Jews in the Russian Avant-Garde: El Lissitzky

The impact of new artistic and social concepts are thoroughly reflected in the biography of Lazar Lissitzky. An avid enthusiast of the Jewish art, an energetic figure in the Culture League, author of masterful books, at heart an innovator and, at the same time, deeply immersed in the national culture, the Jew Lazar Lissitzky (Лазарь Маркович Лисицкий) (1890 – 1941) was to become the internationalist El Lissitzky, who with unusual fervour absorbed and propagated the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich (his mentor).

Proun. (c. 1925).

The role of El Lissitzky in the development of the Russian avant-garde was unique. The powerful concepts of Suprematism and Constructivism claimed to monopolise the formation of a new style that defines the face of the 20th century. These concepts were thought to be mutually exclusive, although in the work of their adherents there is much evidence of mutual influence. In the process of maturation of the new style there was an urgent need to integrate the methods and means of expression. The task of the unification fell to the talented El Lissitzky. From 1919 and through the 1920s, his famous Proun (projects for the confirmation of the new) appeared; and architects saw in Suprematism an artistic potential of a ‘grand style’.

The multifaceted El’s talent allowed him to enter into creative contact with the masters of various experimental trends and extract their tools and techniques, ignoring the boundaries between them. The boundaries were less important to Lissitzky than that they should be united and strong. His synthesis, therefore, was not only in the stylistic and formal, but also in the semantic. He had the power and ability to create a convincing synthesis of the artistic techniques of two irreconcilable antagonists, Chagall and Malevich. Demonstrating this quite clearly are Lissitzky’s illustrations for Ilya Ehrenburg’s book Six Tales with Easy Endings (1922), comprising a paradoxical montage of naive pictures, and his own book Suprematist tale of two squares:

(Images from Snegourotchka’s blog.)

Lissitzky worked in all the forms and genres of art of importance in the international style of the 20th century. Most of the masters of the time were characterised by their adherence to a particular system of art, and therefore considered the integrators as ‘omnivorous stylists’, ‘eclectic’, unscrupulously stealing concepts for their own work. El Lissitzky didn’t escape from such criticism, although today, with the benefit of passing time, it is clear how great his contribution was to the development of art in the 20th century.

[Translated excerpts from Alexandra Shatskikh, ‘Jews in the Russian Avant-Garde‘]

Victory over the Sun. (1913).

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. (1919). (From Design is History).

Proun 1 A, Bridge I. (1919).

Proun 1 C. (1919).

Proun 23, No.6. (1919).

Proun 5 A. (1919).

Composition. (c. 1920).

Lenin Tribune. (1920).

Announcer. (1923).

New Man. (1923).

Proun. (1924).

Tatlin at Work.

Further Reading

Monuments of the Future‘: Designs by El Lissitzky, Getty Research Institute.

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