PRINT November 1969

El Lissitzky’s “Prouns”, Part II


LISSITZKY’S WORK ON THE Proun paintings extended from 1919 until early 1924. In several of the earlier paintings the tie to Malevich’s Suprematist works is very strong. For example, one Proun recalls Malevich by its pure colors and the rectangular forms that simultaneously operate in two- and three-dimensions, though now joined by a curving, graceful line. Proun 1 A, The Bridge, incorporates Malevich’s use of an increasingly nebulous or dissipating form to suggest movement into space, while the link of this Proun to the engineering sensibility of the Constructivists is emphasized by the title, the formal configuration, and the vector in the upper left indicating the direction in which the traversing structure will pivot. The economy and flat forms of Proun 88 occur as well in many Suprematist compositions, though the diagonal lines in Proun 88 may be interpreted as receding into depth. Finally, the cross form, so common in Malevich’s work, reappears in Lissitzky’s Proun Study of about 1920, although the repetition of the forms in a lighter tone indicates the movement of these elements and thus introduces time into the composition.

Indeed the basic features uniting all the Prouns are not only their formal vocabulary and composition, but specifically this question of movement. And again, as a reflection of the depth of Lissitzky’s imagination, we note the various means he uses to instill dynamism in the Prouns. In The Sphere, a number of asymmetrical forms counter the static quality of the composition. Interpenetrating Planes presents a highly dynamic interplay of forms through the total absence of any horizontal or vertical lines. Vigorous diagonal thrusts accentuated by heightened tonal and color values contribute to the dynamism of Proun 30 T, in a manner similar to the textural juxtapositions of Proun 1 E, The City. Proun 5 A contains many of the same forms as Proun 99, but the role of the frame as it cuts off forms, combined with a more exaggerated treatment of the sides of the cube, results in an extremely dynamic composition. Similarly the two curved lines, which balanced and restrained the cube in Proun 99, now define a smaller angle and converge to a single point, thereby further emphasizing the cube’s thrust toward the oval below.

To be sure, the Prouns vary greatly in their degree of success. In the Stedelijk’s Untitled Proun, the central forms do not work together with the linear scaffolding, and one is left with a rather disjointed number of forms. Proun 1, for all its formal and compositional ties to the other Prouns, impresses us as three separate groups of forms lacking any unifying device. This quality of dispersion and disunity may require us to consider Proun L. N. 31 Forms as basically unsuccessful. Such deficiencies, however, remain rare among the Prouns, with many Prouns, such as Proun P. 23 No. 6, possessing that marvelous balance and interaction of forms, harmonious spatial and surface design, dynamism, moderate use of color, economy, precision, and idealism. Yet such works formed only one part of the Proun program.


As an artist desiring a “universal” role for his work and one already familiar in his book illustrations with mass-produced compositions, Lissitzky issued, in 1921, the first of three series of Proun lithographs. This initial set contained eleven Prouns wholly in accord with the compositions already discussed. But like the other Prouns, a close analysis of some of the individual works provides us with a number of insights into Lissitzky’s concept of Proun.

Proun 1 E is noteworthy because in its title Lissitzky called it The City. Here the role of Proun as “the place for changing trains from painting to architecture” is made explicit. While the composition contains all the basic features of Proun, Lissitzky wants us to be particularly aware of its interpretation as an aerial view of the city of the future. Proun 1 E recalls Lissitzky’s training in architecture and his architectural designs of the mid-twenties as well as the similarly visionary plans conceived by Malevich in his “Architektona” or “Planits.”

When we turn to Proun 6 B, we are struck by the increased complexity of forms and by the circular field. The circle was seldom used by Lissitzky either within a composition or as a framing device. The placement of the dark circle in Proun 6 B away from the center of the composition underscores the rotating movement of the curved forms. This circular movement is then stimulated by Lissitzky’s inclusion of “π6B” twice, thereby inducing the spectator to turn the composition 90 degrees. This aspect of rotation also illustrates Lissitzky’s assertion that the Prouns contained no top or bottom, no left or right.

In 1923, following his successful participation in the “New Russian Art” exhibition held at the Kestner Society in Hanover, Lissitzky received a commission from that organization to prepare a set of lithographs to initiate the recently established series of Kestner-Mappen. The Kestner-Gesellschaft, the nucleus of an increasingly culturally active and avant-garde city reminiscent of the atmosphere Lissitzky had encountered in Darmstadt in 1909, provided Lissitzky with material and moral support for several years. In one Proun for this lithograph series, each line and form is repeated at a different angle and lighter in tonality, suggesting the passing of time through movement. The forms now overlap rather than remain tangent. This incorporation of overlapping introduces a sense of movement out of the picture plane and into the spectator’s space, as the configuration pivots on that single point on the supporting line. This dynamism is then sharply contrasted to the static qualities of another Proun in the series.

Also included in this series was one Proun that was in fact a multi-vantage point design of the Proun Room for the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1923. Thus at the lower right and at the far left appear the words “entrance” (Eingang) and “exit” (Ausgang) respectively. Although I will discuss the properties of the Proun Room later in relation to Lissitzky’s other work on exhibition spaces, one may observe here the implementation of Lissitzky’s belief that Proun could be expressed simultaneously in a wide range of media—in this case, either in a room with wall reliefs or in a lithograph. Considered solely as a Proun composition, however, this work lacks the internal cohesion and visual impact of the other Prouns in the series.

The success of the First Kestner-Mappe, combined with Lissitzky’s interest in the theater, led to a second set of lithographs for the Kestner Society completed in the summer of 1923. These ten color lithographs contained figure and set designs for Krutschonich’s Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun. Characteristic of Lissitzky, he had first worked on sketches for this subject while in Russia in 1920–1921, only to develop them thoroughly several years later. The opera itself held particular significance for Lissitzky, since Malevich’s first Suprematist composition formed part of the decoration for the 1913 premiere in St. Petersburg and since the subject of the opera dealt with man’s triumph over nature, a theme very close to Lissitzky’s idealistic, Communist beliefs.

This set of lithographs are quite similar to the other Prouns, although Lissitzky admitted in the preface to the series that “the text of the opera has forced me to instill in my figures something of the anatomy of the human body.” Certainly this “something” is rather minimal. Moreover, Lissitzky’s fundamental idealism rendered these designs, as Kenneth Frampton rather understatingly put it, “largely unrealizable.” All the plans in the Figurinenmappe bear a strong relationship to mechanized entities, a link wholly in accord with Lissitzky’s call for a fully electrical and mechanical theater. Interesting also is the title page, which contains a number of the forms appearing in the succeeding plates and the phrase, in a combination of German, French, English, Russian, and Italian words, whose translation is “everything is good that good begins and has no end.” The capricious mixture of languages and the quasi-banality of the statement itself immediately bring to mind Lissitzky’s association with the Berlin Dadaists. Could this Dadaist background explain Lissitzky’s willingness to play with the spectator’s sensibilities as he does in Proun 99? Not only does this view seem quite logical, but Lissitzky’s desire to affect the feelings of the spectator on a large scale contributed to his turning to the design of exhibition rooms in 1923.

The Proun Rooms, as the culmination of the Proun program, were considered by Lissitzky as “my most important work.” It was, of course, logical that the dynamic properties of the Proun paintings and lithographs would lead to the application of these concepts in a spatial context. Already in the highly influential “First Russian Art Exhibition,” held at the Van Diemen Gallery in Berlin in the winter of 1922–1923, Lissitzky had helped organize and direct the show, and for the Prouns he exhibited one critic termed Lissitzky “one of our most powerful talents.” Our concern at this time, however, involves the numerous innovations conceived by Lissitzky to permit “abstract art to do justice to its dynamic properties.”

The interest in the design of exhibitions had been close to Lissitzky since his student days in Darmstadt. There Olbrich pursued his desire to present the entire exhibition apparatus as a unified work of art through experiments in various formal patterns and in illumination. Lissitzky may also have been familiar with Leon Bakst’s plan for the exhibition of 18th-century Russian portraiture held in St. Petersburg in 1905. As Camilla Gray wrote of Bakst’s design, “. . . it was typical of the ideals of the ‘World of Art’ that even an exhibition should be presented as a dramatic unity” and she specifically linked this goal to Lissitzky’s work done two decades later. Lissitzky must have known the design by Tatlin and Yakoulov at the Café Pittoresque in Moscow in 1917 where “the pictures and space were to be welded together into a creative unity.” And lastly the Constructivist Manifesto of 1920 cited the “organization of exhibitions” as a primary task for the post-Revolution artists. Lissitzky’s earliest personal experience in museum planning occurred in Moscow in 1916, although his concepts at that time bore no new features.

Although there remains some question about the existence of a room planned solely by Lissitzky for the Van Diemen show, it is certain that Lissitzky’s first major endeavor in this field was the Proun Room at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1923. All six sides of the room were employed in the decorative scheme, with the colors reduced largely to black, grey, and white. The forms on the walls stimulated the spectator to a specific direction of movement. The ceiling bore a relief, and a grey square was planned for the floor to mark a static area from which the spectator would survey the entire room. The stress on the dynamic aspect of the room arose, Lissitzky later stated, because “we no longer desire space as a decorated coffin for our living bodies.” Furthermore, as Frampton points out, “Lissitzky attempted optically to destroy, through the agency of superimposed relief elements, the constraining walls of the given space and to create out of it a new Suprematist-elementarist entity.” Thus, the physical boundaries of the room were being de-materialized with a new spatial construct, dynamic rather than static, coming into existence. Whereas formerly the spectator’s mind and eye were guided by the forms and composition of a Proun, now his physical actions would be directed as well in order to bring him into a complete intellectual and physical contact with a number of works of art functioning as a single, powerful entity.

This format was expanded in Lissitzky’s designs for one room at the “International Art Exhibition” presented in Dresden in 1926 and for the “Abstrakte Kabinett” in the Hanover Landesmuseum completed in 1927. During his convalescence from tuberculosis in the winter of 1924–1925, Lissitzky devoted much thought to the whole question of exhibition design. It was not until Lissitzky’s future wife, Sophie Küppers, the widow of the director of the Kestner Society, brought the Prouns to the attention of the director of the Dresden Gallery that Lissitzky received a commission to plan one room for the exhibition. In both Dresden and Hanover Lissitzky enhanced the dynamic interplay between art work and spectator by placing a number of metal slats perpendicular to the wall. These slats, painted black on one side and white on the other and set against a grey wall, established a visually active background for the works attached to the walls and continued throughout the room the tonal contrasts so prominent in the Prouns. With each step taken by the spectator and the resulting different angle of vision, the entire visual configuration would vary and the room appear dynamic and alive. Moreover, this active relationship of the spectator to the works of art was increased by the presentation of the works themselves. Desirous of including a large number of art works without crowding them or having one impinge upon another, Lissitzky retained the traditional museum practice of “staggering,” but for purposes of clarity and order the vertically grouped works appeared behind a perforated sliding screen that simultaneously displayed one work while covering its counterpart. Thus the spectator, through his own physical actions, determined which works of art would be visible, without his attention being diverted by other paintings located nearby. Combined with the use of rotating showcases, mirrors, and carefully regulated lighting, the Dresden and Hanover rooms must have been a most stimulating experience. Finally, like the Proun Room in Berlin, Lissitzky’s desire to de-materialize the wall and to create a new space experience was fulfilled by the shadows cast by the slats. What we expect to be most “real,” the walls, are now breaking down, while by contrast the new reality of the Prouns and other abstract and non-objective art was made forcefully apparent.

Once again, an analysis of the changes Lissitzky made in the “Abstrakte Kabinett” proves illuminating. At Dresden the slats were seven centimeters wide and they were spaced at intervals also of seven centimeters. The slats in Hanover were both shorter in width (three centimeters) and placed at narrower intervals (two centimeters), thereby contributing to a more rapid change in the appearance of the walls as the spectator proceeded through the room. Also, unlike Dresden, the black, grey, and white sequence varied on each wall with the resulting added dynamism. The “Abstrakte Kabinett” employed too a greater number of rotating devices and revealed more freedom in the placement of the paintings and sculpture. The “Abstrakte Kabinett” fully satisfied both Lissitzky’s goal of a dynamic setting for the new art and the wishes of the progressive head of the museum, Dr. Alexander Dorner, for an exciting and informative experience for the spectator. The design made a tremendous impact as “the first room dedicated to abstract art in an official museum in the West” until it, like so much of Lissitzsky’s work, was destroyed by the Nazis in 1936 in their war against “Bolshevist art.”

Alan C. Birnholz