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El Lissitzky - Biography and Legacy

Russian Painter, Typographer, and Designer

Born: November 23, 1890 - Pochinok, Russian Empire
Died: December 30, 1941 - Moscow, Soviet Union
Movements and Styles:

Biography of El Lissitzky


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.

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.

Professors at the People's Art School in Vitebsk (July 26, 1919). From left: El Lissitzky, Vera Ermolaeva, Marc Chagall, David Iakerson, Iouri Pen, Nina Kogan, Alexandre Romm.

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. Lissitzky also received a diploma in engineering and architecture from the Riga Technological University in 1916. 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 (on the left) and Malevich have black squares on the sleeves of their jackets, displaying their union in the UNOVIS group

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 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 was also highly 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," (building upon the name of the group he was a part of) meaning in Russian "Project for the Affirmation 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 (and continued his expirements) with 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.

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. To complicate his efforts further, from 1930 to 1940 he contributed to the magazine "USSR in Construction" - a publicatoin that promoted Soviet industrialization.

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.

The Legacy of El Lissitzky

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.

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"El Lissitzky Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 18 Dec 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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