El Lissitzky (1890-1941), The Constructor, Self-portrait, c.1925. Photomontage.

Futurism as Defined by Two Lissitzky Portfolios and Twenty Prints

El Lissitzky (Russia, 1890-1941), Announcer, 1923, Collection of Fenner and Ina Milton, on loan to The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

El Lissitzky (Russia, 1890-1941), Globetrotter in Time, 1923, Collection of Fenner and Ina Milton, on loan to The Phillips
Collection, Washington, D.C.

El Lissitzky (Russia, 1890-1941), Proun (First Kestner portfolio) Number 4, 1923, Collection of Fenner and Ina Milton, on loan to The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.


Spencer Museum of Art
The University of Kansas
1301 Mississippi Street

South Balcony Gallery
El Lissitzky: Futurist Portfolios
February 2-May 18, 2008

The influential Russian abstract painter, designer, teacher and graphic artist, El (Lazar) Morduchovitch Lissitzky (1890-1941) was the first of his generation to visualize a new radical geometry of space and movement that blurred the boundaries of architecture, painting, and typography.

This exhibition features two complete sets of El Lissitzky’s futuristic portfolios commissioned by the Kestner Society in 1923, 20 prints in all. His Proun (the Latin acronym for “design for the confirmation of the new”) portfolio was intended as a prototype for future mechanical and architectural designs while Victory over the Sun commemorates Kasimir Malevich’s 1913 futurist opera of the same name. Among the greatest achievements in the graphic arts of the 20th century, these portfolios served to establish Lissitzky’s reputation as a master of modern design.

Between 1923 and 1928, El Lissitzky transformed his Prouns into a three dimensional experience, building so-called “abstract rooms.” Lissitzky’s visionary designs for wall-sized abstractions will inspire the design and installation of a Proun room at each venue of the exhibition. Thanks to the careful study and interpretation of contemporary artist Hideyo Okamura, who will paint and construct his designs on site, visitors will be able to experience the gravity-defying sensation of El Lissitzky’s geometric shapes and linear vectors wrapping around corners and launching to the ceiling.

Lissitzky was born on November 23, 1890 in Pochinok, a small Jewish community 50 km southeast of Smolensk, former Russian Empire. During his childhood, he lived and studied in the city of Vitebsk, now part of Belarus, and later spent 10 years in Smolensk living with his grandparents and attending the Smolensk Grammar School. Always expressing an interest and talent in drawing, he started to receive instruction at the age of 13 from Jehuda Pen, a local Jewish artist, and by the time he was 15 began teaching students himself. In 1909, he applied to an art academy in Petersburg, but was rejected. While he passed the entrance exam and was qualified, the law under the Tsarist regime only allowed a limited number of Jewish students to attend Russian schools and universities.

Like many other Jews living in the Russian Empire at the time, Lissitzky went to study in Germany. He left the Russian Empire the same year to study architecture and engineering at a Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, Germany. During the summer of 1912, Lissitzky, in his own words, "wandered through Europe", spending time in Paris and covering 1200 km on foot in Italy, teaching himself about fine art and sketching architecture and landscapes that interested him.[3] In the same year, some of his pieces were included for the first time in an exhibit by the St. Petersburg Artists Union; a notable first step for Lissitzky. He remained in Germany until the outbreak of World War I, when he was forced to return home along with many of his countrymen, including other expatriate artists born in the former Russian Empire, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. He was heavily influenced by Vladimir Tatlin and his discovery of Constructivism.

After the war, he went to Moscow and attended the Polytechnic Institute of Riga, which had been evacuated to Moscow because of the war. He received an architectural diploma from the school and immediately started assistant work at various architectural firms. During this work, he took an active and passionate interest in Jewish culture that, after the downfall of the openly anti-semitic Tsarist regime, was flourishing and experiencing a renaissance at the time. The new Provisional Government repealed a decree that prohibited the printing of Hebrew letters and that barred Jews from citizenship. Thus Lissitzky soon devoted himself to Jewish art, exhibiting works by local Jewish artists, traveling to Mahilyow to study the traditional architecture and ornaments of old synagogues, and illustrating many Yiddish children's books. These books were Lissitzky's first major foray in book design, a field that he would greatly innovate during his career.

His first designs appeared in the 1917 book Sihas hulin: Eyne fun di geshikhten (An Everyday Conversation), where he incorporated Hebrew letters with a distinctly Art nouveau flair. His next book was a visual retelling of the traditional Jewish Passover song Had gadya (One Goat), in which Lissitzky showcased a typographic device that he would often return to in later designs. In the book, Lissitzky integrated letters with images through a system of color coding that matched the color of the characters in the story with the word referring to them. In the designs for the final page (pictured right), Lissitzky depicts the mighty "hand of God" slaying the angel of death, who wears the tsar's crown. This representation links the redemption of the Jews with the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. Visual representations of the hand of God would recur in numerous pieces throughout his entire career, most notably with his 1925 photomontage self-portrait The Constructor, which prominently featured the hand.

El Lissitzky: Futurist Portfolios is organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Proun G7, 1923, Distemper, tempera, varnish and pencil on canvas, 77 x 62 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf.