Lissitzky, El (1890–1941) By Vronskaya, Alla G.
The Soviet artist, photographer, designer, and architect Lazar Markovich (Mordukhaevich) Lissitzky grew up in a Jewish family in Smolensk in western Russia. In 1909 Lissitzky moved to Germany, where he studied architectural engineering at Darmstadt Technische Hochschule. While living in Germany, Lissitzky traveled throughout Europe and became connected with the circle of Russian-Jewish painters in Paris. In 1919, after an invitation from Chagall, Lissitzky became the head of the architecture department at the Higher Artistic Workshops in Vitebsk. The school was soon joined by Kazimir Malevich, whose presence stimulated Lissitzky’s growing interest in Suprematism. Lissizky’s only realized architectural project was the printing plant of the journal Ogoniok in Moscow (1930–1932). In 1925, Lissitzky began work as an exhibition designer, which would remain his primary occupation for the rest of his life.
The Soviet artist, photographer, designer, and architect Lazar Markovich (Mordukhaevich) Lissitzky grew up in a Jewish family in Smolensk in western Russia. In 1909 Lissitzky moved to Germany, where he studied architectural engineering at Darmstadt Technische Hochschule. While living in Germany, Lissitzky traveled throughout Europe and became connected with the circle of Russian-Jewish painters in Paris. With the advent of World War I, he was forced to return to Russia. There, Lissitzky enrolled into the Riga Polytechnic Institute (today in Latvia) and continued pursuing his interest in Jewish culture. At that time, alongside such artists as Marc Chagall, Lissitzky was one of the major protagonists of the ‘‘Jewish Renaissance,’’ which took place in the former Russian Empire after the 1917 Soviet Revolution abolished anti-Semitic tsarist laws and regulations. Lissitzky’s most famous works from this period are richly illustrated children books, such as Had gadya [One Goat], a traditional Passover song.
In 1919, after an invitation from Chagall, Lissitzky became the head of the architecture department at the Higher Artistic Workshops in Vitebsk (a small town in contemporary Belarus with a significant Jewish population, where Lissitzky also lived as a child). The school was soon joined by Kazimir Malevich, whose presence stimulated Lissitzky’s growing interest in Suprematism. In 1920, Malevich led the artistic group UNOVIS (from Russian utverditeli novogo iskusstva, ‘‘those who affirm the new art’’), which aimed at politicizing Suprematism and transforming it into a weapon of mass propaganda through posters, wall painting, and colorful street decorations. Some of Lissitzky’s best-known work of the period—Suprematist propaganda posters such as Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) and The Machines of Depots and Factories are Waiting for You. Let’s Move Production! (1920)—was produced within the framework of the UNOVIS programme.
The UNOVIS agenda also shaped Lissitzky’s own idiosyncratic art form, which he conceived in Vitebsk and continued to develop during the following years: the Proun (from Russian proekt utverzhdenia novogo, ‘‘a project for the affirmation of the new’’). Imagined as a laboratory rather than a mass art form, Prouns aimed to bridge painting and architecture, supplementing the conventions of Suprematist geometric representation with three-dimensional geometric forms, perspectival constructions, and axonometry (a method of architectural representation based on projection, and popular among modernist architects).
In 1921, Lissitzky accepted the position of a cultural representative of Russia in Germany and left for Berlin, where he acted as the intermediary between left Russian and Western artists (organizing, for example, the First Soviet Art Exhibition in Berlin and Amsterdam in 1922–1923). In 1922, together with the Russian-Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg, Lissitzky published the trilingual journal Veshch-Gegenstand-Objekt, which was devoted to all aspects of modernist artistic production across Europe. In Berlin, Lissitzky became associated with the leaders of European modernism: Moholy-Nagy, Theo Van Doesburg, and the Dadaists, most notably, Kurt Schwitters (with whom he co-authored an essay ’’Nasci’’ for the Dadaist journal Merz). In 1923, during Vladimir Mayakovsky’s stay in Berlin, Lissitzky designed the poet’s book For the Voice [Dlia golosa] in a style more constructivist than suprematist. The next year, after a flare-up of tuberculosis, Lissizky moved to a sanatorium in Locarno, Switzerland, where he continued an association with Dadaism, co-authoring the illustrated brochure Die Kunstismen with Jean Arp in 1925. During his Swiss sojourn, Lissizky worked with advertisement designs, typography and photography, experimenting with various techniques of photographic manipulation and photomontage in such works as the 1924 self-portrait commonly known as The Constructor.
In 1925 Lissizky returned to Moscow, where he became active as an architect and furniture designer, teaching at the Wood and Metal Department of VKhUTEIN (Higher Art and Technical Institute, formerly VKhUTEMAS). During this period, Lissitzky was an active member of the architectural group ASNOVA (Association of New Architects), led by architect Nikolai Ladovskii. In opposition to the Constructivists, ASNOVA developed the rationalist approach to architecture, which was based on studies of spatial perception and emphasized formal expressivity as the goal of architectural work. Developing an interest in high-rise architecture that had begun in Germany (Lissizky’s projects for Wolkenbügel, a ‘‘horizontal sky-scraper,’’ were devised in 1923–1925), in 1926 Lissitzky co-edited (with Ladovskii ) the first and only issue of Izvestia ASNOVA (ASNOVA Newsletter), devoted to skyscraper construction. Lissizky’s only realized architectural project was the printing plant of the journal Ogoniok in Moscow (1930–1932).
In 1925, Lissitzky began work as an exhibition designer, which would remain his primary occupation for the rest of his life. He designed Raum für Konstruktive Kunst [Room for Constructive Art] at the Internationale Kunstausstellung in Dresden in 1925–1926 and Abstraktes Kabinett in Hanover in 1927–1928. In 1928, he worked on the Soviet sections of the Pressa exhibition in Cologne and the Film und Foto exhibition in Stuttgart, as well as the All-Union Polygraphic Exhibition in Moscow. Among Lissizky’s other major exhibition projects were Soviet pavilions at the Hygiene exhibition in Dresden and the International Fur Exhibition in Leipzig (both 1930), the Permanent Construction Exhibition in Moscow (1930s), the Soviet pavilion for the International Aviation Exhibition in Paris (1932), the International Exhibition in New York (1939), and the All-Soviet Agricultural Exhibition (1934–1941). As the chief architect of the Park of Culture and Leisure in Moscow in 1929–1933, Lissitzky introduced the solutions he had developed for exhibition design into the emerging practice of Soviet landscape architecture.
During the late 1920s and the 1930s, Lissitzky was also actively working with photomontage and book design. Accused of promoting totalitarianism by later Western scholars, his photomontage work of the period included a large (24 x 3.5 meters) montage for the Soviet pavilion at the Pressa exhibition. Lissitzky’s major employment as a book designer was his continuous work (1932–1941) on the general layout and cover design of international propaganda journal SSSR na stroike [USSR in Construction], where he was responsible for the design of the most ideologically important issues of the journal: those devoted to the Stalinist Constitution, the Red Army, the Navy, and the Dnepr Hydroelectric Station. Among the other journals designed by Lissitzky were Arkhitektura SSSR [Architecture of the USSR], Industria sotsializma [Socialist Industry], Sovetskaia Gruzia [Soviet Georgia], and Sovetskie Subtropiki [Soviet Subtropics].