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El Lissitzky: Russian Constructivism

20 Feb 2017Personal Essays

Introduction

During the pre-war and progression of First World War, many principal theories of graphic design and communication were formulated in Holland, Germany and the Russian Soviet Union. According to Conway (1987), the developments of the Avant Garde movement and evolution of graphical design brought the language abstraction development, which was later applied in the field of design and architecture (144). The technical advances of graphic designs (e.g. Photogravure printing, colored printing, 16mm film techniques, etc.) brought sophistication among the designers of Soviet Union, especially the Darmstadt’s apprentice engineer – El Lissitzky.

Lazar Markovich Lissitzky – one of the famous Russian constructivists of the 20th century - was a Russian artist, designer, typographer, architect and co-founder of the constructivist movement. His contribution in these fields provided essential principles in the usage of modern materials, discarding of ornaments, structural and architectural engineering and geometric forms (Drain 41). Lissitsky was known for his early experimental designs called “Prouns” brought by the adjoined influence of Suprematist and Constructivist elements. Lissitsky’s graphical orientations reached the Russian Art Exhibition, Dadaist of Weimar, Broom’s American magazine, and eventually affected the field of constructivist designs (Spencer and Poynor, 70).

Discussion

Biographical Overview

The Russian born designer, Lissitzky (November 23, 1890 to December 30, 1941) spent his childhood in a Jewish community (Pochinok) located at Smolensk – the former Russian empire. Lissitzky studied architectural engineering at Germany – Technische Hochschule, Darmstadt – in 1909. During his years of career progression, Lissitzky was very much influenced by the discovery of Russian Constructivism in 1919 and height of Vladimir Tatlin’s popularity in the field of Russian avant-garde movement of 1920s (Spencer and Poynor 69). In the same year, a fellow Jewish artist appointed as the Commissioner of Artistic Affairs of Vitebsk – Marc Chagall – offered Lissitzky a teaching career at People’s Art School (1918) (Veidlinger 37). This significant event enabled the meeting of K. Malevich and E. Lissitzky, which eventually provided another influential figure for the arts of Lissitzky.

Associated with Malevich’s new trend of suprematism, Lissitzky developed his geometric-based designs with touch of constructivist concept. In the progress of Lissitzky’s career, he joined the Russian organization, UNOVIS, which was also involved in propaganda arts and other political campaigns (Shatskikh 83). During his stay in the organization, he developed his “Proun” concept derived from abstractism, Suprematist style’s of geometrics and spatial elements, and multiple perspectives. According to White (2003), prouns became the trademark of Lissitzky’s Suprematist version with 3-Dimensional concept, frank paintings and lithographic structures, which were utilized Jewish themes for its typography and visual foundations (92). Lissitzky was able to produce many artworks utilizing this constructivist style.

Russian Constructivism: El Lissitsky

Russian constructivism (prominent during 1817 to 1835) provided the idea of fundamental formality in the fields of architecture, applied arts and typography during 1920s (Ryan 8). The idea of constructivism design involves the complex angular characters of art, geometric abstraction and provides a great deal of social communication. According to Bach, Haynes and Smith (2007), constructivist designers, such as E. Lissitsky and K. Malevich, prefer to impose a graphical or architectural design with existing complexity of objects, events and meaning (80). Russian constructivist – E. Lissitzky – under the mentorship of Kazimir Malevich (1898 to 1935) has become the greatest influential figure in the field of constructivism due to his propaganda-oriented works, design abstractions, and fragmenting and scattering designs (e.g. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919; Kunstgewerbemuseum 1929, etc.).

According to Ryan (2001), Lissitzky produced new graphic vocabulary of his time through column rules, type, and geometric blocks of color and familiar diagonal axis related to visual tension (8). Constructivist designs began to be popular in area of visual communication and eventually became the new trends of posters, billboards and handbill designs. Russian constructivists were not entirely emphasizing the value of technicalities in their artworks, but most importantly, their focus was committed more in articulation of arts, science and technology that can impact social, political and economic dimensions of society (Kennedy 93). For these designers, Russian constructivist designs were tools to promote proletariat, propaganda and idealism, such as Russian communism (Watson 399).

Contribution in the Field of Constructivism

Lissitzky’s Prouns, Suprematist avant garde and Russian constructivist symbolic arts were the most influential concepts that he contributed in the field of graphical designs, typography and architecture. One of his most controversial works patterned to both Suprematist and Russian Constructivist was his propaganda art “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” (1919), which emphasized the Russian communist revolutionaries (reds) waging civil war against the monarchical conservatives (whites) who were against Bolshevik Revolution (Shatskikh, 217). Other similar works include his photomontage – Kunstgewerbemuseum in 1929 – illustrating the fused heads of a young man and woman with stamped USSR on their brows. According to Guffey (2006), the ideas behind these constructivist concept artworks were the symbolical visual messages of cold war and political disputes (134). Evidently, Lissitzky turned from the traditional Jewish art of Yiddish in order to concentrate more on his propaganda works depicting more prominently the essence of visual communication instead of technical beauty.

On the other hand, Lissitzky’s Proun works had also succeeded in improvising abstract and geometric-based visual language by utilizing spatial elements, axe shifts and 3D arts. Some of Lissitzky’s famous proun arts are (1) Proun 2C (1920), (2) Suprematist story of two squares in six constructions (1922), (3) Proun 12E (1923), and (4) Proun 99 (1925). Lissitzky’s famous, Suprematist story of two squares in six constructions, illustrates the cosmic version of the October Revolution including the basic plot of the story – establishment of world of chaos and analogue of the new revolutionary world order (Ryder and Wegmarshaus 77). Indeed, Proun arts of Lissitzky emphasized the idea of propaganda and social realism, instead of recreational arts.

Lissitzky’s contributions using his foundations of Russian constructivism also influenced different fields, such as graphic design, advertisement design and photography. One of his famous works in the field of Graphic design was his design for the futurist opera – Sieg uber die Sonne (Victory over the Sun) (1923), which comprised geometrical elements, 2-Dimensional lines and shapes and his conventional constructivist style (Shatskikh 173). Meanwhile, he also made significant contribution in the field of advertisements by using his proun arts, such as in the magazine covers of Broom and Veshch-Gegenstand-Object, as well as posters for the Pelikan Ink Company under Fritz Beindorff (White 92). Lastly, Lissitzky’s contribution in the field of photography had further its development, especially with his contemporary art and exhibitory photomontage. Lissitzky’s famous works include The Constructor (1925), which illustrated his self-portrait with notable proun-based designs, and his, Wolkenbügel (cloud iron), photomontage, which revealed 3D constructivist architectural design (Margolin 180).

Conclusion

In conclusion, the famous Russian Lazar Markovich Lissitzky a.k.a. E. Lissitzky had indeed influenced the 20th century trend of constructivism with his Suprematist-fused designs, graphic arts and proun style. Lissitzky, with other constructivist proponents, developed the trend of visual communication through propaganda arts in order to relate both arts and designs to the field of society and politics. Indeed, Lissitzky was a prominent influence in the field of constructivist’s symbolical arts utilizing spatial elements, geometric figures and visual meaning in order to lay down subliminal messages of political idealisms.

References

  • Bach, Shirley, Philip Haynes, and Jennfier Smith. Online Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. New York, U.S.A: McGraw-Hill International, 2007.
  • Conway, Hazel. Design History: A Students' Handbook. London, New York: Routledge, 1987.
  • Drain, Richard. Twentieth-century Theatre: A Sourcebook. London, New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • Guffey, Elizabeth E. Retro: The Culture of Revivalival. New York, U.S.A: Reaktion Books, 2006.
  • Kennedy, Dennis. Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth-century Performance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Margolin, Victor. The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917-1946. Chicago, U.S.A: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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