El Lissitzky: A revolutionary Artist
By Maurice Reese
Over the years there have been many ways to express a feeling and or emotion. In the early 1900’s a popular way to express those feelings was through art. Art basically revolutionized the early 1900’s throughout the world war. Art lead way to many changes in culture. Many everyday things like clothes, and even religion, were influenced by art. One place that was really affected by expression of art was Germany. In the early 1920’s, Germany was a lost country. This country had just gone through the world war, and postwar devastation was still fresh on their minds. The most influential word at that time was art. Art was a way that many artists expressed how they felt about the war and how to move on from it. Through art many different movements set a goal to create a new future. These movements through art involved many different artists who shared ideas and came together to express those ideas. One of the movements that became popular in the early 1900’s is constructivism. This art was a revolutionary movement that came along with many innovations into mass production by machines. One of the artists who helped make this movement popular was El Lissitzky.
El Lissitzky was born in Smolensk, Russia in 1890. His middle class family was of Jewish decent. During his early child hood, he lived in Vitebsk. Afterwards he then moved to stay with his grandparents in Smolensk. Here is where he spent his high school years. He was recognized for his art at the age of thirteen by Yehuda Pen. Yehuda was a popular Jewish artist. “Pen had founded School of Drawing and Painting in Vitebsk and taught many celebrated artists, including Chagall.” 1 He took El Lissitzky under his wing and showed taught him how to bring emotion into art. Once Lisstzky reached the age of 15, he began teaching the same things that he was taught about art. He became an inspiration to many other young Jewish artists. As he grew his interest in art increased. He began to mature and his art also matured, influencing more than just the people he taught but the people older people around him. As a young, upcoming artist he had earned a lot however he still had to overcome adversity from time to time.
Around 18 years old he applied for admission into St. Petersburg Art Academy where he was rejected. “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.” Although being rejected by this school, he did not let it stop him. He applied to a school in Germany, Technische Hochshule, where he was later accepted. Here he studied architectural engineering. Once into this school, his art really began to take its own path. His program of study offered free drawing classes.
“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.”
Everything was going well for Lissitzky until the outbreak of the World War. In 1914 Lissitzky was forcefully returned to Russia, where he ran into other artists, Wassily Kandinsky and Chagall, in particular. Lissitzky continued to mature, studying Jewish Culture and also finding ways that his art would affect the world. This was quite different, because art before the revolution was non-existent. This part of Lissitzky’s life was the most influential on his art. He had become an instructor of architecture and graphics at the Commissar of Arts in Vitebsk. Here is where Lissitzky met Malevich. Malevich had currently been developing Suprematist art.
“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.”
In the early 1920’s Lissitzky had committed to strictly Suprematism. He and Malevich founded a Suprematist ground call UNOVIS. This meant “(Exponents of New Art).” This is where people who follow Lissitzky can really see a change in his art. He loved to make art that spoke the people as a whole. Unlike previous art that was based on just his emotions, this art was based on his emotions and political views. He used a lot of “political symbolism” in his works to get his point across. His propaganda poster “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” is a great example of this. In this photo Lissitzky creates a white background that depicts a bright future. This picture represents the red and white Russians who fought in the war. The red wedge is a representation of the red army, and also the side who El Lissitzky wanted to be victorious in the war. This picture is a reminder of the war before the revolution. Although, Lissitkzky loved his art, at times there would people who found his styles as un original. In some cases he lost followers. He later found a solution to this problem. He created art which was abstract and geometric. This type of art Lissitzky called his own. It was a distinct style of suprematism that was obviously different from Malavich. He called this style “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.”
Whatever the definition, Lissitzky became infactuated with his new style of art. He began to become a scientist of art experimenting with graphics, painting, pictues, drawings. He took many things like building and bridges and surrounded them with a futuristic environment. Eventually, Suprematist art began to fade. However, Lissitzky kept experimenting with the art that he had become accustomed to. After eight years Lissitzky then returned to Germany. He began work as an graphic designer. Here he made covers of many different magazines and journals. The same art ideas he had as a suprematists contributed to much of his work as a graphic designer. Amazingly, Lissitzky’s art was beginning to peak. It seems almost impossible after all the art work that he produced before this however, he was very committed and continued growing to be a great artist. Here is where Lissitzky began the movement of Constructivism.
“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 type of art contained new tools, new style and artists who wanted to move forward. The main goal of this art was to spring the people of Russia into the future. Many artists began to create interesting art without the use of paint. Lissitzky became very popular creating this movement of art. He continuously created hundreds of pieces art that attracted many people. His movement grew as his art grew. The ideas of revolution and change attracted many people, especially since at this time the war had come to an end however, left a devastating reminder. Lissitzky continued traveling to Switzerland with his wife Sophie Kuppers. Eventually, he settled and stayed stationery in Moscow. Here, he spent the remainder of his life teaching and designing. He began to experiment with new revolutionary equipment. Here is where he began ideas of typography, photography, and photomontages. He created many different designs that were new to a developing modern world.
In 1923, El Lissitzky was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This slowed down the production of his works. He could not experiment as much as he used to before he was diagnosed. As Lissitzky grew older he began creating propaganda art for the Soviet. One thing that he stayed true to throughout his career was expressing his views of politics.
“Lissitzky’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.”
El Lissitzky had a very successful career. He made changes that will forever have an effect on art. He has come up with numerous designs and ideas that helped revolutionized art. He grew from young artists to one of the most influential political expressionist Germany has ever seen. Not only was he a co-creator of Suprematism, and constructivism, but an innovator of art. Although, his life was cut short from a disease, the legacy of El Lissitzky will live on forever.