Lissitzky, El (1890–1941)

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LISSITZKY, EL (1890–1941)


Russian painter, graphic artist, and designer.

During the 1920s and 1930s El Lissitzky did more than any other artist to define a practice of graphic design in the Soviet Union. Early in his career he collaborated actively with members of the European avant-garde, but after his return home in 1925 he worked almost exclusively for the Soviet regime.

Born in the town of Polshinok in the Pale of Settlement, a Jewish enclave in Russia, Lissitzky studied painting as a young man with the artist Yehuda Pen before going to Darmstadt, Germany, in 1909 to study architecture. Returning to Russia at the outbreak of World War I, he worked as an architect in Moscow, while exhibiting his paintings with avant-garde groups and collaborating with Marc Chagall and other artists interested in creating a modern Jewish art. He also began to illustrate Jewish children's books and to work actively with Jewish organizations, including the Kultur Lige in Kiev. Perhaps his best-known book illustrations in this genre were for Chad gadya (One billy goat), which he completed in 1917.

In 1919 Chagall, who became the commissioner for artistic affairs in the town of Vitebsk, invited Lissitzky to head an architecture and printing workshop at the local art school there. When the suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich joined the school's faculty, Lissitzky, with other professors and students, became a member of Malevich's UNOVIS group and adopted some of suprematism's visual language of geometric forms. But Lissitzky developed his own approach to painting, which he called the Proun (an acronym for Project for a New Art). Unlike Malevich, Lissitzky created canvases with architectonic structures, declaring that to fully understand his paintings, the viewer had to consider them from multiple perspectives. Lissitzky was later to call these pictures way stations between painting and architecture. While in Vitebsk, he also produced several propaganda posters for the Red Army, the best known of which is "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge."

In 1921 Lissitzky left for Europe, where he spent four years. Initially he lived in Berlin, where he collaborated with the Scythians, a Russian émigré group, for whom he designed several issues of an avant-garde magazine, Veshch (Object). This publication was intended as a cultural bridge between Russians in Europe and in the Soviet Union. He also worked with a community of Jewish artists as well as with Theo van Doesburg, the founder of the De Stijl movement, and Kurt Schwitters, the Dada artist who established his one-man Merz movement in Hanover. While in Europe, Lissitzky saw the publication of his children's book Of Two Squares, which he had designed in Vitebsk, as well as a book of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, For the Voice. The two books were among the first avant-garde publications to interest German graphic designers, including Jan Tschichold, who recognized Lissitzky as one of the forerunners of the "new typography" that he promoted in the 1920s.

After recuperating from tuberculosis in Switzerland for about two years, Lissitzky returned to the Soviet Union and began to take on commissions for the state. Among the first was the All-Union Printing Trades Exhibition. This was followed by a commission to design the mammoth exhibit on the Soviet press, which the Soviet government presented at the Pressa, an international survey of the world press that opened in Cologne in 1928. The Pressa design was the first of four state-sponsored displays that Lissitzky created for foreign exhibitions, the other three being the section on Soviet film and photography for the Werkbund exhibition Film und Foto of 1929 as well as displays for the International Fur Trade Exhibition and the International Hygiene Exhibition in 1930.

Following his return to Moscow, Lissitzky also joined the faculty of the Vhkutemas, the state design school, where he taught in the department of interior design. One of the major projects that he and his students worked on was the design for a small flat in a new communal building. Lissitzky continued as well to design books and periodicals for the government. His major work as a publication designer was for the propaganda journal USSR in Construction, which was published between 1930 and 1941. For this publication, Lissitzky designed almost twenty-five issues, some with his wife, Sophie. He developed a narrative style that combined photographs, drawings, text, and sometimes pictorial statistics in order to tell a story. In the early years of the journal's publication, Lissitzky's designs portrayed heroic feats such as the construction of the Dnieper dam and power station, but by the late 1930s, the journal served as a mask for the purges and harsh conditions of collective labor imposed by Joseph Stalin. In 1941, the year he died of tuberculosis, Lissitzky received his last commission—three posters to abet the Soviet war effort.

See alsoChagall, Marc; Malevich, Kazimir; Painting, Avant-Garde; Socialist Realism .


Lissitzky-Küppers, Sophie. El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts. Translated by Helene Aldwinckle and Mary Whittall. London, 1968.

Margolin, Victor. The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917–1946. Chicago and London, 1997.

Nisbet, Peter. El Lissitzky, 1890–1941: Catalogue for an Exhibition. Cambridge, Mass., 1987.

Perloff, Nancy, and Brian Reed, eds. Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow. Los Angeles, 2003.

Tupitsyn, Margarita. El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet. New Haven, Conn., 1999.

Victor Margolin

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Lissitzky, El (1890–1941)

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