El Lissitzky in the Light of the Modernist Movement

El (Lazar Markovich) Lissitzky (1890–1941) was a Russian avant-garde artist and polymath who left behind him a profound impact on the world of art and design. His revolutionary and radical notions of visual concepts were considered a breakthrough and helped to shape graphic design as we know it today. This essay will explore Lissitzky’s works and will consider the place and function of them in the history of art and design within the context of Modernism theories.

Fig-01 Smokestacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1890s © Bettmann/ CORBIS (Source: khanacademy.org)

Modernism and the advances of technology

By the end of the 19th century and at the outset of 20th century, the implications of the Industrial Revolution were demonstrated by the rapid growth of urban cities and transportation. This growth had lead to major technological advances and some profound social, economic, and political changes in the western world. Some of the consequences of these changes were reflected in new socioeconomics that had divided the inhabitants into classes of wealth and poverty.

Aware of those changes, and with the belief that previous notions of art and design that were expressed through mere decoration and ornamented artifacts were no longer a reflection of that new industrialization era and its society, designers and artists of that time sought out to find new ways in order to manifest their work, and thus to reject the past in favor of a futuristic utilitarian design and art. Practitioners were attracted by the power of the machines and embraced the innovative technologies. For some, the machines represented the future, and they saw an opportunity in them to develop new abstract forms of expression that could help fulfill their utopian wish to change the world to be a better place (Wilk 2006).

Fig-02 Pablo Picasso, Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle, 1914. (Source: tate.org.uk)

Radical movements started to emerge out of these explorations. They were quite new and different from previous movements to a great extent that they were considered to be a ahead of their times and ‘modern’, hence this collection of notions has received the global name of ‘Modernism’.

Modernists concepts were often presented and combined with social and political beliefs, and argued that design and art could and should be used as a vehicle to convey substantial messages to change society and humankind. The Dutch artist Theo Van Doesburg has described Modernists artists, which he refer to as the “new artists”, as critical figures in society that adds “new values for life” (Wilk 2006: 149).

Elazar Markovich Lissitzky (1890–1941)

One of those practitioners who sought to promote a utopian change through art and design was the Russian born avant-garde designer, painter, and artist — El Lissitzky.

Fig-03 Elazar Markovich Lissitzky (Source: theartstory.org)

Born as Elazar Markovich Lissitzky in Pochinok town and then later grew up in Vitebsk, Lissitizky left Russia in 1909 at the age of nineteen as a consequence of being rejected by the Petrograd Academy of Arts. He then moved instead to Germany and studied architecture at the Darmstadr school of engineering and architecture Technische Hochschule. World War I outbreak forced Lissitzky to return to Moscow, Russia in 1914. Upon his return to Russia, Lissiztky continued his architectural studies and by 1916 received his diploma from the Riga Technological University in Moscow.

Suprematism and the Russian avant-garde

In 1919, Lissitzky was invited by the Russian-French artist Mark Chagall to come join the faculty at the art school in Vitebsk which Chagall was the principle of. It is there where Lissitzky encounter Kasimir Malevich, a teacher at the school in those days.

Fig-04 Kazimir Malevich, Black Square 1915. (Source: tretyakovgallery.ru)

Lissitzky’s meeting with Malevich initiated his interest in Suprematism,
an abstract form of art developed by Malevich in which through the
simplification of visual forms into basic geometric shapes and colors
attempted to portray spiritual concepts. Malevich began his
development of Suprematism while experimenting and looking for a
‘non-objective’ form of art that could respond to the elitist illusionistic forms of art of the Russian upper- class of those days. He believed that the basic shapes and colors helped depict and convey morality and purity through their simplicity and abstract.

In his work Black Square (Fig-3) with literally nothing but a black square shape painted on the canvas, Malevich has made an artistic statement that the abstraction is the window into the spiritual or as Dr. Aleksandra Shatskikh has described it in her lecture: Black Square: Malevich and the Origin of Suprematism: “what we see is not important, what we think is important”. According to Dr. Shatskikh, Malevich proposed a new forth dimension of art, the ‘spiritual’, that through it the abstract represent a profound meaning (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research 2014).

Constructivism — The Artist as an Engineer

Lissitzky admired Malevich work and was fascinated by the concept of suprematism and started experimenting with it in his own body of work PROUN, an acronym for “Proekti Utvarzhdenia
Novovo” (Project for the affirmation of the new) which was a series of lithographs of visual explorations (Fig-4). The Suprematism symbolized a “new world” to Lissitzky. However, he refer to his work PROUN as “corrective movement”, as it organized architecturally Malevich’s Suprematism space, (FORGÁCS, E. 1999).

Fig-05 El Lissitzky Proun 19D, 1920 or 1921. (Source: moma.org)

In his graphic work for the book Of Two Squares in 1920 (Fig-05), Lissitzky use Malevich Black Square as a symbol to his new take on Suprematism, and by that oppose Malevich despite his admiration of him (FORGÁCS, E. 1999).

Fig-06 El Lissitzky, Study for a page of the book “Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions” 1920 (Source: moma.org)

Lissitzky background in architecture is obvious in his works as he treat the picture frame as a space to skillfully organize the two dimensional visual elements. To close this gap between the spiritual of the Suprematism and the concepts of constructed space and hierarchy, Lissitzky incorporated another avant- garde movement, the Constructivism.

Developed at the beginning of the 19th century at Russia, Constructivism was a movement that manifested the role of the artist and designer as constructor, or engineer. Constructivists argued that designers must treat their work like a functional tool of expression and meaning. They admired the machines and new industrial materials, and saw some sort of perfection in them and thus rejected hand made artifacts.In his writing, Lissitzky more than once refer to “The artist as engineer” or constructor. Moreover, he repeatedly refer to mathematics and draw the relationship between the two. Lissiztky compared the abstract of the modern mathematics and modern art by demonstrating their abstraction, and detachment from the concrete (Levinger, E. 1989) (Levinger, E. 1989).

Fig-07 El Lissitzky, Klinom krasnym bej belych, 1919–1920 (Source: vanabbemuseum.nl/)

The conjunction of Suprematism and Constructivism movements helped Lissitzky build the ground for his future projects in which he wished to make a political and social sound in his work that will lead to fulfilling his nobel wish to change society.

Turmoil of political event

Lissitzky observed how his country was divided and in turmoil of political events after World War I, which escalated in the Russian Revolution in 1917. When Czar Nicholas II (1868–1918) and his family were executed, the country was devastated by the civil war and the Bolshevik’s Red Army had its victory in 1920. Lissitzky, to show his support in the Red Army and communism, created a propaganda poster named — “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge”, 1919–1920 (Fig-06). His message, which is simplified into simple shapes and colors that represent the opposing forces, red and white, make Lissitzky’s work so powerful and simple that it could be understood even by peasants of that time. In this work he has combined between the spiritual ‘non-objective’ elements of design from Suprematism with his architectural skills and inspiration from Constructivism by orchestrating and organizing the visual elements in rhythm and dynamism as though they were real objects in space (Meggs 2011–2012).

Lissitzky embraced the use of abstract concepts to communicate social ethics and amendment of society, and had a profound influence on future movements such as the Dutch group De Stijl, and the Bauhaus school of design and art. His unconventional theories continued to challenge traditions and push the boundaries of design and art even after his death in December 30, 1941 at Moscow, Russia.


It is hard to imagine the world of graphic design without Lissitzky’s profound contribution to it. Kasimir Malevich might be considered as the one who released art from its archaic past and gave it the forth dimension of the spiritual abstract realm, however it is Lissitzky who brought it back down to earth into logic and reason, and turn it into a functional visual communication tool to deliver messages and convey concrete ideas. With his architectural knowledge and background, Lissitzky questioned and broke familiar art traditions and transmitted the physical space into the canvas paving new paths for future designers and artists to explore and develop. Design and art are forms of communications, and with each era we face new problems to solve. The Modernists were the ones to dare, question, and explore those new ways and tools. More than anything else, Lissitizky and the Modernists were the pioneers to pave our ways.


Fig-01 Fig-01 Smokestacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1890s © Bettmann/CORBIS
[Online Image] Available at:
https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/big-history-project/acceleration/bhp-acceleration/a/the- industrial-revolution [Accessed Aug 13, 2016]
Fig-02 Pablo Picasso, Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle, 1914. 920 x 730 mm, Oil on canvas. National Gallery 1997© Succession Picasso/DACS 2002
[Online Image] Available at:
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/picasso-bowl-of-fruit-violin-and-bottle-l01895 [Accessed Aug 6, 2016]
Fig-03 Elazar Markovich Lissitzky
[Online Image] Available at:
http://www.theartstory.org/artist-lissitzky-el-artworks.htm [Accessed Aug 9, 2016]
Fig-04 Kazimir Malevich, Black Square 1915. 79,5 х 79,5, oil on canvas. The State Tretyakov Gallery [Online Image] Available at: http://
www.tretyakovgallery.ru/en/collection/_show/image/_id/378 [Accessed Aug 8, 2016]
Fig-05 El Lissitzky Proun 19D, 1920 or 1921. 38 3/8 x 38 1/4" (97.5 x 97.2 cm), Gesso, oil, varnish, crayon, colored papers, sandpaper, graph paper, cardboard, metallic paint, and metal foil on plywood. Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, The Museum of Modern Art [Online Image] Available at:
http://www.moma.org/rails4/collection/works/79040?locale=en [Accessed Aug 8, 2016]
Fig-06 El Lissitzky, Study for a page of the book “Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions”, 1920. 10 1/8 x 8" (25.7 x 20.3 cm), Watercolor and pencil on board. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, The Museum of Modern Art.
[Online Image] Available at:
http://www.moma.org/collection/works/37650?locale=en [Accessed Aug 13, 2016]
Fig-07 El Lissitzky, Klinom krasnym bej belych, 1919–1920. 48,8 x 69,2 cm 61,2 x 77,3 x 3,1 cm (incl. lijst), Offset on paper, The Van Abbemuseum The Netherlands.
[Online image] Available at:
http://vanabbemuseum.nl/en/collection-and-context/details/collectie/?tx_dresolr_pi%5Bsend %5D=repeat&tx_dresolr_pi%5Bfield%5D%5Bsearch%5D=Lissitzky%2C%20El&tx_dresolr_pi%5BuidField %5D=CCIDENTIFIER&tx_dresolr_pi%5BuidValue%5D=C617&tx_dresolr_pi[field][search]=El%20Lissitzky [Accessed 4 April, 2016]
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https://global.britannica.com/biography/El-Lissitzky FORGÁCS, E. 1999, “MALEVICH, LISSITZKY, AND THE CULTURE OF THE FUTURE”, The Structurist, vol. 39, pp. 50.
Levinger, E. 1989, “Art and Mathematics in the Thought of El Lissitzky: His Relationship to Suprematism and Constructivism”,Leonardo, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 227–236.
Meggs, P.B. & Purvis, A.W. 2011;2012;, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, 5th;5. Aufl.;5; edn, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken. P298
“Russian Revolution of 1917”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 08 Aug. 2016
Russian Civil War. 2016. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 07 August, 2016, from
https://global.britannica.com/event/Russian-Civil- War
Wilk, C. 2006, Modernism: designing a new world, 1914–1939, V&A, London

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