Jewish Journal

Lissitsky’s Intersectionality

by Milad Doroudian

September 2, 2014 | 1:52 pm

Cover of the 1922 book Teyashim. El Lissitzky. Public Domain

Can geometry and colour be the only elements that can make up art? The truth is that aesthetics is a truly difficult thing to understand, especially when it is directed towards the fostering of pure artistic feeling. Suprematism, as we have come to know it was first introduced by Malevich whose Socialist rhetoric found a well meaning place within the ever changing world of modern art in the early 1920’s. Yet, not so many people know that El Lissitzky, a Jew, also played a substantial role to its foundation.

Lissitzky who first took part in the world of artistry by designing the art in Jewish children’s books, as a means to sustain himself, held true to the goal oriented formation of art. In other words the belief that it had a sustained meaning regardless of form or medium. This is perhaps why he later worked on numerous Soviet propaganda posters, although in his own way, still with the sheer purpose of simple purpose, as was/is the traditional tenet of utilitarian Socialism.

Born in 1890, in Polchinok, Smolensk his childhood was normal for that of a child who grew up in a Eastern European shtetl. He was an industrious and bright adolescent, in fact to the extent that by the age of 15 he was already teaching others. Yet, his precocity and ability to to draw had forced a desire in him to study at the prestigious art academy of St. Petersburg- something which he almost achieved. Although he had passed his exam and had met the necessary requirements the academy turned him away because they would only accept a certain number of students.

There was only one choice: to leave.

Similar to many Jewish and non-Jewish artists from Russia, Lissitzky traveled to Germany in order to be able to gain an education in the less anti-semitic setting of pre-1914 Germany. Incidentally, a place where art was found in much more open medium, and better said, a place where it could expand freely without the long reach of government autocracy.

Germany was a harbour of free artistry, yet also a place where one could create ties with other artists interested in the same movements, styles and means. For instance, it was a place where El Lissitsky formed close ties with famous people such as Marc Chagall. Yet the prospects of Germany did not last long, as the Russian Revolution yielded the return of many artist to their original homes, as the brief freedom given to artistry in the early 1920’ s allowed many to express themselves as they did in Germany.

Lenin Tribune,1920, El Lissitzky. Public Domain

It was in Vibstek amid his friend and tutor, Malevich, that Lissitky shed his ongoing obsession with cubism and primitivism to fully devote himself to the ideals, and perhaps more importantly, the aesthetics of suprematism. He and Malevich formed a team for the course of 3 years, where they continued to expand, work on and devote their time to the development of geometrical shapes within the warped space of the canvass. Yet, even this like many things, did not last for too long.

After El Lissitzky chose his own path away from Malevich’s increasing concentration on substance, rather than purpose, he began to develop his own specialization, or rather his own take on suprematism: Proun. Despite the odd name, it was a riveting exploration of visual and geometric shapes amid abstract forms and colours- one which at times played provocative tricks on the eyes of the viewer. Perhaps what is not surprising is that in many of his pieces he would occasionally insert, either in plain sight, or subtly, numerous Jewish symbols and even motifs.

When one looks at Lissitzky's works it is hard not to question the meaning or purpose of geometric shapes filled with contrasting colors, yet the truth is that his ‘narrative’, if we could even call it so, on the canvass is a thought-provoking message, or rather refutation, of our perceived ideas of space and time. To view his canvasses is to ask ourselves whether there truly is a line between fine art and science, or whether it is a socially constructed ideal. Science and reason tell us that such visual placements seem impossible, yet in Lissitzky's world their reality is absolute, regardless of how much they befuddle the viewer.

Perhaps Lizzistky was trying to cross the thin line between science and art. In fact I would go a step farther and suggest that his art was an expression of intersectionality. In other words a place where the disciplines of humanity diverge, from Yiddish culture to pure trigonometry.

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Milad Doroudian is a history student at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He is currently working on a book on the Jassy Pogrom of 1941, and is an active...

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