petersburg. From April-November 19164 he was an assistant in Velikovskii's office. (These and some other details about Lissitzky's working life in this essay, are taken from his 'Trudovoi spisok' [Work Book], an official document prepared in 1931 which recorded all previous employment, now in a private archive.)

11For example, the Petrograd Jewish Society for the Encouragement of the Arts had been registered with the authorities in September 1915, and the Moscow branch in February of the following year. Its goal was the development of the visual arts among Jews through exhibitions (both permanent and traveling), schools, classes, discussions, lectures, libraries. competitions and stipends. Perhaps this society played a role in awakening Lissitzky's interest in his cultural heritage. 

12 The first two were exhibited at the Spring 1917 World of Art exhibition in Petrograd, the latter at the Moscow exhibition of works by Jewish artists in July-August 1918, where Lissitzky also contributed eight prints and drawings. The paintings have not, apparently, survived.

13 Lissitzky was working with Chagall, Altman and others. 

14 For Lissitzky's own later account of this journey and illustrations of the drawings he made of synagogue decorations, see the essay translated in this catalogue, pp.55-59.

15 For the replies to a biographical questionnaire of 1930, see TsGALI 2361/1/58/4v. The flag commission is mentioned only in the artist's last autobiographical statement, dated July 1941 (TsGALI 2361/1/58/17), though no corroborating evidence has yet been found.

16 As translated in Kampf 1984, p.206, n. 50. For Lissitzky's cooperation with the Kultur-Lige, see especially the Khad Gadya portfolio and the exhibition of painting, sculpture and graphic art by Jewish artists held in Kiev in February-March 1920.

17 The contract is in a private archive.

18 For a good account of the cultural renaissance in Vitebsk at this time.
19 This information is now conveniently summarized by Susan P. Compton in London 1985, p.40.

20 Izrestija Virebskogo guberoskogo sovera krest'ianskikh, rabochikh, krasnoarmeiskikh i barratskikh deputatov, July 16, 1919, p.4, as quoted in Rakitin 1982, p.18. Rakitin 1971 band 1982 are valuable sources for factual information about Lissitzky's early months in Vitebsk. In another article of summer 1919 (Lissitzky 1919), the artist explained that he considered architecture, and specifically the study of 'tectonics,' to be the foundation for all Creative activity, including book design. For a translation of this article, with commentary and annotations by the present author, see the forthcom-ing anthology, edited by John F. Bowlt and tentatively entitled Speak, Memory!

21 Naturally, historians find such a saltus disconcerting and there have been many attempts to find transitional moments and underlying constants linking these two aspects of Lissitzky's art. Some have tried to prolong the time available for the process of change, by having it begin with a putative visit in the winter of 1918-1919 to the Tenth State Exhibition in Moscow, devoted to "Non-Objective Creation and Suprematism." and proceed through an as yet undocumented contribution of works "in a Suprematist spirit" to the Day of Soviet Propaganda in Vitebsk at the end of August 1919, and then merely find reinforcement with the arrival of Malevich in Vitebsk in September (Rakitin 1982). Others (such as Bowlt 1982) want to find evidence of an overlap between the two phases in a work such as the decoratively abstract dust cover for the Had Gadya lithographs. Finally, there is the position that stresses the continuity of basic attitudes, and indeed the affinity of certain aspects of Jewish culture with Lissitzky's abstractionism (Birnholz 1973e). The present writer is not persuaded that these arguments diminish the startling moment of innovation represented by Lissitzky's aptly designated conversion.

 22 The fullest account of this exhibition is given by Douglas 1980. The literature on Malevich's art is now vast. Detailed discussions maybe found in Andersen 1970, Simmons 1981, Douglas 1981 and Zhadova 1978b.

23Indeed, Malevich was able to point to one exceptional painting in the
1915 exhibition, which had included a three-dimensional bar element, as the source of architectural Suprematism.

24 Of course, Lissitzky was not the only follower of Malevich to attempt this. Parallel investigations of the volumetric potential of Suprematism were carried out by artists such as Gustav Klutsis (see Oginskaia 1981) and lila Chashnik (see Dflsseldorf 1978). Not least. Malevich himself devoted considerable effort to his so called architectons, models of an ideal or interplanetary architecture, in the mid-1920s. Martin 1980 gives the most comprehensive overview and documentation of Malevich's three dimensional work and writing on this topic.

25 For analyses of the Unovis group, as Malevich's circle came to be called (using an acronym standing for 'Affirmation of the New Art' which clearly prompted Lissitzky's formulation of the term Proun), see Rakitin 1971 a, and Andrei B. Nakov 'Elne neuc philosophic der Form' in Dusseldorf 1978, pp. 2636.

26 The translations of Malevich's writings which Lissitzky was preparing for publication in 1924 (see Bois 1978) are part of this continuing homage, as was the 1923 portfolio of lithographs with figures from the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, first performed a decade earlier in St. Petersburg with costumes and sets by Malevich. On this 1913 production, to which Malevich ascribed the beginnings of Suprematism. see Douglas 1974 and Berlin 1983.

27 Here geometrical is understood in the casual sense, implying rectilinearity or regular Curvature (as in hyperbolas and parabolas). Strictly speaking, many apparently irregular shapes can be geometrical. However, not any shape would have the desired associations with clarity. logic, cleanliness, order and truth evoked by the squares, rectangles, circles and straight lines of 'geometrical abstraction,' including Proun. For visual analyses of Proun works, see Birnholz 1969 and 1973 it.

28 For the importance to Lissitzky of axonometry as a particular way of depicting three dimensions in two, see Bois 1977 and 1981.

29 In this, the Prouns differ from Maleviehan Suprematism and are closer to the shallow, tactile, projecting space of Cubism, a style that Lissitzky certainly absorbed at least indirectly via Chagall, as some of his later Jewish illustrations show. The activation of the space between work of art and viewer was something he admired in Tatlin (especially the counter reliefs). 

30The ideas and quotations in this paragraph are summarized from the text about Proun which Lissitzky published in Dc Still vol. V no.6 (June 1922), pp. 82-85, as translated in Lissitzky-Kflppers 1980, pp. 347-348.

31 For another, more startling expression of this idea, see the inscription on a multiple image of an early version of one of the 1921 Proun lithographs (p1. 14 and caption). The notion of flight, involving freedom from gravity and a new method of movement, recurs frequently throughout Lissitzky's writings. For example, in his 1926 autobiographical statement, Lissitzky writes under the heading of 'The New Reality' that "new inventions, which will enable us to move about in space in new ways and at new speeds, will bring about a new reality. The static architecture of the Egyptian pyramids has been superseded - our architecture revolves, swims, flies. We are approaching the state of floating in air and swinging like a pendulum. I want to help discover and mould the form of this reality" (translated in Lissitzky-Kuppers 1980, p.329 f., erroneously dated 1928).

32  translated in Lissitzky-Kuppers 1980, p.358

33 The painting Lissitzky sold to the Museum Bureau of Narkompros at the beginning of August 1920 was simply titled Suprem adam (Town) (Proun Inventory no.56) and the term Proun is apparently not mentioned in the almanac Unovis of mid-1920. (However, Rakitin 1982 notes that Lissitzky does write in the almanac about something h  calls "ekskartina" [ex-proun], probably an early attempt to conceptualise what later became Proun.) A terminus ante quem is provided by the recorded sale of a set of 11 lithographs (the first Proun portfolio) to the Museum Bureau of Narkom-pros on April 18,1921 (TsGAEI 665/143/118). It may be that Lissitzky devised the term as a 'trade-mark' for his art when he moved to Moscow in 1920-21. As a proponent of an architecturally inflected Suprematism, he would have benefited from a recognizable 'ism' in the wide variety of competing artistic movements in the capital. The passage in Lissitzky-Küppers 1980, p.21, quoting a reference to Proun in a letter to Malevich of September 1919, is in fact based on a misunderstanding of the source in Bojko 1963.

34 Another Proun drawing carries a detailed inscription explaining that it shows a proposal for a bridge across a river from a higher bank to a lower one (GTG RS 1950; 24.2x34.3 em; Khan-Magomedov 1983, fig. 26).

35 An early drawing in GTG (RS 3768; 23.7x18 em) of the composition now known as Proun IC carries the inscription "Dom nad zemlci" [House Above the Earth]. Cf. Proun Inventory no.57.

36 Even this composition is also recorded in an early drawing inscribed with the more concrete title "Balka" [Beam] (ef. Proun Inventory no.30). Admittedly, not all early titles for Lissitzky's abstractions are so specifically architectural. Some seem to allude more to an imaginary physics and science of forces, but are still not as vague as the designation Proun. For example, drawings in GTG carry such explanatorv notes as "pr. vrasheheniia" [principle of turning] (RS 3761) or "virazh" [bend] and "energimyc ploakosti nesut komplekt 1" [energy planes carry complex no.1] (RS 3765. actually a sketch of the composition now known as Proun 1). A watercolour (fig. 12) is inscribed "skol'zhenie (nastuplenie)" [slide (beginning)].

37A similar point can be made about the contemporaneous cover for the Unemployment Committee booklet . The "Town" image reappears with this meaning, now combined with a photograph of workmen on a scaffolding, in the 1930 cover for Lissitzky's book on Soviet architecture. In his poster for the Western Front in the Russo-Polish War of summer 1920, Lissitzky also deploys his language of abstract symbols in a narrative fashion, illustrating the slogan "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge." It has been plausibly suggested that the 'language' of this poster owes something to military maps (Birnitob 1973a, p.114).

38 Lodder 1983 is the best synthetic presentation of this entire phenomenon of Russian Constructivism. There is not the space to discuss in depth
Lissitzky's relationship to other more or less constructivist tendencies in Russia. His 1923 lecture New Russian Art articulately spells out his view of Tatlin (of whom he was often critical), Rodehenko and the Obmokhu
(Society of Young Artists) group.

39 Lissitzky taught a course in 'Monumental Painting and Architecture' at Vkhutemas during 1921. This was probably during the autumn when he was also to give a series of four lectures at Irtkhuk, as recorded in the contract signed in October 1921. (Now in a private archive, the contract is translated in Eissitzky-Kuppers 1977, p. 207f., but erroneously dated 1926.) In March 1921 he published a scathing article about the entries in a design competition for the recOnStructiOn of bridges in Moscow (translated in Lissitzky-Kuppers 1980, pp. 369-371). His work for the Communist International is less well known, but attested to by a draft autobiographical statement of 1941, in which Lissitzky writes that "in 1920-21 [I was] in the publishing division of the Comintern" (TsGAEI 2361/1/58/21). Moreover, a number of drawings among the Lissitzky holdings inTsGALI (eg. 2361/1/16/37; fig. 14) and GTG (eg. RS 3769 [inscribed PSAI and Arch. Gr. 3535, 3538~0, 3548 3556, 3572) are on the blank versus of proof sheets from Comintern publications of late 1920.

40 As discussed below, it was only in 1925, at a time when Lissitzky was focussing his energies to the real world, that he replaced the word 'form' in this much quoted definition with the more explicit and practically oriented term 'architecture.'

41 Kandinsky denounced this practice in 1921 (Julien 1969). Gabo in 1958 (in a letter to Herbert Read, now in the Beineeke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University). For one example of the tabulation of pay scales and creative categories, see Khsolnik 1921.

42 Both appeared in the almanac Unoris in mid-1920. The present author has not had access to a copy of the original almanac and knows these essays only through their translations. in Lissitzky-Kuppers, 1980, pp. 331-334 and Lissitzky-Küppers 1977, pp. 15-20, respectively.

43Lissitzky-Küppers 1980, p.332

44 There is no conclusive evidence about the capacity in which Lissitzky traveled westwards. Not fleeing the Soviet government and not solely on an official mission, Lissitzky probably took advantage of an opportunity (perhaps connected to his Comintern work?) to live and work in a country he knew well from his student days. That he would have needed official permission (a 'kommandirovka') to make the journey does not make him an emissary of the government.


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