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El Lissitzky (1890-1941)

El Lissitzsky’s utopian vision of revolution is a legacy that resonates today

Iwilkinson el lissitzsky reputations 300dpi

Iwilkinson el lissitzsky reputations 300dpi

Illustration by Isabel Wilkinson

What form should revolution take? El Lissitzky wrestled his whole life with this question. As the revolution kept changing, so his protean struggle continued. It took him back and forth across Europe as wars raged, artistic factions battled, and tuberculosis devoured his lungs. Perhaps the most consistent element of his career is that his commitment never wavered, even in the face of Stalin’s worst excesses.

Lissitzky was born in Smolensk in 1890. Denied access to the imperial academy by official anti-Semitism, he studied architecture in Darmstadt instead, until the war sent him back to Russia, where pogroms were raging and Hebrew publishing was suppressed. Then came the revolution.

El lissitzky self portrait with propaganda poster of lenin

El lissitzky self portrait with propaganda poster of lenin

Self-portrait with Lenin propaganda poster

In this context it is striking – if hardly surprising – that Lissitzky’s utopianism should have first been placed in the service of Jewish culture, but in the dawn of the new age this was not incompatible with state policy. He travelled the Dnieper valley documenting wooden synagogues, and then moved to Kiev, where he set up a Yiddish publishing house.

On completing his studies, Lissitzky moved to Vitebsk, where Chagall invited him to teach design at the art school. Malevich soon joined the faculty, and Lissitkzy fell under his sway. The result was not total abstraction: Lissitzky was always concerned with the representation of space, and on these early canvases – which he later termed ‘Prouns’, standing for ‘project for the affirmation of the new’ – axonometric forms slide towards one another in dynamic counterpoint.

The civil war demanded a more engaged approach. Lissitzky joined a new faction led by Malevich called UNOVIS, ‘affirmers of the new art’, and produced designs for a monument to Rosa Luxemburg, propaganda boards exhorting workers to support the war effort, as well as his famous image ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’. 

Beat the whites with the red wedge 1920

Beat the whites with the red wedge 1920

‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’, 1919

All of these stand as reprimands to those historians who have sought to extract Lissitzky from history by painting him as a fuzzy utopian. These moves can be understood as groundwork for depicting his later Stalinist work as a form of ideological forced labour, but his writings directly contradict this position: ‘One must belong to this side or that – there is no mid-way.’

In 1921, the Vitebsk institute fell apart under the strain between Chagall and Malevich, and Lissitzky went back to Moscow, where he taught at the new art school VKhUTEMAS, then brewing the Productivist argument for a more practically oriented art. Lissitzky fell between these stools: while he disparaged the work of the Productivists as ‘primitive utilitarianism’, his understanding of Malevich was idiosyncratic, as revealed in his 1925 essay ‘A and Pangeometry’ (in which A stands for Art). Here he criticises single-point perspective and recommends its replacement with axonometry, which he detects in Malevich’s canvases. As Daniel Margolin points out, however, this means of representation was entirely Lissitzky’s own.

‘Perspective limits space; it has made it finite, closed,’ Lissitkzy wrote, but ‘Suprematism has extended the apex of the finite visual cone of perspective into infinity.’ But how can such axonometric transgression, which exists beyond the possibilities of human experience, be built? Lissitzky answered: with intangible technology. His primary example is cinema, which could construct ‘imaginary space’. Here we see Lissitzky’s abiding concern with hybrid media that exist between extant and emerging forms. He described his Prouns in these terms, as ‘waystations between painting and architecture’. And although Lissitzky’s media utopianism could only be imperfectly realised at the time, it sometimes feels as if we now exist in a thoroughly Lissitzkian space, permeated by hybrid images and texts, and with the old axes of movement scrambled beyond recognition. 

El lissitzkys portrait image via metalocuses

El lissitzkys portrait image via metalocuses

Lissitzky working on the Meyerhold Theatre in 1928

In Lissitkzky’s own lifetime, his ideas had to be realised piecemeal. He moved back to Germany in 1921, possibly as an agent of the Russian government. In Berlin he found a city in artistic ferment, where declining Expressionist and Dadaist tendencies were challenged by a new geometric abstraction from Holland, whose emissary was Theo van Doesburg. The two became friends, and with others formed the Constructivist International. Lissitzky also founded the inevitable magazine, titled Veshch-Object-Gegenstand (it lasted two issues), and showed his Prouns in the First Russian Art Exhibition in Berlin, which caused a sensation. Around this time Lissitzky also met his future wife, art historian and dealer Sophie Küppers. 

And then disaster struck: Lissitzky fell ill with tuberculosis and spent three years in Swiss sanatoria, where Sophie and he lived hand-to-mouth on advertising commissions. This was not mere bread-and-butter work, however, as it gave Lissitzky his first experience with photography. Sophie bought him a camera and he made photogram ads, and a photomontage self-portrait titled The Constructor, a sort of Vitruvian man for the machine age. 

During this convalescence, he also began to work on his first realised three-dimensional environment. The Proun Room was an abstract installation that crept along three walls of a stand at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1923. He also designed his Wolkenbügel or ‘cloud props’, cantilevered skyscrapers plugged into the Moscow traffic system that were intended to tame the irrational American high-rise. 

Photomontage of the wolkenbugel by el lissitzky 1925

Photomontage of the wolkenbugel by el lissitzky 1925

El Lissitzky’s Wolkenbügel or ‘cloud irons’, 1924

In 1925, having tried and failed to renew his Swiss visa, Lissitzky returned to Moscow. There he designed the famous ‘Abstract Cabinet’ for the Landesmuseum, Hanover, a room for the display of abstract art. Its walls were lined with fins painted black on one side and white on the other, creating a shifting visual effect. ‘Traditionally, viewers were lulled into passivity by the paintings on the walls. Our construction shall make them active’. The room was destroyed by the Nazis but its effect is, remarkably given its kinetic properties, represented in a lithograph showing the design in axonometric projection, with a stunned observer at the door. There is something of the climax of 2001 to this image: the human confronted by an impossible utopian space, Lissitzky’s ‘radical reversibility’ (as Yves-Alain Bois called it) throwing all certainties into convulsive oscillation. It was a revolution to match that of Corbusier and Mies.

Later, as Stalin quashed the avant-garde, Lissitzky and Sophie would work on larger scales still, producing immersive photomontage environments for official exhibitions (he would call these ‘my greatest works’), and designing the magazine USSR in Construction. Despite his illness he became the most prominent graphic designer in Russia, creating art for a mass audience by marshaling high-tech communication technology to spectacular effect. Here, finally, after the popular failure of Constructivism, was an art form that could connect with the masses. 

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967f112391d52f9c083dca955084b8e9

‘Everything for the Front. Everything for Victory’, Soviet propaganda poster from the Second World War

Its efficacy was recognised worldwide: Fascists stole his ideas, as did the Americans, who employed the erstwhile Bauhäusler Herbert Bayer, who was also briefly a designer for the Nazis, to produce a Lissitzkian pro-war show at MoMA. Lissitzky’s own work in this mode is, after long dismissal as Stalinist kitsch, being reappraised for its technical mastery. Nevertheless, shortly before he succumbed to TB at the age of 51, he made one strange and controversial image: the cover of a 1940 issue of USSR in Construction, which shows a moustachioed Belorussian peasant snogging a Red Army soldier, his ‘liberator’ from the Polish nation.

This is not the end of Lissitzky’s story, however. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the Deconstructivists revived his ideas, working at first on paper (and how Lissitzkian are Hadid’s paintings and Libeskind’s drawings), and later putting these zooming forms into production. The MAXXI Museum, from this perspective, is an abstract cabinet on a grand scale, a gallery intended to disorient the viewer. It is also, from a Lissitzkian perspective – as are all the other Decon and Koolhaas works that look to him – a failure, for the only revolution it embodies is a neoliberal one (unless of course you think the path to Communism must lead through market fundamentalism). A truer heir can be found in Tbilisi, where the Ministry of Highways built a Lissitzkian HQ in 1975, a tangle of cloud props climbing a hillside. Intriguingly, the building’s elevation was an attempt to preserve the natural landscape, rather than pandering to the car. It is a kind of eco-Constructivism, the trajectory of which was cut off too soon to discover what it would have made of climatic devastation.