El Lissitzky

El Lissitzky

El Lissitzky was a Russian architect, painter, graphic artist and designer, one of the major representatives of Russian avant-garde, Supermatism and Constructivism.

Early years

Lazar Markovich Lissitzky was born on November 23, 1890 in Pochinok – a Jewish town near Smolensk. The boy’s father had immigrated to the USA, but his wife refused to leave the land of their ancestors, so he was forced to return to the Russian Empire. Very soon the family moved to Vitebsk, meanwhile Lazar was sent to Smolensk, where his grandfather had a hatter-workshop. There he attended gymnasium and began his artistic education under the guidance of Yehuda Pen (Marc Chagall was one of his students).

Despite Yehuda was an academic artist, the young man got interested in modernistic art. Because of that he failed during entrance exams to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. In 1909 Lissitzky left for Darmstadt in Germany, where graduated from a Technische Hochschule in 1914.

In 1912 the artist visited Paris and travelled by foot to Italy. His contacts with some Parisian vanguard masters, like Ossip Zadkine, were one of the factors that shaped up Lazar’s interest towards combination of archaic, primitive forms of art with visual innovations.

After the burst-out of World War I, El Lissitzky had to return to Moscow in 1914. In a year he enrolled the evacuated to Moscow Polytechnic Institute of Riga, where studied architecture and engineering. Apart from working in the architectural firms of Boris Velikovsky and Roman Klein, Lissitzky actively cooperated with the Jewish Society for the encouragement of Arts and participated in their exhibitions in 1917 – 1918 and 1920, as well as in shows of “Mir iskusstva” (“World of Art”) in 1916 and 1917.

First experiments in book design

First years after the October Revolution Lazar dedicated to book illustration. One of his first works in that field was cover for “The spent Sun” by poet Konstantin Bolshakov, where the artist’s inclination of working with geometrized forms was already visible.

In illustrations to “The Legend of Prague” (1917) the master combined fresh creative ideas with traditions of Jewish decorative arts. Only 110 copies of the book were published, as the text wasn’t typed, but lithographed. They were done in the form of Torah roll and placed in coffin-shaped small wooden boxes. Pages of the rolls were decorated with water color drawings and ornaments, which reviled Art-Nouveau influences. The artist a represented the spirit of Jewish folklore also in a children-book “Had Gadya” (“One Goat”, 1919). Despite being a retelling of a Passover song, in Lissitzky’s rendering it gained new meaning, as the illustrator, who was a Communist, through symbols and characters manifests his vision of Revolution as the instrument of divine justice.

Suprematism

In 1919 Lissitzky became close with Kazimir Malevich and got inspired by his suprematistic conception of simple geometric forms. They were embodied in a lithographic propaganda poster “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”, built on interaction of simple figures: rectangles, circles and triangles, arranged in dynamic composition.
In 1920 Lazar, together with Malevich and Vera Ermolaeva, founded in Vitebsk “UNOVIS” (acronym of “Exponents of the new art”) group. Its main tasks laid in developing and spreading of Suprematistic ideas, promotion of new artistic language. At that period Lazar taught at People’s Art School in Vitebsk and started signing his works with pseudonym “El Lissitzky”.

His major contribution in Suprematism was so-called “Proun” (acronym of Russian “Design for the confirmation of the new”) – abstract spatial compositions, that unified potentials of 2D and 3D. Paintings didn’t have clear vertical and horizontal orientation and were meant to be seen from various angles. That was an attempt to overcome borders between different kinds of art. Lissitzky underlined their experimental and secondary role, saying that “proun is a transitional station on the way from painting to architecture”. Hence, such titles of “prouns” like “Bridge”, “City” were frequent.

Back to Germany

After he had given the architectural course in VKHUTEMAS (acronym of Russian “Art and Technical Studios”) in 1921, the master left for Germany to renew his contacts with cultural circles in Western Europe. There he acquainted with concepts of Bauhaus school, which occurred to be consonant with his own, and became a member of Dutch “De Stijl” group in 1923. He published the international art magazine “Veshch” (“Thing”) together with Ilya Erhenburg, in three languages – Russian, German and French.

Innovations in book design

Being, first of all, an architect, El Lissitzky trated book like building, where each leaf as a room. The artist strived for maximum involvement of a viewer. In 1922 he created a child-book “Suprematic tale about two squares”. Its semantic load was presented not in text, which became a part of a visual integrity, but a constructive drawing in red, black or grey colors that consisted of lucid geometric forms – squares, circles and parallelepipeds. The images are exaggeratedly dynamic, with prevailing diagonal line. The whole composition grabs our attention, forcing to keep on looking closely at each page. Only 33 words were used in the book’s text – the narration is grounded on visual, not verbal means.

In 1923 Lissitzky published and article “The topography of typography”, where he formulates 8 principles of new book design:

  1. The words on the printed surface are taken in by seeing, not by hearing.
  2. One communicates meanings through the convention of words; meaning attains form through letters.
  3. Economy of expression: optics not phonetics.
  4. The design of the book-space, set according to the constraints of printing mechanics, must correspond to the tensions and pressures of content.
  5. The design of the book-space using process blocks which issue from the new optics. The supernatural reality of the perfected eye.
  6. The continuous sequence of pages: the bioscopic book.
  7.  The new book demands the new writer. Inkpot and quill-pen are dead.
  8. The printed surface transcends space and time. The printed surface, the infinity of books, must be transcended.

Architectural projects

Staying in Switzerland from February 1924 to April 1925 to cure his pulmonary tuberculosis, El Lissitzky established “ABC” magazine, that was a tribune for Swiss young artists. After returning to Moscow, he was offered a Chair at the department of furniture design and interior equipment at VKHUTEMAS.

During his career, Lazar worked in different architectural styles (Art Nouveau, Constructivism and others), combining them, yet, not affecting their uniqueness and self-sufficiency. He projected quite a lot of architectural objects; however, most of them remained unrealized. Not in the last instance because of absence of needed technologies and means. Some of them were created in the frame of temporal expositions abroad and remained only in photographs.

One of his most famous architectural projects is the project of horizontal skyscrapers (Wolkenbügel, “cloud-irons”, 1925). Big cantilever slabs were supposed to be raised on pylons of glass and metal to create the effect of lightness. The object was planned as one of series of buildings on main urban points of Moscow. All skyscrapers were orientated on the Kremlin and located over crossroads.

The project had several benefits: its materials allowed achieving elongated proportions; location on the main thoroughfare didn’t interrupt historical planning of the city; one of the pylons extended underground, connecting the building with the subway station. Anyway, the “Wolkenbügel” remained “paper architecture”.
Another unrealized project was the Lenin Tribune (1920), based on a glass cube with built-in lifting mechanism. The lifter elevated a speaker on the transitional platform, where they were waiting for a their turn to address the audience from the upper platform. The composition was completed with a screen, where various images and texts accompanied the speech.

Lissitzky also worked on case furniture and concept of economical apartment. The latter’s small space was compensated with elaborated system of planning, suggested by the architect: tenant could decide himself to define the location of bedroom and guestroom using a special turning-over partition, which consisted of a bed, wardrobe and writing-table.

Last decades. El Lissitzky’s Decorations for international exhibitions

The radical shift of soviet government from vanguard vector to neoacademism, closure of VKHUTEIN (former VKHUTEMAS) put El Lissitzky aside from the artistic proscenium. Being one of the persecuted formalists, he was used by those in powers for rendering decorations of soviet exhibitions abroad and propagandistic photo albums, sort of “The USSR builds Socialism”, magazines “USSR in Construction”, intended for a foreigner audience.

The artist revolutionized traditional exhibition’s setting, applying new instruments of influence on viewers – complicated illumination, cinematographic language, moving mechanism, and giant photocollages. Lissitzky lessened the number of art objects perceived at one time, to attract attention to each of them. In 1937, the master was appointed the lead decorator for the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition of 1938.

El Lissitzky died on December 30, 1941, in Moscow, because of tuberculosis.

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