El Lissitzky

Author: Joke De Winter

Study for a page of the book "Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions".

1890-1941

El Lissitzky was born in Russia as Lazar Markovich Lissitzky —you can call him El— and lived life to the full. He became accomplished and influential in painting, architecture, photography and graphic design. Most of his work uses geometric shapes and a strong grid. Often with a limited colour palette, asymmetry, diagonals and sans serif type. In some ways a lot of his work is a forerunner of the Swiss International style.

From a young age he shows a talent for drawing, and by the time he is 15 he is teaching other students. Unable to study in Russia, he goes to Germany to study architectural engineering. This marks the start of a well travelled life between East and West. After his studies he explores architecture and landscape art in Italy. In Paris he becomes interested in traditional Jewish art.

On the invitation of Marc Chagall he returns to Russia to teach at the People’s Art School in Vitebsk. There he meets Kazimir Malevich, a radical artist and founder of Suprematism —a movement rejecting natural shapes, and favouring distinct geometric forms.

Lissitzky abandons traditional Jewish art and explores the possibilities of Suprematism. His most famous work in this style is “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”. A propaganda poster created during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922).

As he goes deeper into Suprematism, he creates a series of works under the name Proun. A Russian acronym for “project for the affirmation of the new”. With Proun he combines the visual language of Suprematism with that of architecture. Geometric shapes on the one hand, and volume, mass, colour, shape and rhythm on the other. The works evolve from flat two-dimensional paintings to three-dimensional installations. Later he describes Proun as the midway station between painting and architecture.

Meanwhile the Russian Revolution is in full swing. With the Empire defeated, Communism takes over. Artists in Russia have to come to terms with a system where art has to be collective and public. Lissitzky embraces this.

For him art and design are a communication tool to reach the uneducated. It can prompt social and political change. A view held by Constructivism, which sees art as a practice for social purposes. As opposed to Suprematism which sees art as spiritual purity. At this point Lissitzky abandons the Suprematist movement.

He returns to Europe and meets many of the leading figures of De Stijl, the Bauhaus and the Dadaists. He also develops his career as a graphic designer.

Especially his work in book design challenges traditions. He applies his Proun principles to page layout, giving words meaning and energy. He sees the pages of a book as a movie, with each page being a sequence in the film. The words and typography become the protagonists on the page and play out the narrative.

Lissitzky was born in the Russian Empire and died in the USSR. He leaves behind an impressive body of work and an endearing fondness for a little red square.

(Image from MoMA)