El Lissitzky spent part of his youth in Vitebsk, where at age 13 he met Yehudah Pen at Pen’s art school, which Marc Chagall also attended. Refused entrance into the Academy of Art in Saint Petersburg (most likely because of the Jewish quota), in 1909, El Lissitzky entered the Darmstadt Technische Hochschule. He traveled widely in Europe, creating drawings that he later reworked. In 1914, he returned to Russia, where with the artist Yisakhar Rybak he participated in the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society’s expeditions in the summers of 1915 and 1916, exploring synagogues along the Dniepr River and collecting Jewish artifacts. El Lissitzky made fine drawings of frescoes from the eighteenth-century Mohilev synagogue, which were later published with his Reminiscences (1923) in the early Jewish art journals Milgroym (Yiddish) and Rimon (Hebrew), both meaning pomegranate. These drawings were intended both to prove the existence of and to preserve Jewish folk art, as well as to provide—in imitation of the Russian Mir Iskusstva movement and Cubo-Futurist modernism—the basis for a modern Jewish style.
El Lissitzky’s first important work appeared in 1917, in the form of illustrations for Moyshe Broderzon’s Sikhes khulin (Profane [Idle] Chatter), a whimsical Yiddish erotic poem. Conceiving each page as an integrated whole, El Lissitzky surrounded classic double columns of Hebrew script with stroke-based figures derived from the ornamental style of Jewish folk art. Although each leaf is different, the illustration complements the text, hastening or retarding the narrative as needed. He also added pools of saturated color over black strokes. The text was rolled like a scroll and boxed like a mezuzah. This work represents the first modern Jewish art book, fusing Hebrew scribal tradition with modernist stylized archaizing figure and line. In 1917, El Lissitzky took part in the first exhibition of Jewish artists held in Moscow. In 1918, he joined the fine arts section of the Educational Commissariat of the Bolshevik government, illustrating Yiddish and Hebrew books for children until 1923. His drawings for Mani Leyb’s Yingl tsingl khvat (The Mischievous Boy; 1918–1919) alternated Hebrew letters with animal forms and the printed verse. This so-called Jewish style made him much sought after as an illustrator, with his work appearing in 30 different Jewish publications from 1918 to 1923.
El Lissitzky’s colored lithographic volume of the traditional Passover song “Khad gadye” (One Kid; 1919)—a reworking of earlier watercolors dating from 1917–1918—marked his last innovation as a participant in the Jewish art renaissance. These 10 illustrations share a common page design, always divided into three parts. At the top is a Hebrew letter as a numeral in animal form. In the middle section there is a Jugendstil domed frame with a key Aramaic verse in Yiddish, below which is a flat, figural illustration consisting of curvilinear lines with distinct areas of color, nonrealistic scale, and an imaginative handling of pictorial space (e.g., a firebird bigger than a church; people flying about); the composition, asymmetrical and on a diagonal axis, constantly seeks to achieve a dynamic sense of movement. At the bottom of the page, one finds the original Aramaic opening words. Some see this work as supporting the Bolshevik cause in its handling of the traditional text by means of the illustrations; the color symbolism and imagery tends to support this view.
In 1919, Mark Chagall hired El Lissitzky to teach graphic arts at the Vitebsk Art Academy. With the arrival of Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, influenced by the former’s Suprematism, began his celebrated abstract series of drawings and lithographs, which he named Prouns (Project for the Affirmation of the New; 1919–1923). This radical aesthetic and intellectual redirection did not signal a break with his Jewish milieu, however. He relinquished Chagallian ideas of representation and the attempt to create a Jewish national style and instead embraced Suprematist art as a new means of interpreting reality. In 1919–1920, El Lissitzky participated in the art shows of Unovis (Suprematist collective), producing the masterful abstract poster Klinom krasnym bei belykh! (Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge), a play on the anti-Semitic slur “Beat the Jews!” He moved to Moscow in 1920 and joined the Institute of Artistic Culture, becoming an adherent of Constructivism. In Berlin in 1922, he and the Soviet Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg cofounded the journal Veshch / Object / Gegenstand, devoted to Constructivist issues. He also illustrated Ehrenburg’s volume Shest’ povestei o legkikh kontsakh (Six Stories with Easy Endings; 1922). Notable is Shifs karta (Ship [Immigration] Pass) with its modernist photocollage, shaped like a Star of David and consisting of a selection from the Mishnah, a temple diagram, an American flag, a black hand pressing down, and on the palm the Hebrew letters “pe” and “nun,” the traditional po nikbar (here rests) found on Jewish tombstones. The collage suggests the end of Jewish wandering as well as the persistence of traditional Jewish beliefs.
El Lissitzky continued to publish on Jewish themes, contributing an article on the new art in Ringen (1922), a Polish Yiddish journal, as well as a description of the Mohilev synagogue frescoes in the journal Milgroym. Using Suprematist style, he also illustrated Leyb Kvitko’s Yiddish translations of Ukrainian and White Russian folktales (1923). El Lissitzky participated in the International Dada Congress held in Düsseldorf in 1922, published an article on his Prouns in the journal De Stijl the same year, and visited the Bauhaus in Weimar. Around this time, he designed Vladimir Mayakovsky’s volume Dlia golosa (For the Voice; 1923), using new abstract Constructivist design and typography, as well as creating the design for a Proun room at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition. In 1924, he worked with Kurt Schwitters on the magazine MERZ and joined Jean Arp in creating the volume Die Kunstismen (The Isms of Art; 1925). These productive years in Berlin, when he moved in the most advanced artistic circles, were not devoid of Jewish contacts, as Berlin in the early 1920s was a center of Jewish cultural activity. A number of Dadaist and Bauhaus members based in that city (e.g., Arp, László Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray) shared the same historical roots as Ehrenburg and El Lissitzky; all were cosmopolitan Jews or Jewish cosmopolitans.
In 1925, El Lissitzky returned to Moscow. His designs in 1926 for the Room for Constructivist Art at the International Art Show in Dresden cemented his fame as a cutting-edge artist and designer. Beginning in 1926, he produced works for Soviet trade exhibitions and propaganda shows. These included integrated display rooms that fused his interest in architecture, photomontage, photocollage, typography, and posters in the most advanced Constructivist style based on his unique designs. The absence of any Jewish connection in El Lisstzky’s life after 1926 suggests that he followed the lead of others in adapting to changing Soviet realities. Ill health led to his untimely death in 1941. El Lissitzky’s Jewish Period Catalogue Raisonné is currently being prepared by the El Lissitzky Foundation and will be published in 2015 by the M.T. Abraham Foundation.
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