TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 1969

El Lissitzky’s “Prouns”, Part I

I

THE EARLIEST SURVIVING WORKS BY El Lissitzky are two watercolor sketches of the Church of the Trinity in Vitebsk and of the fortification wall surrounding the artist’s native Smolensk. These sketches, dated 1910 when Lissitzky was nearly twenty years old, are customarily interpreted as studies undertaken in conjunction with Lissitzky’s courses in architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, in which Lissitzky had enrolled the preceding year. Indeed the concern for an objective and accurate account of these structures, with comparatively little interest in landscape, atmospheric, or figural detail, supports this interpretation. But when one turns to an analysis of the formal and compositional elements in the sketches, a number of unusual features come to light.

Both the church and the tower have been placed asymmetrically to avoid a static, inert composition. The strong horizontal and vertical framework contrasts to the diagonal, and hence more dynamic, elements. While the mass and solidity of the structures convincingly project to us, they sit upon a thin linear support seemingly unable to bear the great weight upon them. Most important, Lissitzky has made the church and the tower tangent to a frame drawn carefully around each work. By means of this link of the three-dimensional forms to the flat, two-dimensional border, Lissitzky creates a tension between our reading the scene as consistently three-dimensional and as an overall two-dimensional design. This tension is then further heightened by the removal of nearly all recessions into depth. We are left, consequently, with works which initially deceive us into easily passing over them but soon reveal the presence of Lissitzky’s artistic sophistication and his awareness of developments in contemporary art in Russia and the West.

By 1910 Lissitzky had been studying art for a number of years. In 1903, for example, he worked under Pen, who also served as the teacher of Chagall. Lissitzky’s subsequent rejection by the Petersburg Academy of Art has been attributed to his Jewish background and his failure to follow prescribed academic practice1—and one wonders if his deviation from academic procedure involved just those qualities of ambiguity and tension noted above. Nevertheless, it was only following this rejection that Lissitzky opted for architecture. Thus one must always bear In mind that Lissitzky’s “architectural” sketches more closely reflect his artistic temperament and style rather than merely ostensibly objective records of buildings and monuments. Accordingly, in the two sketches from 1910 one finds no hint of indecision or uncertainty, but rather the work of an already experienced artist well aware of what he wants to do and of the means necessary to achieve those ends.

During the teens Lissitzky traveled widely throughout Europe before returning to Russia at mid-decade. During this time his art continued to show many of the stylistic features noted above, while revealing the influence of a number of contemporary art and social movements. For example, the Cubo-Futurist tradition, which Lissitzky had encountered both in the art of the Italian Futurists and in the Rayonnism of Larionov and Gontcharova, is clearly evident in Flying Sun of 1916. The dynamic linear play, the geometrical forms, the pressing of the forms up to the surface, the subject matter itself—all are representative of this style. But note again how these qualities are coupled to Lissitzky’s characteristic concern for order and control symbolized once more by the drawn-in frame. One encounters the same features in Lissitzky’s book illustrations of 1917–1920. In The Violinist, for example, all the forms have become abstract fields of dynamic linear activity, with the tendency to two-dimensionality so marked that the device of the form tangent to the frame is no longer truly necessary.

It was then an easy step for Lissitzky to move to paintings like Proun 99. Although all figural and narrative elements have been removed, stylistically and compositionally the Prouns remain closely linked to the preceding works. In Proun 99 we observe a small number of non-objective, two-and three-dimensional forms held in a delicate balance and set against a neutral background. Lissitzky avoids both symmetrical composition and the placement of any major points on the horizontal or vertical axes. The uniformity of the cube is also disturbed, since the edge at the lower right is slightly shorter than the other sides. Because the remaining sides of the cube are consistent in length, the spectator is forced to introduce the possibility of a second vantage point to explain the discrepancy in scale. Thus not only is the cube moving downward, though now counter-balanced by the two curved lines, but also the spectator must assume, in his own mind, a dynamic relationship to the painting. The spectator becomes both intellectually and physically a participant in the ideal world of Proun, a concept which would culminate in Lissitzky’s Proun Rooms of 1926–1927. But again, so typical of Lissitzky is how subtle, how unobtrusive these significant details first appear.

The dynamism of Proun 99 is, then, enhanced by its ambiguity. Is the grid wholly parallel to the picture plane, as suggested by its position against the flat vertical rectangle and tangent to the semicircle below? Or does the grid project into our space? And is the cube really a cube at all, for as one looks at this form it begins to oscillate between a cube and an open, three-sided geometrical shape. If one then considers the extensive role of tangent forms in Proun 99, he must conclude that these spatial ambiguities can never be rationally resolved. We are left with a painting whose components obey laws pertaining only to their own world, the world of Proun, and not to any rationally-derived construct we might establish.

Three themes then pervade Lissitzky’s art: control and order, ambiguity, and tension. That these qualities are evident both prior to and after 1919, when the first Proun appears is most significant. Certainly the assertion that the years devoted to the illustrations in the late teens “to an extent . . . are isolated from the rest of his artistic achievement”2 is not correct, for we have seen how these works function within Lissitzky’s steady movement to Proun. Also, one must now re-assess the common view that Lissitzky “was so impressed by [Malevich’s] ideas that his work underwent a fundamental change.”3 Malevich and his Suprematist art must instead be considered as the catalyst that moves Lissitzky into a wholly non-objective vocabulary following their close collaboration in 1918 and 1919, but not into any fundamentally different style. As a result, Lissitzky emerges as a substantially more original and forceful talent in his early years than had formerly been assumed, a conclusion wholly in accord with the fecundity of Lissitzky’s vision in the 1920s.

II

The term Proun was conceived by Lissitzky in 1919 specifically to signify his turn to non-objective art. Although there is some question as to the derivation of the letters comprising the word, Proun meant “for the new art.” Thus it was a credo very much in accord with the revolutionary changes sweeping Russia at this time. Lissitzky had actively served on a number of art projects during and after the Revolution, and Proun was deliberately intended to embody some of that manifesto fervor so prevalent in the country.

Lissitzky’s close ties with the Communist Revolution forged one of his basic links to the Constructivist art of Tatlin and Rodchenko. In a lecture delivered in 1922, Lissitzky declared that with the Revolution “it became clear to us that the world was only just coming into existence and everything must be re-created from scratch, including art,” which was now to be “by everyone, for everyone.”4 This universalism, characteristic of Proun and Constructivism, appeared in the Prouns in several ways. Human figures, or any naturalistic detail which might suggest some degree of individuality or specificity, were wholly excluded. Since color was regarded as embodying certain personal, subjective qualities, it would be minimized, in theory, in the Prouns. Furthermore, Lissitzky maintained that Proun was not the creation of one particular artist, but rather “introduces pluralism into the creative process” since an undetermined number of artists would work on Proun. Perhaps most important, Lissitzky wanted his Proun compositions to be universal in that they would be readily comprehendible and meaningful to all people in an age in which “art is from now on . . . international.”

From this firm belief in Communism, Lissitzky and the Constructivists derived a number of tenets. First, Lissitzky shared with the Constructivists a great stress on the need for art to be utilitarian and practical. Bourgeois, museum art was dead, and in its place would rise the art dedicated to the formation of the Communist society. As Mart Stam, a close friend of Lissitzky, pointed out, “he had not painted these pictures to be objects for the art historian in the museum,” but rather the Prouns served as experiments in the manipulation and interrelationship of forms, with the results eventually to be applied to architecture, typography, exhibition and theater design, and other fields. Lissitzky even went so far as to declare in 1920 that artists should concern themselves not with Romantic, esthetic matters, but with the improvement in the basic necessities of life.5 Lissitzky’s work in poster and theater set design, typography, and architecture as well as in Proun during the twenties relates to this need to justify artistic endeavors on utilitarian grounds.

Second, the machine served as the principal inspiration for Lissitzky and the Constructivists. As Lissitzky stated:

The vitality, the uniformity, the monumental quality, the accuracy, and perhaps the beauty of the machine were an exhortation to the artist. . . . The machine showed us movement, showed us circulation. It showed us life and how it vibrates and palpitates from the forces that flow through it.

From the machine the artist was to gain a basic attitude, a philosophy, that would move art out of Romantic fantasy and into the objective world of the new artist-engineer. Thus the artist would “emulate the spirit that guides the construction of [the machine]; he is to build his own work with the same precision of clearly defined form, with the same order in the mathematical relation of parts, with the same economy in the choice of means and the nice adjustment of structure to function.”6 Later, in reaction to criticism of Proun and Constructivism as “machine art,” Lissitzky added that the machine had not separated man from nature, but “through it we have discovered a new, formerly unknown nature.” But because the Constructivists embraced industrial techniques rather than the spirit of the machine, Lissitzky sharply criticized them: “The merit of Tatlin and his colleagues lies in the fact that they accustomed the painter to working in actual space and on contemporary materials . . . But this group reached a kind of material fetishism and forgot the necessity of creating a new plan.”7

This relationship of art to the machine and industry explains a number of characteristics of the Prouns. Not only were the forms, in their geometrical, precise shapes to reflect the objective, anti-Romantic, engineering sensibility of the artist, but color similarly functioned to emphasize this relationship to the machine:

The colors in various parts of my drawings [for the opera Victory Over the Sun], as in my Proun works, are to be understood as material equivalents. This means: the red, yellow, or black parts of the figures do not indicate the colors these parts are to be painted, but rather the appropriate material they are to be made from, as for example shining copper, dull iron, and so forth.8

“Color will be a barometer of materials,” and Lissitzky complemented this theory of the correspondences of colors with an extensive use of a diversity of media and techniques in Proun. Like the Constructivists, Lissitzky frequently utilized “the everyday materials of the workman” with these “inserted pieces of actual texture . . . jumping out of the spatial framework with its illusionist surfaces and accomplishing a direct contact with the observer.” We view here Lissitzky’s wish to emulate the spirit of the machine by introducing these references to its forms, colors, and textures, now united by an overall control and pictorial harmony.

Third, dynamism, as a reflection of the new society, was a major factor in Proun and Constructivism. Asymmetrical composition, the penchant for diagonal thrusts, the absence of ponderation, the tension between two- and three-dimensional forms, and the disregard for the laws of linear perspective all contributed to the inner movement and kineticism of the Proun works. As we have seen, Lissitzky also carefully manipulated the vantage point in the Prouns to provide the effect of the forms being viewed simultaneously from a number of locations. As Lissitzky wrote in De Stijl in June, 1922, Proun dealt primarily with the interrelationship of objects in space, with both these objects and the spectator conceived of in movement. As a result of this movement, the element of time is introduced into the Prouns. Furthermore Joost Baljeu, in a most illuminating article,9 has shown that Lissitzky’s philosophical premise was inherently endowed with a tendency toward dynamism because of a reliance upon a system of dialectical esthetics:

. . . the void, open space, the anti-natural, is posited as the antithesis of the natural. The natural, which is to be understood in the sense of determined, defined form, is brought in opposition to the anti-natural, i.e., the amorphous, the undetermined. Or to put it in Hegelian terms, Non-being (antithesis) is opposed to Being (thesis).

Lissitzky, in Baljeu’s words, is consequently “extremely modern in that . . . the work of art must represent a standstill of becoming and not a static end.”

Finally, Lissitzky and the Constructivists repeatedly stressed their demand for economy in art. This aspect of Lissitzky’s thought may be connected to the Bolsheviks’ campaign for resourcefulness and frugality in the face of the privations of post-revolutionary Russia, but it well reflects, too, Lissitzky’s background in engineering and architecture, with the artist “finding his inspiration in precision and working himself up over austerity.” This desire for a limited number of forms in the work of art later led Lissitzky to criticize the complexity and abundance of forms in Cubist and Futurist paintings as a turning away from the “guiding principle” of economy.

As I have already noted, the development of Proun was also closely tied to the Suprematist art of Malevich. Lissitzky has been called a “bridge” between Constructivism and Suprematism, although it is wise to remember both Lissitzky’s own originality and the numerous qualities common to Constructivism and Suprematism. Thus, Lissitzky’s formal vocabulary, concern for texture and dynamism, rejection of linear perspective and ponderation, and the use of the neutral background recall both movements. Yet following Lissitzky’s contact with Malevich in 1918–1919 several characteristics appeared in Lissitzky’s art indicating the influence, but not the domination of Suprematism.

First, Lissitzky and Malevich concurred in their concept of color. Color embodied the expression of energy. In the wish to control this energy, Lissitzky limited the color in the Prouns principally to tones of black, grey, and white. Lissitzky must have been in complete accord with this statement on color from Gabo and Pevsner’s Realist Manifesto of 1920:

. . . we renounce color as a pictorial element, color is the idealized optical surface of objects; an exterior and superficial impression of them; color is accidental and it has nothing in common with the innermost essence of a thing. We affirm that the tone of a substance, i.e., its light-absorbing material body is its only pictorial reality.

The use of color in Proun and Suprematism, however, underscores a fundamental difference between Lissitzky and Malevich. While Lissitzky’s control of color arose from his desire to reveal “the innermost essence” of the forms, Malevich employed color to project certain states of mind and to convey “the supremacy of feeling” in art. This contrast in objectives appears clearly in their choice of titles. For example, whereas Malevich entitled his works Sensation of Space of the Universe or Sensation of Mystical Wave Coming from the Earth, the Prouns are distinguished by simple letters and numbers.

Second, both Proun and Suprematism revealed an interest in problems of the harmony and unity of two- and three-dimensional forms. I emphasize this point because many writers have unduly contrasted Lissitzky’s experiments with three-dimensional forms to Malevich’s ostensible self-limitation to the flatness of the picture plane.10 Instead, one must realize that the Prouns contain both two- and three-dimensional elements that have “not only one meaning but two or even more. A line did not have one direction into depth but had two or more contradictory directions at the same time that made it move constantly and so change its essential identity. The whole composition became a self-changing field of abstract signs.”

For his part, Malevich had declared in the Suprematist Manifesto of 1915 his intention to break free from the surface and to transpose his creations into space. Already by that year Malevich was working on drawings containing three-dimensional elements “which by 1917 had taken on the character of almost architectural forms. . . .” In Yellow Rectangle on White of 1916–1917, Malevich produced a sense of depth by his manipulation of perspective and the blurring of the form, while in other paintings, variations in color suggested projection or recession. Thus both Lissitzky and Malevich were deeply interested in problems of space and volume, and it is hardly surprising that in the mid-twenties each became concerned with architecture. Indeed Lissitzky once defined Proun as “the place for changing trains from painting to architecture.”

Third, and most important, Lissitzky and Malevich were idealists. Lissitzky agreed with Malevich’s belief that reality was perceivable only through the imagination and mind of the artist, since all else is illusory and reveals merely changing surface appearances. Hence Lissitzky turned to his experiments in a world of ideal forms. It was precisely this idealistic premise, however, that permitted Lissitzky to maintain his position in both the Constructivist and Suprematist camps. For if Tatlin and Rodchenko emphasized the material, “now” side of Communist thought, Lissitzky took up Communism’s visionary, utopian, ideal themes. Lissitzky then could justify his Prouns on practical, utilitarian grounds since their “application” to society would occur at some future date when technology could implement them.

But within this basic idealism Lissitzky and Malevich differed sharply. Malevich repeatedly cited the need to remove all superfluous elements from art:

Only when the habit of one’s consciousness to see in paintings bits of nature, madonnas, and shameless nudes has disappeared, shall we see a pure-painting composition.

. . . art, at the turn of the century, divested itself of the ballast of religious and political ideas which had been imposed upon it, and came into its own —attained, that is, the form suited to its intrinsic nature . . .

Malevich’s artistic testament, Suprematismus, die gegendstandlose Welt oder das befreite Nichts, continually defines and conceptualizes in negations. To the contrary, Lissitzky always remained positive and optimistic in his pronouncements, an attitude symbolized in the very meaning of Proun. If Malevich never stopped looking backward to determine what must still be excised from art, Lissitzky considered that the battle had been won and that the time was ripe to proceed “towards the new art.” This fundamentally forward-looking view led Lissitzky in 1921 to travel to western Europe where he began extensive activity among a number of artists and served as a main channel for the transference of the ideas of the Russian avant-garde to western artists.

It was characteristic of Lissitzky’s method to make preparatory sketches for his compositions, and one such sketch for Proun 99 is known. The grid with its graceful rhythmic patterns, the curved lines, and the cube (so designated for purposes of identification) appear here as well as in the finished work. Lacking in the sketch, however, are the vertical rectangle and the greater tonal variation of the cube and its tangent lines of Proun 99. As a result, the drawing contains little of the play on tangent forms of the completed painting, with a concurrent loss of optical fluctuation and ambiguity among its component elements. Similarly, the tonal treatment of the cube and the lack of emphasis given to its lower right quadrant, set against a plain background of the same tone, eliminate our doubt that this is indeed a cube. Noteworthy also is the absence of any variation in the length or the angles of the sides of the cube, thereby removing the possibility of multiple vantage points. AM the forms remain neatly balanced with one another, but how empty the sketch appears in comparison to the finished painting!

Though a preparatory work, there is no hint of spontaneity or indecision by the artist. The forms are precise, calculated, and wholly under Lissitzky’s control. This same feeling emerges when we compare other finished paintings to studies made for them as in Proun 67 and its studies. As we see in Proun 99, Lissitzky will introduce changes during this step-like progression to the final work, but he always reveals his ability to conceive of his compositions completely in his mind, without the need for extensive alterations or new calculations upon committing these ideas to paper or canvas.

In this regard let us examine some other preparatory drawings of Prouns. In the Stedelijk Museum’s Study for Proun I, we observe a pencil drawing of an unidentified Proun. The lines, drawn freehand without the aid of a straightedge, are placed on the paper with great care and precision. There is even a number of guide lines to insure the presence of regularity and order in the work. Few erasures are evident. The rectangular forms, with that typical play of contrasting diagonals, are bounded by two large ovals inscribed, once again, in the drawn-in frame. In a later stage of the same Proun, Lissitzky employs the straightedge to regularize the rectangles and frame, but the sides of the forms are now enriched by the pencil to suggest texture. In this drawing only small segments of the ovals appear, and these portions are rendered in an extremely fine, scarcely perceptible line.

For Proun G 7 we fortunately possess two preparatory sketches as well as the finished work. In all three, the oval and a group of geometrical forms at its center are present. But again we see Lissitzky repeatedly varying the basic theme. In the earliest example, the oval appears upon four rectangles that have seemingly broken apart from an original cross form. Superimposed on the oval is another form in the shape of a cross, which contrasts diagonally to the oval and rectangles and creates a highly dynamic composition. In the next stage Lissitzky reduces the superimposed cross to a single lateral extension issuing from the center of the oval. The cross remains, however, as a quadripartite division of the oval, now set against a semicircle to the right and a rectangle above. The dynamism of the earlier study is markedly reduced by two changes. First, Lissitzky has united the four rectangles so that the point where their axes intersect coincides with the center of the oval. Second, Lissitzky shifts the rectangles to the left. The spectator now observes that the location of a form in the lower left, rather than in the lower right, provides a convenient, straightforward means of arriving visually at the principal focus of the composition, the oval. All the forms harmonize together much more easily, providing an impression of relative stasis and calm.

The final version, as we might expect, retains ideas from both sketches. The rectangles of the first sketch regain their disjointed quality above and below the oval, while the rectangles to the left and right of the oval remain directly linked to the oval’s center. Proun G 7 retains from the second sketch the tonal contrasts of the fragmented oval, the extended rectangle with its pendent rectangular solid, the semicircle, and the rectangle at the top. Though the final version is closer to the second sketch, we can observe here Lissitzky’s careful balance of movement and suspension, of becoming and being, all concentrated around that focal point at the center of the oval.

Alan C. Birnholz

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NOTES

1. Sophie Lissitzky-Kiippers, El Lissitzky, Maler, Architekt, Typograf, Fotograf, Dresden, 1967, p. 12.

2. Chimen Abramsky, “El Lissitzky as Jewish Illuminator and Typographer,” Studio International, Vol. 172, No. 882, October 1966, p. 182.

3. L. Leering-van Moorsel, “The Typography of El Lissitzkv,” The Journal of Typographic Research, Vol. 2, No. 4, October 1968, p. 325. A similar analysis appears in Ewald Rathke, ’Malewitsch and die Konstruktive Malerei in den Ostlandern,’ in Frankfurter Kunstverein, Konstruktive Malerei 1915–1930, Frankfurt am Main, 1966, no pagination. Rathle cites Malevich’s “decisive” (entscheidend) influence on Lissitzky.

4. El Lissitzky, “New Russian Art,” Studio International, Vol. 176, No. 904, October 1968, p. 146.

5. El Lissitzky, “Der Suprematismus des Weltaufbaus,” in Sophie ca. 1922. Lissitzky-Küppers, p. 329.

6. Louis Lozowick, Modern Russian Art, New York, 1925, p. 35.

7. Lissitzky, “New Russian Art,” p. 148.

8. El Lissitzky, “The Electrical-Mechanical Spectacle,” Form, No. 3, December 15, 1966, p. 12.

9. Joost Baljeu, “The Problem of Reality with Suprematism, Constructivism, Proun, Neoplasticism and Elementarism,” The Lugano Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1965, pp. 105–128.

10. For example, George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880–1940. Harmondsworth, 1967, p. 204, stressing Lissitzky’s background as an architect. See also Dietrich Helms in Deutsche Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, Ausstellung Avant-garde Osteuropa 1910–1930, Berlin, 1967, p. 29.