El Lissitzky

lissitzky squares

Lazar Markovich Lissitzky (1890 – 1941), better known as El Lissitzky was a Russian artist. He was an important figure of the Russian avant garde, helping develop suprematism with his mentor, Kazimir Malevich, and designing numerous exhibition displays and propaganda works for the former Soviet Union.

His work greatly influenced the Bauhaus and constructivist movements, and he experimented with production techniques and stylistic devices that would go on to dominate 20th-century graphic design.

Always expressing an interest and talent in drawing, he started to receive instruction at 13 from Yehuda Pen, a local Jewish artist, and by the time he was 15 was teaching students himself. In 1909, he applied to an art academy in Saint Petersburg, but was rejected. While he passed the entrance exam and was qualified, the law under the Tsarist regime only allowed a limited number of Jewish students to attend Russian schools and universities.

Like many other Jews then living in the Russian Empire, El Lissitzky went to study in Germany, where he remained until the outbreak of World War I, when he was forced to return home through Switzerland and the Balkans, along with many of his countrymen, including other expatriate artists born in the former Russian Empire, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall.

He took an active and passionate interest in Jewish culture which, after the downfall of the openly anti-semitic Tsarist regime, was experiencing a renaissance. The new Provisional Government repealed a decree that prohibited the printing of Hebrew letters and that barred Jews from citizenship. Thus El Lissitzky soon devoted himself to Jewish art, exhibiting works by local Jewish artists, traveling to Mahilyow to study the traditional architecture and ornaments of old synagogues, and illustrating many Yiddish children’s books.

His first designs appeared in the 1917 book ‘Sihas hulin: Eyne fun di geshikhten’ (‘An Everyday Conversation’), where he incorporated Hebrew letters with a distinctly art nouveau flair. His next book was a visual retelling of the traditional Jewish Passover song Had gadya (One Goat), in which El Lissitzky showcased a typographic device that he would often return to in later designs. In the book, he integrated letters with images through a system that matched the color of the characters in the story with the word referring to them.

In 1919, upon receiving an invitation from fellow Jewish artist Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky returned to Vitebsk to teach graphic arts, printing, and architecture at the newly formed People’s Art School. Lissitzky was engaged in designing and printing propaganda posters; later, he preferred to keep quiet about this period, probably because one of main subjects of these posters was the exile Leon Trotsky.

Chagall also invited other Russian artists, most notably the painter and art theoretician Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky’s former teacher, Yehuda Pen. Malevich would bring with him a wealth of new ideas, most of which inspired Lissitsky but clashed with local public and professionals who favored figurative art and with Chagall himself. After going through impressionism, primitivism, and cubism, Malevich began developing and advocating his ideas on suprematism aggressively.

In development since 1915, suprematism rejected the imitation of natural shapes and focused more on the creation of distinct, geometric forms. He replaced the classic teaching program with his own and disseminated his suprematist theories and techniques school-wide. Chagall advocated more classical ideals and El Lissitzky, still loyal to Chagall, became torn between two opposing artistic paths. El Lissitzky ultimately favoured Malevich’s suprematism and broke away from traditional Jewish art.

Perhaps the most famous work by Lissitsky from the same period was the 1919 propaganda poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.’ Russia was going through a civil war at the time, which was mainly fought between the ‘Reds’ (communists and revolutionaries) and the ‘Whites’ (monarchists, conservatives, liberals and socialists who opposed the Bolshevik Revolution). The image of the red wedge shattering the white form, simple as it was, communicated a powerful message that left no doubt in the viewer’s mind of its intention.

During this period El Lissitzky proceeded to develop a suprematist style of his own, a series of abstract, geometric paintings which he called Proun (pronounced ‘pro-oon’). The exact meaning of ‘Proun’ was never fully revealed. Later, El Lissitzky defined them ambiguously as ‘the station where one changes from painting to architecture.’

Proun was essentially El Lissitzky’s exploration of the visual language of suprematism with spatial elements, utilizing shifting axes and multiple perspectives; both uncommon ideas in suprematism. Suprematism at the time was conducted almost exclusively in flat, 2D forms and shapes, and El Lissitzky, with a taste for architecture and other 3D concepts, tried to expand suprematism beyond this.

His Proun works (known as Prounen) spanned over a half a decade and evolved from straightforward paintings and lithographs into fully three-dimensional installations. They would also lay the foundation for his later experiments in architecture and exhibition design. While the paintings were artistic in their own right, their use as a staging ground for his early architectonic ideas was significant.

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