PRINT September 1972

El Lissitzky, The Avant-Garde, and The Russian Revolution

IN 1924 EL LISSITZKY PRODUCED a fascinating document on his status with respect to the postwar avant-garde and to the ongoing development of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Constructor (Self-Portrait), Fig. 1, attests to Lissitzky’s desire throughout the 1920s to create works of art that would take their place at the forefront of the modern movement while remaining faithful to the precept of an art relevant and meaningful to the masses. The work is filled with references to the contemporary ideal of the machine and the engineer, to the notion of the artist proceeding in an objective, scientific manner. Indeed, the use of photomontage in itself connotes Lissitzky’s desire to present himself as an avant-garde figure. The representation of Lissitzky as architect relates to the widespread avant-garde idea of architecture as the most important, most efficacious of the arts.1 The artist now becomes the zhiznostroitel or the constructor of the new way of life.2 In this way the self-portrait also tells us of Lissitzky’s adherence to the Revolution: the artist works actively to bring about the new order, with this quasi-divine role indicated by the halo drawn by the architect’s compass. These forms are then superimposed onto a background embodying the sense of dynamic change unleashed by the Revolution. Thus in The Constructor Lissitzky emerges as the avant-garde artist who remains identified with the goals of the October Revolution.

But further analysis raises doubts about this traditional interpretation. Lissitzky’s face is partially shrouded in darkness. The shoulders melt away into nothingness. The superimposition of the wrist above the nose results in a most disturbing ambiguity; The background lines, while dynamic, soon appear askew, unsettling. Most important, the gesture with which Lissitzky holds the compass, is at once an elegant, affected gesture—hardly in accord with the proletarian artist working for and with the masses—and an ineffectual one. The tool that the constructor uses to build the new order appears merely an effete symbol, not a practical implement. What has happened by 1924 to cause this development? How does The Constructor fit into Lissitzky’s other works in the 1920s?


THAT LISSITZKY ENTHUSIASTICALLY WELCOMED the Revolution is shown in his first major post-Revolution work, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge of 1919, Fig. 2. Lissitzky turned to the poster as an alternative to the bourgeois easel painting, capable of widespread dissemination. A red triangle, symbolizing the vigorous, assertive forces of the Revolution, breaks apart a lethargic counterrevolutionary white circle, as secondary skirmishes go on above and below. The meaning of these nonobjective forms is underscored by the words, placed on diagonals and varied in tone, color, and scale to enhance the overall dynamism of the composition. To be sure, Lissitzky hoped to create a poster truly universal in its intelligibility through the use of nonobjective forms. But Lissitzky also wanted Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge to take its place as an advanced, forward-looking composition as it builds on the formal vocabulary and compositional devices Lissitzky learned at this time from the originator of Suprematism, Kasimir Malevich.

Lissitzky first collaborated with Malevich at the Vitebsk UNOVIS, or Institute of New Art, in 1919. While continuing to work on the art of Suprematism, with its otherworldly, spiritual orientation, Malevich became involved in projects of a practical nature in service to the Revolution. Lissitzky’s introduction to the design of political posters was in likelihood stimulated by works like Malevich’s And What Have You Done for the Front?, Fig. 3. There is no question, however, that Lissitzky far surpassed Malevich in poster design by 1919. It is significant that Malevich’s composition, unlike Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, still depends primarily on words, rather than nonobjective forms, to convey its message. The geometrical forms remain on the periphery and have little more than a decorative role. In addition, Malevich’s typography is distinctly old-fashioned and he uses none of the changes in scale, tone, or diagonal motifs employed so skillfully by Lissitzky. It seems, in short, that Malevich simply does not have his heart and soul in forging an art of and for the Revolution. Lissitzky, to the contrary, consistently seeks an art both esthetically and politically advanced.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge also brings to mind Lissitzky’s work in Jewish illustrations begun in 1917. The phrase bei byelikh, “beat the Whites,” is strikingly evocative of a shout vivid to any Jew who had grown up in the Pale: bei zhidov, or “beat the Jews,” though “beat” is too weak and “Jews” too polite a translation. Lissitzky’s adaptation of this phrase for a poster in support of the Bolsheviks reflects his conviction that the Revolution marked a higher stage of social development than that of the Jewish Haskalah, or Enlightenment, of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For Lissitzky, the turn from Jewish themes to political works in support of the Bolsheviks was not a renunciation and rejection of his Jewish roots,3 but rather an affirmation of the Jews’ concern with the People and their hostility to the Czar. Lissitzky continued to deal with Jewish subjects until 1922, well into the period devoted to working out the concept of Proun.


THE PROUN COMPOSITIONS were intended—as we now come to expect—to take their place in the mainstream of contemporary art and to serve as a symbol of the Revolution. Derived from an acronym meaning “for the new art,” Proun built onto a Cubist-derived space a utopian construction of forms providing a glimpse into the world to emerge from the final denouement of the Revolution. Proun 99, Fig. 4, one of the most splendid Proun compositions, is organized primarily with respect to establishing an oscillation of two- and three-dimensional forms. The grid, for example, continually moves between a form projecting toward the spectator and one remaining parallel to the picture plane. The lines defining the grid also sway in an active, though gentler rhythm. The forms above are placed in a constant flux by our inability to determine their spatial interrelationships. The cube, held in a tenuous restraint by the curved lines, is slightly shorter in its lowest edge, as though seen tumbling through space. And most important, the “cube” soon reads as an open, three-sided form that pops back and forth in its spatial configuration. In this way, Lissitzky sought to reveal the ongoing dialectic of the Revolution and to evoke the coming of the Hegelian World-Spirit through the dynamism, and hence the dematerialization of the forms in the painting.4

Let me make two points about Proun 99. First, Lissitzky clearly adheres to the essential avant-garde idea of the artist at the vanguard of man’s progress leading the way to the future.5 Lissitzky believed that the revolution in art had preceded and foretold the revolution in social and political life.6 “On the Old Testament was erected the New Testament,” Lissitzky wrote in 1920. “On the New Testament was erected the Communist Testament. And finally on the Communist Testament was erected the Testament of Suprematism.”7 This heroic role of the artist would undergo increasingly severe challenges as the Soviet government’s attitude toward the arts hardened in the 1920s.

Second, the desire in Proun to create a wholly new means of expressing the future new order in Russia, to effect a tabula rasa, suggests ties between Lissitzky and the Dadaists. It has been suggested that the grid in Proun 99 may derive from Duchamp’s To Be Looked At (From the Other Side of the Glass) With One Eye, Close To, For Almost an Hour, Fig. 5.8 After arriving in Berlin in the winter of 1921–22, Lissitzky formed close friendships with many of the Dadaists. Lissitzky went to western Europe as a Kulturbotschafter of the Soviets and spent much time participating in artists’ congresses, lecturing, and setting up exhibitions as part of his mission to publicize the ideas and role of the Russian avant-garde. And it was in Germany that Lissitzky produced some of his most important works in service to modern art and to the Revolution.


IN THE PROUN WORKS Lissitzky was disturbed by the bourgeois implications of continuing to do easel paintings. Thus he soon turned to lithographs—and later to theater and exhibition design—as a means for making his art more readily available to the masses. It was in this spirit that Lissitzky published in 1922 the Story of Two Squares, a booklet first designed in Vitebsk in 1920. Undoubtedly the interest in treating a book as an esthetic entity recalled Lissitzky’s student days before the war in the heavily Jugendstil atmosphere of Darmstadt. With the Revolution, and the need to bring the meaning of the Revolution to the populace at large, Lissitzky turned to the pamphlet as a tool particularly well suited to this end. Typical of the first years after the Revolution, shortages of equipment and materials prevented Lissitzky from publishing the Story of Two Squares in Russia.

The layout of the booklet builds on the relationship of text and imagery of Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. The cover,9 for example, joins together the letters, number, and red square into a dynamic unity. The next page, which dedicates the Story of Two Squares “to all, all children,” relies on striking tonal shifts and the avoidance of the horizontal and vertical to generate its energy. Then, just before the story begins, Lissitzky tells the reader to take paper, blocks, and other equipment, “set them out, color, and construct.” That is, just as we are about to follow this parable of the Revolution Lissitzky reaffirms the Constructivist attitude toward making, or more correctly constructing, a work of art. In the following six pages, we follow “cinematically”10 the creation of the new order in the red square over the former black chaos. In the last on these pages, following the caption “there, it is finished,” Lissitzky added the word dalshe, “go on.” It is only when we turn the page once more that we understand the other meaning of the Story of Two Squares and the reason for Lissitzky’s earlier remarks on how to prepare a modern typographical design.

On this last page a red square appears above UNOVIS. At the Vitebsk UNOVIS, the red square was the emblem of the new art being created to correspond to the new society of Soviet Russia. The red square in the Story of Two Squares, then, is the coming of Communism but it is also the coming of the new art, now victorious over the bourgeois art of the past. As in Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, as in the Prouns, Lissitzky is able to produce an art work faithful both to the Revolution and to the New Art. It is only when we turn to Lissitzky’s work at mid-decade that this duality manifests the first indications of serious strain.


BY THE MIDDLE OF THE 1920s Lissitzky and other Russian artists were under growing pressure to produce work of a more practical nature. Tatlin began designing workers’ clothes and an oven. Malevich worked on the Architectonics. And Lissitzky in 1924 made his first ventures into architecture. The Lenin Rostrum, Fig. 6, first sketched out in Vitebsk in 1920 and completed after Lenin’s death in January 1924, incorporated the most modern technological apparatus to enhance the speaker’s impact over the masses. The skeletal framework erected on a soaring diagonal, the structure could move at the speaker’s command to emphasize a particularly important remark. His words could be amplified and projected onto a screen. To provide an indication of the rostrum in operation, Lissitzky photomontaged into his design Lenin speaking.

Similarly, in 1924 Lissitzky planned the Wolkenbugel (Cloud-Hanger) series, Fig. 7. Lissitzky envisioned these buildings—actually modernized propylaea—erected over the principal intersections in Moscow one would traverse on his way to the center of the Communist world in Red Square. Once more, Lissitzky complements his sketches with a photomontage of the building in situ. Though intended to underscore the here-and-now relevance of the Wolkenbugel, the photomontage merely reveals how utopian and idealistic the building truly was. The entire scene begins to take on a fundamental unreality—just as unreal as the dead Lenin lecturing the nonexistent crowds from an equally idealistic rostrum—that brings us back to our starting point, Lissitzky’s self-portrait of 1924. For there too we see Lissitzky resorting to photomontage as a medium well suited to conveying elements of reality within an overall unreal environment. By the middle ’20s Lissitzky was experiencing a crisis in the belief in his art’s relevance to the Soviet state. He now appears in The Constructor lost and impotent as the government increasingly forces on artists the necessity to focus on practical matters and to surrender the desire to function within the modern movement.


THIS CHANGE IN LISSITZKY becomes more evident once we examine his work of the second half of the 1920s. In these years Lissitzky was very concerned with the problem of exhibition design. Lissitzky had gone to Germany in 1921 to help set up the Erste Russische Kunstausstellung of 1922.11 In 1923 he designed the first Proun Room, installed at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung, as a space elaborating the new art of Proun and the new order in the USSR. These ideas on exhibition design culminated in the Abstrakte Kabinett for the Hanover Landesgalerie in 1927 and the Soviet pavilion at the International Press Exhibition held in Cologne the following year, Figs. 8, 9.

Since the Abstrakte Kabinett has become well known in recent years, a detailed description of it is not necessary. Lissitzky designed the room to place the spectator into an active physical, and hence intellectual, relationship with the works on display. The spectator was encouraged, indeed forced, to change the position of the works on the wall. Rotating vitrines required the spectator’s muscle if he were to follow the explanatory texts. The wall, built up of thin perpendicular slats (one side painted white, the other black against a gray surface), created a setting that changed with each step taken by the spectator. The result was a room designed to underscore the dynamism Lissitzky considered the essence of abstract art. But one significant change from his preceding work has occurred: the Abstrakte Kabinett does not invoke the Revolution as Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, the Story of Two Squares, the Prouns, and the architectural designs of 1924 had done. Instead, it is simply an environment for modern abstract art, in fact the first such room in a public museum in the West. The schism in art devoted to the Revolution and art devoted to the modern movement has now become complete.

Proof of this interpretation is amply evident in Lissitzky’s next exhibition design in Cologne in 1928. Here Lissitzky’s service to the Revolution is total. The highly dynamic displays, the bombastic effects place the spectator not into the sensation that all revolves around him as in the Abstrakte Kabinett, but instead into a state of insignificance as he is enveloped by forces wholly beyond his control. And Pressa, as the opposite of the Abstrakte Kabinett, no longer refers to the modern movement in art.

This dichotomy shows up also in Lissitzky’s writings of the late ’20s.12 In Russland, Die Rekonstruktion der Architektur in der Sowjetunion published in Vienna in 1930, Lissitzky is visionary, even utopian in his discussion of the first efforts at a Soviet architecture. But simultaneously, in Soviet periodicals, Lissitzky vehemently defends the developing concept of Social Realism. It is in this sense that Lissitzky does his well-known poster for the Russian exhibition in Zurich in 1929, Fig. 10. Though retaining a modern flavor in the juxtaposition of forms and the dynamic interplay of the figures, the poster is fundamentally different in attitude from his New Man of 1923, Fig. 11. This figure, built of a red star at its head and a red square at its body, is a universal, utopian concept, while the later work looks forward to Lissitzky’s involvement with Social Realism in the ’30s.

Lissitzky’s dilemma in marrying a political to an avant-garde art vividly recalls a similar difficulty among the Neo-lmpressionists. Paul Signac, in response to this problem, theorized

The subject does not matter, or at least is only one of the parts of the work of art, not more important than the other elements, colors, drawing, composition. When the eye of the proletariat is educated, the people will see in the paintings something else besides the subject.

And further

The anarchist painter is not he who does anarchist paintings but he who without caring for money, without desire for recompense, struggles with all his individuality against bourgeois and official conventions, basing his work on the eternal principles of beauty which are as simple as those of morality.13

But in the Soviet Union of the late ’20s such reasoning is no longer possible.14 Instead, to build on Signac’s assertions, the subject is of major importance, the Communist artist turns out Communist art, and those “internal principles of beauty” are damned as vestiges of bourgeois formalism. For Lissitzky, the dream is over. The red triangle heroically breaking apart the white circle in Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge reappears in 1924 in the mundane context of an advertisement for a typewriter ribbon (Fig. 12). It appears that Lissitzky recognized this situation in The Constructor of 1924.

Alan C. Birnholz



This article was first presented at the Smith College Kunstadter Lecture in April, 1972.

1. Typical is P. Novitsky’s assertion that “architecture is the art of our time, and all other fine arts . . . thrive only in so far as they succeed in fortifying their ties and relationship to architecture” (lnstitut lstorii lskusstvo Iz lstorii Sovietskoi Architekturi 1926–1932, Dokumenti i Materiali, Moscow, 1970, pp. 76–77).

2. For a discussion of the concept of the zhiznostroitel, see Alan C. Birnholz, “El Lissitzky’s Writings on Art,” Studio International, March, 1972, pp. 91–92 and Vieri Quilici, L’Archilettura del Costruttivismo, Bari, 1969, p. 394.

3. An analysis of the transition from the Jewish works to the Prouns appeared in Alan C. Birnholz, “‘For the New Art’: El Lissitzky’s Prouns,” Artforum, October, 1969, p. 66.

4. For Hegel’s influence on the Russian avant-garde, see Joost Baljeu, “The Problem of Reality with Suprematism. Constructivism, Proun, Neoplasticism, and Elementarism,” The Lugano Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1965, pp. 112–113; Andrew Higgens, “Art and Politics in the Russian Revolution,” Studio International, November, 1970, pp. 164–167; and Simon Pugh, “Towards a Minimal Art,” Studio International, January, 1972, pp. 23–25 and March, 1972, pp. 102–105.

5. Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, New York, 1971, pp. 68–74.

6. Birnholz, “Writings,” Studio International, March, 1972, p. 91.

7. El Lissitzky, “Der Suprematismus des Weltaufbaus,” in Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, El Lissitzky, Dresden, 1967, p. 330.

8. Alfred Barr, Cubism and Abstract Art, New York, 1936, p. 126.

9. A facsimile of tile Story of Two Squares is included in Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, El Lissitzky, figs. 80–91.

10. “ Filmartig” (Lissitzky in Preface to the Story ofTwo Squares in Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, El Lissitzky, opp. fig. 80).

11. Gabo recently commented on Lissitzky’s role in this exhibition in Studio International, November, 1971, p. 171.

12. See Birnholz, “Writings,” Studio International, March, 1972, pp. 91–92.

13. Quoted by Robert L. and Eugenia W. Herbert, “Artists and Anarchism: Unpublished letters of Pissarro, Signac, and Others,” Burlington Magazine, November, 1960, p. 479.

14. For an interesting discussion of the plight of the artist in post-Revolutionary periods see Leopold Labedz, “The Destiny of Writers in Revolutionary Movements,” Survey, Winter, 1972, pp. 8–46.