Lissitzky, El, 1890-1941

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1890-11-30
Death 1941-12-30
Gender:
Male
Russians
Russian

Biographical notes:

Russian architect and designer, El Lissitzky became an important representative of the Russian avant-garde to the West through friendships with artists such as Lázló Moholy-Nagy and Kurt Schwitters. Lissitzky worked on an array of typographical, theater, furniture and exhibition designs, and advocated a synthesis of architecture, painting and sculpture.

From the description of El Lissitzky letters and photographs, 1911-1941. (Getty Research Institute). WorldCat record id: 83441007

Biographical/Historial Note

El Lissitzky (1890-1941) began his artistic education in 1909, when he traveled to Germany to study architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt. Lissitzky returned to Russia in 1914, continuing his studies in Moscow where he attended the Riga Polytechnical Institute. After the Revolution, Lissitzky became very active in Jewish cultural activities, creating a series of inventive illustrations for books with Jewish themes. These formed some of his earliest experiments in typography, a key area of artistic activity that would occupy him for the remainder of his life.

He was invited by Marc Chagall in 1919 to teach architecture and graphics at the Vitebsk Art School. There Lissitzky was influenced by faculty-member Kazimir Malevich's method of Suprematism, a form of non-representational painting in which colored planes hover in space over a neutral ground. Inspired by Malevich's invention, Lissitzky introduced a new form of abstract composition that he called "Proun" (an acronym for "Project for the Affirmation of the New".) The Prouns consisted of sharply delineated arrangements of colored geometric forms, intended to suggest architectural structures floating in space. Lissitzky conceived of the Prouns as existing half-way between painting and architecture, an idea which epitomized the aesthetic of Russian Constructivism. Widely reproduced in books and journals, Lissitzky's Prouns influenced the work of many leading European modernists.

Lissitzky became a member of Moscow's INKhUK (Institute of Artistic Culture) and joined the faculty of VKhUTEMAS (The Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops) in 1921. Later that year he returned to Germany. There he became an important representative of the Russian avant-garde to the West through friendships he made with artists such as Làszlò Moholy-Nagy, who transmitted Lissitzky's ideas on art to western Europe and the United States through his teaching at the Bauhaus, and Kurt Schwitters, with whom Lissitzky collaborated on a number of projects. Lissitzky's role as a cultural ambassador of Russian modernism was enhanced by his activities in publishing and writing on art. During the early 1920's he worked with writer Ilia Erenburg on a tri-lingual journal on modern art subjects, titled Vesch/Objet/Gegenstand . Other literary collaborations included an article and the design layout for a volume of the journal Merz, known as the Nasci-Heft, which he co-published with Kurt Schwitters in 1924, and a collaboration with Hans Arp on Kunstismen, a book chronicling the "isms" of art. He also translated Kazimir Malevich's writings on art in hopes of making the ideas underlying Russian Suprematism available to a wider European audience. Lissitzky was closely associated later in his life with the editorial board of the propaganda magazine begun by Maxim Gorky, USSR im Bau, contributing layout designs and photomontages for a number of commemorative issues devoted to the Stalinist Constitution, Soviet Georgia, and the Red Army. During these years in Germany he also gained recognition as a notable figure in experimental photography, developing techniques of graphic representation which would characterize of much of his later work in publishing and exhibition design. Furthermore, it was during his stay in Hannover in 1922-1923 that he met Sophie.

Lissitzky was diagnosed with tuberculosis late in 1923, for which he sought treatment at a sanatorium in Switzerland. He paid for his treatment and accommodations there by executing advertising commissions for the firm Günther Wagner, the makers of Pelikan-brand ink and other office products, for which he received a monthly retainer of 300 Marks. He adapted Prouns in some cases into his designs for the Pelikan advertisements.

Lissitzky left Switzerland in the spring of 1925, and moved back to Russia where he subsequently taught as a member of the Wood and Metalwork faculty of the Moscow VKhUTEMAS. He had become associated by then with the group ASNOVA (Consortium of New Architects), which advocated a synthesis of architecture, painting, and sculpture as opposed to a plain utilitarian approach to architecture. The plans for Lissitzky's Wolkenbügel project--a building conceived of as a horizontal skyscraper supported on three piers--were published in 1926 in the ASNOVA Bulletin, of which Lissitzky was co-publisher and designer. He continued working as well on an array of typographical projects, theater, furniture, and exhibition designs, and participated in various architectural competitions in Russia and Western Europe.

During the years immediately following his departure from Switzerland in 1925, Lissitzky began focusing his attention in earnest on his activities as a designer of exhibition spaces, one of his most influential areas of interest and, by his own account, the most important artistic activity of his career. His designs for international exhibitions in Dresden (1926, 1930), Hannover (1930), Cologne (1926), Leipzig (1930), Stuttgart (1929) and elsewhere remain some of his most significant and influential accomplishments.

His level of activity in later years was somewhat slowed by his continuing struggles with tuberculosis, for which he sought further treatment at Abastuman in the Caucasus Mountains for several months in 1935. Despite declining health during the last years of his life, however, he remained active in his work until his death on December 21, 1941 at his home in Schodnia, near Moscow.

From the guide to the El Lissitzky letters and photographs, 1911-1941, (Getty Research Institute)

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Subjects:

  • Suprematism in art
  • Letterhead
  • Architecture--Soviet Union
  • Book design
  • Advertising layout and typography
  • Constructivism (Architecture)
  • Book design--Soviet Union
  • Architecture
  • Graphic arts--20th century--Soviet Union
  • Art, Russian
  • Exhibitions
  • Exhibitions--Soviet Union
  • Art--Russian--Reproductions

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Soviet Union (as recorded)