Lazar Markovich Lissitzky (November 23 1890 – December 30 1941), better known as El Lissitzky, 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 zielbewußte Schaffen” (goal-oriented creation).
Lissitzky, of Lithuanian Jewish оrigin, began his career illustrating Yiddish children’s books in an effort to promote Jewish culture in Russia, a country that was undergoing massive change at the time and that had just repealed its antisemitic laws.
When only 15 he started teaching; a duty he would stay with 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 the leading worldwide scholars, the Lissitzky foundation was established, to preserve the artist’s legacy and preparing a catalogue raisonné of the artist oeuvre.
Lissitzky was born on November 23, 1890 in Pochinok, a small Jewish community 50 kilometres (31 mi) southeast of Smolensk, former Russian Empire.
During his childhood, he lived and studied in the city of Vitebsk, now part of Belarus, and later spent 10 years in Smolensk living with his grandparents and attending the Smolensk Grammar School, spending summer vacations in Vitebsk.
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, Lissitzky went to study in Germany. He left in 1909 to study architectural engineering at a Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, Germany. During the summer of 1912, Lissitzky, in his own words, “wandered through Europe”, spending time in Paris and covering 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) on foot in Italy, teaching himself about fine art and sketching architecture and landscapes that interested him.
His interest in ancient Jewish culture had originated during the contacts with a Paris-based group of Russian Jews led by sculptor Ossip Zadkine, a lifetime friend of Lissitzky since early childhood, who exposed Lissitzky to conflicts between different groups within the diaspora.
Also in 1912 some of his pieces were included for the first time in an exhibit by the St. Petersburg Artists Union; a notable first step. He remained in Germany 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.
Upon his return to Moscow, Lissitzky attended the Polytechnic Institute of Riga, which had been evacuated to Moscow because of the war, and worked for the architectural firms of Boris Velikovsky and Roman Klein. During this work, he took an active and passionate interest in Jewish culture which, after the downfall of the openly antisemitic 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 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. These books were Lissitzky’s first major foray in book design, a field that he would greatly innovate during his career.
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 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 the designs for the final page, Lissitzky depicts the mighty “hand of God” slaying the angel of death, who wears the tsar’s crown.
This representation links the redemption of the Jews with the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. An alternative view asserts that the artist was wary of Bolshevik internationalization, leading to destruction of traditional Jewish culture.Visual representations of the hand of God would recur in numerous pieces throughout his entire career, most notably with his 1924 photomontage self-portrait The Constructor, which prominently featured the hand.
After two years of intensive work Lissitzky was taken ill with acute pneumonia in October 1923. A few weeks later he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis; in February 1924 he relocated to a Swiss sanatorium near Locarno.
He kept very busy during his stay, working on advertisement designs for Pelikan Industries (who in turn paid for his treatment), translating articles written by Malevich into German, and experimenting heavily in typographic design and photography.
In 1925, after the Swiss government denied his request to renew his visa, Lissitzky returned to Moscow and began teaching interior design, metalwork, and architecture at VKhUTEMAS (State Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops), a post he would keep until 1930.
He all but stopped his Proun works and became increasingly active in architecture and propaganda designs.
In June 1926, Lissitzky left the country again, this time for a brief stay in Germany and the Netherlands.
There he designed an exhibition room for the Internationale Kunstausstellung art show in Dresden and the Raum Konstruktive Kunst (Room for constructivist art) and Abstraktes Kabinett shows in Hanover, and perfected the 1925 Wolkenbügel concept in collaboration with Mart Stam.
In his autobiography (written in June 1941, and later edited and released by his wife), Lissitzky wrote, “1926. My most important work as an artist begins: the creation of exhibitions.”
Back in the USSR, Lissitzky designed displays for the official Soviet pavilions at the international exhibitions of the period, up to the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
One of his most notable exhibits was the All-Union Polygraphic Exhibit in Moscow in August–October 1927, where Lissitzky headed the design team for “photography and photomechanics” (i.e. photomontage) artists and the installation crew.
His work was perceived as radically new, especially when juxtaposed with the classicist designs of Vladimir Favorsky (head of the book art section of the same exhibition) and of the foreign exhibits.
In the beginning of 1928, Lissitzky visited Cologne in preparation for the 1928 Pressa Show scheduled for April–May 1928. The state delegated Lissitzky to supervise the Soviet program; instead of building their own pavilion, the Soviets rented the existing central pavilion, the largest building on the fairground.
To make full use of it, the Soviet program designed by Lissitsky revolved around the theme of a film show, with nearly continuous presentation of the new feature films, propagandist newsreels and early animation, on multiple screens inside the pavilion and on the open-air screens.
His work was praised for near absence of paper exhibits; “everything moves, rotates, everything is energized” (Russian: всё движется, заводится, электрифицируется). Lissitzky also designed and managed on site less demanding exhibitions like the 1930 Hygiene show in Dresden.
Along with pavilion design, Lissitzky began experimenting with print media again. His work with book and periodical design was perhaps some of his most accomplished and influential. He launched radical innovations in typography and photomontage, two fields in which he was particularly adept.
He even designed a photomontage birth announcement in 1930 for his recently born son, Jen. The image itself is seen as being another personal endorsement of the Soviet Union, as it superimposed an image of the infant Jen over a factory chimney, linking Jen’s future with his country’s industrial progress.
Around this time, Lissitzky’s interest in book design escalated. In his remaining years, some of his most challenging and innovative works in this field would develop. In discussing his vision of the book, he wrote:
In contrast to the old monumental art [the book] itself goes to the people, and does not stand like a cathedral in one place waiting for someone to approach . . . [The book is the] monument of the future.
He perceived books as permanent objects that were invested with power. This power was unique in that it could transmit ideas to people of different times, cultures, and interests, and do so in ways other art forms could not. This ambition laced all of his work, particularly in his later years.
Lissitzky was devoted to the idea of creating art with power and purpose, art that could invoke change.
In 1932, Stalin closed down independent artists’ unions; former avant-garde artists had to adapt to the new climate or risk being officially criticised or even blacklisted.
Lissitzky retained his reputation as the master of exhibition art and management into the late 1930s. His tuberculosis gradually reduced his physical abilities, and he was becoming more and more dependent on his wife in actual completion of his work.
In 1937, Lissitzky served as the lead decorator for the upcoming All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, reporting to the master planner Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky but largely independent and highly critical of him. The project was plagued by delays and political interventions.
By the end of 1937 the “apparent simplicity” of Lissitzky’s artwork aroused the concerns of the political supervisors, and Lissitzky responded: “The simpler the shape, the finer precision and quality of execution required… yet until now [the working crews] are instructed by the foremen (Oltarzhevsky and Korostashevsky), not the authors” (i.e. Vladimir Shchuko, author of the Central Pavilion, and Lissitzky himself).
His artwork, as described in 1937 proposals, completely departed from the modernist art of the 1920s in favor of socialist realism. The iconic statue of Stalin in front of the central pavilion was proposed by Lissitzky personally: “this will give the square its head and its face” (Russian: Это должно дать площади и голову и лицо).
In June 1938, he was only one of seventeen professionals and managers responsible for the Central Pavilion; in October 1938, he shared the responsibility for its Main Hall decoration with Vladimir Akhmetyev. He simultaneously worked on the decoration of the Soviet pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair; the June 1938 commission considered Lissitzky’s work along with nineteen other proposals and eventually rejected it.
Lissitzky’s work on the USSR im Bau (USSR in construction) magazine took his experimentation and innovation with book design to an extreme. In issue #2 he included multiple fold-out pages, presented in concert with other folded pages that together produced design combinations and a narrative structure that was completely original.
Each issue focused on a particular issue of the time – a new dam being built, constitutional reforms, Red Army progress and so on.
In 1941, his tuberculosis worsened, but he continued to produce works, one of his last being a propaganda poster for Russia’s efforts in World War II, titled “Davaite pobolshe tankov!” (Give us more tanks!) He died on December 30, 1941, in Moscow.