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Artists El Lissitzky

El Lissitzky

Russian Painter, Typographer, and Designer

Movement: Suprematism

Born: November 23, 1890 - Pochinok, Russian Empire

Died: December 30, 1941 - Moscow, Soviet Union

Quotes

"The artist constructs a new symbol with his brush. This symbol is not a recognizable form of anything which is already finished, already made, already existing in the world - it is a symbol of a new world, which is being built upon and which exists by way of people."
El Lissitzky
"In the space allotted to me I have not conceived the four walls as retaining or protective walls, but as optic backcloths for the works of art. That is why I decided to dissolve the wall surfaces as such."
El Lissitzky
"The sun as the expression of old world energy is torn down from the heavens by modern man, who by virtue of his technological superiority creates his own energy source."
El Lissitzky
"The image is not a painting, but a structure around which we must circle, looking at it from all sides, peering down from above, investigating from below."
El Lissitzky

"The space must be a kind of showcase, a stage, on which the pictures make their appearance as actors in a drama (or comedy). It should not imitate a living space."

Synopsis

Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky, made a career of utilizing art for social and political change. Although often highly abstract and theoretical, Lissitzky's work was able speak to the prevailing political discourse of his native Russia, and then the nascent Soviet Union. Following Kazimir Malevich in the Suprematist idiom, Lissitzky used color and basic shapes to make strong political statements. Lissitzky also challenged conventions concerning art, and his Proun series of two-dimensional Suprematist paintings sought to combine architecture and three-dimensional space with traditional, albeit abstract, two-dimensional imagery. A teacher for much of his career and ever an innovator, Lissitzky's work spanned the media of graphic design, typography, photography, photomontage, book design, and architectural design. The work of this cerebral artist was a force of change, deeply influencing movements and related figures such as De Stijl and the Bauhaus.

Key Ideas

Lissitzky believed that art and life could mesh and that the former could deeply affect the latter. He identified the graphic arts, particularly posters and books, and architecture as effective conduits for reaching the public. Consequently, his designs, whether for graphic productions or buildings, were often unfiltered political messages. Despite being comprised of rudimentary shapes and colors, a poster by Lissitzky could make a strong statement for political change and a building could evoke ideas of communality and egalitarianism.
He declared that the Suprematist Proun series existed at "the station where one changes from painting to architecture." The paintings, which combined basic forms grouped together and featuring shifting axes, attempted to provide multiple perspectives of spatial amalgams despite their two-dimensional nature. Lissitzky reasoned that the future of the arts lay in their potential to be integrated. The fusion of drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, for instance, could be realized with his Prouns. In a sense, Lissitzky's Prouns may also be considered precursors on the one hand to modern abstract imagery and, on the other hand, acutely industrial modern architecture.
Lissitzky's influence in the world of graphic design cannot be overstated. He utilized a pared-down palette of primary colors, black and white, text, and basic forms - shapes both real as well as invented geometric constructions - to tell stories, including traditional Jewish tales, and to make very powerful political statements.
Architecture was Lissitzky's most favored form of artistic expression, yet he had little success realizing his designs, which often bordered on the utopian and impossible. Dreaming of a non-hierarchical architecture unlike that of the emergent skyscraper culture of the capitalist West, Lissitzky's designs for "horizontal skyscrapers" remained forever in the realm of the imagined yet unrealized. For Lissitzky, the egalitarian ideal of Communism demanded such structures. They could serve as material evidence of the realization of such ideals.

Most Important Art

Proun 99 (1925)
Lissitzky's Prounen or Proun work, which spanned a variety of media from painting and illustration to physical installation, was the artist's effort to create three-dimensional environments in which two-dimensional shapes could exist in direct contrast to the space they inhabited. The end result for Lissitzky was ideally to create an ongoing tension between open, negative, three-dimensional space and flat, purely abstract, geometric forms. Painting and drawing, which had formerly existed independently of the three-dimensional media of sculpture and architecture, could now be fused to them to create new, integrated forms - ideally, the futuristic, Suprematist-style buildings Lissitzky envisioned.
Watercolor and metallic paint on wood - Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
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Biography

Childhood

El Lissitzky was born Eleazar Markovich Lisitskii, in the town of Pochinok, a small, heavily Jewish-populated community in the western region of the former Russian Empire. Lissitzky spent much of his childhood in the town of Vitebsk (also Marc Chagall's hometown), followed by a ten-year stay with his grandparents in Smolensk, near the present-day Belarusian border, where he spent his secondary school years. A prodigious draughtsman even at age thirteen, Lissitzky was noticed by the local Jewish artist Yehuda Pen, who took the boy under his wing. Pen had founded School of Drawing and Painting in Vitebsk and taught many celebrated artists, including Chagall.

By the age of fifteen, Lissizky had already begun his teaching career, instructing other aspiring young Jewish artists. In 1909 he was rejected admission to the St. Petersburg Art Academy, due to anti-Semitic laws in place under the Tsarist regime of Nicholas II, which did not necessarily exclude Jewish students from admission into state schools but did heavily regulate admission quotas. Following his rejection, Lissitzky traveled to Germany and enrolled in the Technische Hochschule (University of Technology) in the city of Darmstadt, where he studied architectural engineering.

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Early Training

At the University, Lissitzky's program of study included free drawing; during these sessions the artist would draft from memory full-color illustrations of buildings and landscapes in Vitebsk and Smolensk as well as of cities he had visited while hiking through northern Italy in the summer of 1912. These early drawings, characterized by heavy outlines, rounded edges and a soft, almost watercolor-like palette, had more in common stylistically to the work of the Jugendstil artists than with Lissitzky's later, mature, and characteristically spare architectural studies. Likewise, the artist's illustrative work for Yiddish children's books, which he began producing in the latter part of the decade, bear distinctive visual elements of the Art Nouveau style as well as the folk symbolism of Marc Chagall.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Lissitzky was forced to return to Russia, as were Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky and other Russian artists living abroad. In the years to follow, Lissitzky focused his efforts on studying Jewish culture and producing Jewish national art, something that had been largely absent in pre-Revolutionary Russia. By 1919, Chagall had been appointed Commissar of Arts in Vitebsk and started an art academy, where he hired Lissitzky to be an instructor of architecture and graphics. While at the academy, Lissitzky encountered Kazimir Malevich, another instructor, who had been developing a wholly abstract artistic style called "Suprematism." Suprematist works of art were comprised exclusively of squares, triangles and other flat geometric shapes. Malevich dubbed this new visual lexicon of art a "world of non-objectivity." Lissitzky's encounter with Malevich's new style proved to be the biggest turning point in the artist's own development.

Mature Period

El Lissitzky Biography

By 1920 Lissitzky had begun devoting himself exclusively to Suprematism. While Lissitzky and Malevich had grown close and had even co-founded the Suprematist group UNOVIS (Exponents of the New Art), Lisstizky's art was arguably less purely Suprematist due to its frequent use of political symbolism. Lissitzky's propaganda poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919), for instance (perhaps his most famous early work), was a direct response to the Russian civil war. His art also typically featured distinct architectural elements, in contrast to that of his mentor.

In an effort to achieve his own distinct style and emphasize that his art was truly original, Lissitzky created his own variations of the Suprematist style, which were abstract and overtly geometric compositions. He produced a series of paintings in this style, which he called "Prounen" or "Proun", the true meaning of which Lissitzky never revealed to anyone. One theory is that the word "Proun" translates to the Latin "pro" unovis, or an abbreviation for "proekt utverzhdenya novogo," meaning "design for the confirmation of the new." Meanwhile, Lissitzky's love for and knowledge of architecture played a significant role in his Proun paintings and lithographs, wherein he experimented with traditional architectonic forms, such as bridges and tall buildings, and placed them in a futuristic, weightless environment.

One of Lissitzky's greatest goals was to apply Suprematism to actual architecture in his native Russia, which he regarded as having relied too heavily on the classical European style. By that time - into the 1920s - the Suprematist movement had begun to fracture into two different camps: one that embraced the movement's utopian ideals and one that wanted it to achieve more utilitarian goals and be put to use for industrialization. Lissitzky's mentor, Malevich, was aligned with the first camp. One artist in the latter contingent was Vladimir Tatlin, who Lissitzky befriended when both men taught at Moscow's Higher State Art and Technical Workshops. While of a similar philosophy with members of the utilitarian group, Lissitzky generally remained independent in this divide.

As Suprematism dissolved, Lissitzky returned to Germany after nearly eight years away, arriving this time as an official cultural representative of Russia. While in Germany. he worked as a graphic designer, providing covers for various magazines and journals. At that point he was also producing some of his most notable designs for Soviet propaganda posters. Lissitzky's vision for a new architecture would also realize new heights during this period in his artistic career.

To further celebrate what he perceived as the supremacy of the new Soviet state, Lissitzky developed plans for Constructivism, an international art movement designed to usher in a series of new city skylines.These new constructions Lissitzky envisioned were conceived in keeping with the theory behind his early Suprematist compositions: architecture was not bound by gravity. While his ultimate vision for building upward into the heavens was not based in pragmatism, as reflected in his two-dimensional architectonic drawings and paintings, his designs for Constructivist structures actually were meant to be realized: Lissitzky resolved to construct "horizontal skyscrapers," buildings that adhered to the horizontal plain. This resolve directly contradicted the growing American custom of the skyscraper.

Late Period

After nearly a year of traveling and working in Switzerland as well as visiting various architects and artists in Vienna in the company of his new wife Sophie Kuppers, Lissitzky returned to Moscow for good in 1928. He spent the remainder of his life teaching, writing, working, and designing. The late 1920s and early 1930s were some of Lissitzky's most progressive years as he experimented with new media such as typography, photography, and photomontage while he continued to produce innovative architectural designs. One such design was his 1931 draft for a new Pravda building, in which five separate units would be interlocked by a series of foot bridges, yet another evolutionary step in Lissitzky's vision for the horizontal skyscraper.

El Lissitzky Portrait

Having been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1923, the pace of Lissitzky's work gradually slowed. The illness prevented him from taking on multiple projects as had been his custom for much of his life. By 1932, Lissitzky was devoting himself almost exclusively to producing Soviet propaganda art, continuing to promote a political system that, under Stalin, heavily restricted the arts, persecuted, and even killed Lissitzky's colleagues, and was overtly hostile towards Jews. It is not clear whether or not Lissitzky felt conflicted in this regard, but given his declining health coupled with his longtime devotion to the Soviet cause, it is likely that near the end of his life he simply wished to continue producing art without engaging in controversy.

Lissistky's final work of art was a propaganda photomontage produced at the onset of the Soviet Union's entry into World War II. It appealed to the Soviet government to produce more war supplies. A few years later, on December 21, 1941, Lissitzky succumbed to his disease and passed away at his home in Schodnia, outside Moscow.

Legacy

Lissitzky strived to transform Suprematism from its primarily two-dimensional, practical, and ideological orientation to three-dimensional considerations of space,particularly with regard to architecture. Although only one of his designs was ever constructed, later developments in 20th-century architectural design owe a debt of gratitude to Lissitzky. This thoroughly forward-thinking artist established a successful means by which to establish a kind of fully abstract, modern visual vocabulary that could be utilized either in the direction of architecture or that of the visual arts from graphics to painting. Artists and architects who followed, particularly those of the early Bauhaus such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Wassily Kandinsky as well as the Cubists, explored and expanded this vocabulary whose basic elements were form, line, and color.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

El Lissitzky
Interactive chart with El Lissitzky's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Yehuda Pen
Yisakhar Rybak
Marc Chagall
Kazimir Malevich

Friends

Kazimir Malevich
Ossip Zadkine
Ilya Ehrenburg

Movements

Post-Impressionism
Art Nouveau
Symbolism
Cubism
Suprematism
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky
Years Worked: 1909 - 1935

Artists

Wassily Kandinsky
Hans Arp
Vladimir Tatlin
Ilya Ehrenburg
Piet Mondrian

Friends

Alexander Rodchenko
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
Theo van Doesburg
Kurt Schwitters

Movements

Constructivism
Bauhaus
De Stijl

Original content written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on El Lissitzky

Books
Websites
Articles
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (Issues & Debates)

By Nancy Perloff, Brian M. Reed

El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet: Photography, Design, Collaboration

By Margarita Tupitsyn

El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Text

By Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers

The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946

By Victor Margolin

El Lissitzky's 'Americanism' in European Architecture

From El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts (trans. Sophie Kuppers)
1925

Where the Pictures Don't Always Match the Labels

By Konstantin Akinsha
ARTnews
June 1, 2010

Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
ArtStory: Kazimir Malevich
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
ArtStory: Suprematism
De Stijl
De Stijl
De Stijl
Founded in the Netherlands in 1917, De Stijl was an avant-garde dedicated to isolating a single visual style that would be appropriate to all aspects of modern life, from art to design to architecture. Taking its name from a periodical, its most famous practitioners were Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, whose mature art employed geometric blocks of primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines.
ArtStory: De Stijl
Bauhaus
Bauhaus
Bauhaus
Bauhaus is a style associated with the Bauhaus school, an extremely influential art and design school in Weimar Germany that emphasized functionality and efficiency of design. Its famous faculty - including Joseph Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - generally rejected distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and encouraged major advances in industrial design.
ArtStory: Bauhaus
Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall was a Russian-born, Jewish-French artist that reached great popularity during the twentieth century. Although his art is associated with several movements, Chagall is commonly grouped in with the German Expressionists. Much of his early work was credited with synthesizing visual elements of Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism.
ArtStory: Marc Chagall
Yehuda Pen
Yehuda Pen
Yehuda Pen
Yehuda Pen was a Jewish-Belarusian artist and teacher, who in 1891 founded the Jewish Art School in his hometown of Vitebsk, the first private art school in the Russian Empire. Pen is best known for having instructed such modern masters as Chagall, Zadkine and Lissitzky.
Yehuda Pen
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was a movement that swept through the decorative arts and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generating enthusiasts throughout Europe, it was aimed at modernizing design and escaping the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. It drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms with more angular contours.
ArtStory: Art Nouveau
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky
A member of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter, and later a teacher at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky is best known for his pioneering breakthrough into expressive abstraction in 1913. His work prefigures that of the American Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Wassily Kandinsky
Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin
Vladimir Tatlin was a prominent Russian avant-garde artist and architect. He was one of the key figures of the Constructivist movement.
ArtStory: Vladimir Tatlin
Constructivism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
ArtStory: Constructivism
Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius
The German architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar Germany. Along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern architecture.
Walter Gropius
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was one of the founding fathers of architectural Modernism. Utilizing modern materials and mass production strategies, his buildings rejected surface ornament in favor of a sleek and imposing geometry.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Yisakhar Rybak
Yisakhar Rybak
Yisakhar Rybak
Yisakhar Ber Rybak was a Russian-Jewish visual artist and theater designer who was active in the Jewish art renaissance, along with such artists as El Lissitzky and Marc Chagall. Rybak's visual style varied from Jewish folklore art to Cubist composition.
Yisakhar Rybak
Ossip Zadkine
Ossip Zadkine
Ossip Zadkine
Ossip Zadkine was a Russian painter and sculptor. After studying art in London, Zadkine moved to Paris in 1910 and became involved in the Cubism movement with the likes of Picasso and Braque.
Ossip Zadkine
Ilya Ehrenburg
Ilya Ehrenburg
Ilya Ehrenburg
Ilya Ehrenburg was a Soviet writer and journalist, and among the Soviet Union's most famous novelists, memoirists and poets, with such books as The Thaw and People, Years, Life. Throughout his life Ehrenburg also traveled in bohemian circles, acquainting himself with artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Rivera and Lissitzky.
Ilya Ehrenburg
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
ArtStory: Post-Impressionism
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism
Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.
ArtStory: Symbolism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
ArtStory: Cubism
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.
Hans Arp
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neo-plasticism.
ArtStory: Piet Mondrian
Alexander Rodchenko
Alexander Rodchenko
Alexander Rodchenko
Aleksander Rodchenko was a Russian artist, sculptor, photographer, and graphic designer. Concerned with the need for analytical-documentary photo series, he often shot his subjects from odd angles - usually high above or below - to shock the viewer and to postpone recognition. He was one of the founders of Constructivism and Russian design; he was married to the artist Varvara Stepanova.
ArtStory: Alexander Rodchenko
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian painter, photographer and teacher at the Bauhaus School. Moholy-Nagy was influential in promoting the Bauhaus's multi- and mixed-media approaches to art, advocating for the integration of technological and industrial design elements.
ArtStory: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy
Theo van Doesburg
Theo van Doesburg
Theo van Doesburg
Theo van Doesburg was a Dutch artist, who together with Piet Mondrian established Neo-Plasticism, otherwise known as the De Stijl school of painting. Van Doesburg's most famous work experimented with geometric abstraction and archetypal forms. He was also a prominent architect and writer.
Theo van Doesburg
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters was a German multi-media artist who was particularly influential in the development of the Dada and Constructivist movements. By the 1920s, Schwitters was heavily involved in the international avant-garde, touring the world with artists like Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara. These travels earned him wide acclaim in the U.S. and scrutiny in his native Germany, which would soon come under the control of the Third Reich.
Kurt Schwitters