In 1909 the Italian Futurists published their manifesto in the Parisian newspaper, Le Figaro. Their ideas filtered to Russia and the artist Malevich and his followers, one of whom was Lissitzsky, responded with ideas of their own. Lissitzsky studied engineering and architecture from 1909-1914. After being a painter, illustrator and designer of Soviet flags, he taught with Malevich at Vitebsk and at art workshops in Moscow. He arrived in Berlin in 1921 and set up exhibitions of art by the post-revolutionary avant-garde, working also as a writer and designer for international magazines. His achievements acted like a campaign to forge links between artists in Russia and in the West, between Weimar’s De Stijl and Constructivism. His own Proun paintings, Proun being an acronyrn signifying “for the new art”, express his vision of a world of physics inspired by modern spiritualist thought. They were produced at the same time as Victory Over the Sun, which suggests similar concerns. His work was intended to be a catalyst to encourage “the broad aim of forming a classless society”. His publications include Die Kunstismen, with Hans Arp, an issue of Merz magazine, with Schwitters, other books and independent contributions.
Lazar Markovich Lissitzky
Lazar Markovich Lissitzky (Russian: Ëà?çàðü Ìà?ðêîâè÷ Ëèñè?öêèé, listen ; November 23 [O.S. November 11] 1890 December 30, 1941), known as El Lissitzky (Russian: Ýëü Ëèñè?öêèé, Yiddish: ?? ????????), was a Russian artist, designer, photographer, typographer, polemicist and architect. 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 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.
Lissitzky’s entire career was laced with the belief that the artist could be an agent for change, later summarized with his edict, “das zielbewu?te Schaffen” (goal-oriented creation). Lissitzky, of Lithuanian Jewish îrigin, began his career illustrating Yiddish children’s books in an effort to promote Jewish culture in Russia. When only 15 he started teaching, a duty he would maintain for most of his life. Over the years, he taught in a variety of positions, schools, and artistic media, spreading and exchanging ideas. He took this ethic with him when he worked with Malevich in heading the suprematist art group UNOVIS, when he developed a variant suprematist series of his own, Proun, and further still in 1921, when he took up a job as the Russian cultural ambassador to Weimar Germany, working with and influencing important figures of the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements during his stay. In his remaining years he brought significant innovation and change to typography, exhibition design, photomontage, and book design, producing critically respected works and winning international acclaim for his exhibition design. This continued until his deathbed, where in 1941 he produced one of his last works a Soviet propaganda poster rallying the people to construct more tanks for the fight against Nazi Germany. In 2014, the heirs of the artist, in collaboration with Van Abbemuseum and leading worldwide scholars on the subject, established the Lissitzky Foundation in order to preserve the artist’s legacy and to prepare a catalogue raisonn? of the artist’s oeuvre.
In May 1919, upon receiving an invitation from fellow Jewish artist Marc Chagall, Lissitzky returned to Vitebsk to teach graphic arts, printing, and architecture at the newly formed People’s Art School a school that Chagall created after being appointed Commissioner of Artistic Affairs for Vitebsk in 1918. 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. The quantity of these posters is sufficient to regard them as a separate genre in the artist’s output.
Chagall also invited other Russian artists, most notably the painter and art theoretician Kazimir Malevich and Lissitzky’s former teacher, Yehuda Pen. However, it was not until October 1919 when Lissitzky, then on an errand in Moscow, persuaded Malevich to relocate to Vitebsk. The move coincided with the opening of the first art exhibition in Vitebsk directed by Chagall. Malevich would bring with him a wealth of new ideas, most of which inspired Lissitzky 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 Lissitzky, still loyal to Chagall, became torn between two opposing artistic paths. Lissitzky ultimately favoured Malevich’s suprematism and broke away from traditional Jewish art. Chagall left the school shortly thereafter.
At this point Lissitzky subscribed fully to suprematism and, under the guidance of Malevich, helped further develop the movement. In 19191920 Lissitzky was a head of Architectural department at the People’s Art School where with his students, primarily Lazar Khidekel, he was working on transition from plane to volumetric suprematism. Lissitzky designed On the New System of Art by Malevich, who responded in December 1919: “Lazar Markovich, I salute you on the publication of this little book”. Perhaps the most famous work by Lissitzky 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, socialists and revolutionaries) and the “Whites” (monarchists, conservatives, liberals and other 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. The piece is often seen as alluding to the similar shapes used on military maps and, along with its political symbolism, was one of Lissitzky’s first major steps away from Malevich’s non-objective suprematism into a style his own. He stated: “The artist constructs a new symbol with his brush. This symbol is not a recognizable form of anything that is already finished, already made, or already existent in the world it is a symbol of a new world, which is being built upon and which exists by the way of the people.”
In January 17, 1920, Malevich and Lissitzky co-founded the short-lived Molposnovis (Young followers of a new art), a proto-suprematist association of students, professors, and other artists. After a brief and stormy dispute between “old” and “young” generations, and two rounds of renaming, the group reemerged as UNOVIS (Exponents of the new art) in February. Under the leadership of Malevich the group worked on a “suprematist ballet”, choreographed by Nina Kogan and on the remake of a 1913 futurist opera Victory Over the Sun by Mikhail Matyushin and Aleksei Kruchenykh. Lissitzky and the entire group chose to share credit and responsibility for the works produced within the group, signing most pieces with a black square. This was partly a homage to a similar piece by their leader, Malevich, and a symbolic embrace of the Communist ideal. This would become the de facto seal of UNOVIS that took the place of individual names or initials. Black squares worn by members as chest badges and cufflinks also resembled the ritual tefillin and thus were no strange symbol in Vitebsk shtetl.
The group, which disbanded in 1922, would be pivotal in the dissemination of suprematist ideology in Russia and abroad and launch Lissitzky’s status as one of the leading figures in the avant garde. Incidentally, the earliest appearance of the signature Lissitzky (Russian: Ýëü Ëèñèöêèé) emerged in the handmade UNOVIS Miscellany, issued in two copies in MarchApril 1920, and containing his manifesto on book art: “the book enters the skull through the eye not the ear therefore the pathways the waves move at much greater speed and with more intensity. if i (sic) can only sing through my mouth with a book i (sic) can show myself in various guises.”