Understanding El Lissitzky

(December 9, 2020) El Lissitzky was not a Constructivist. His signature abstract compositions—Prouns—were what he termed the “interchange station between painting and architecture.” Inherently Constructivist in sentiment and design, Prouns were actually an outgrowth of Malevich’s Suprematism, who became EL’s mentor in 1919, displacing Chagall as head of the People’s Art School. In Malevich, he had found an artist who shared a passion for modernism steeped in principles of metaphysics and spirituality. But Malevich’s ideas were Orthodox in origin, especially in advocating for “sensations of feeling” in abstraction, much as Orthodoxy encouraged believers to experience with devotional Icons. This secularization of faith enabled EL to maintain a link to Judaism. From 1916-18, he worked alongside other artists in Narkompros developing a national Jewish style in Yiddish and Jewish book designs. The all-seeing eye of god whose omnipotence is enforced like a sword was carried over into EL’s self portrait of 1924, inscribed now within a hand that wields a protractor instead of sword, suffused in the polymathic environment of design, modernism’s Garden of Eden. He continued working on Jewish books during his abstract period, using motifs borrowed from Hebrew texts that he also embedded into designs for iconic secular magazines, like Veshsch. These references also emerged in collaborations with Jewish authors like Ilya Ehrenburg, into which EL collaged elements from religious texts by Maimonedes and once again invoked the symbol of the blessing hand, derived from the Kaballah’s concept of Infinity. Finally, Proun 43 became the first in a series of variations of compositions showing a human figure with the body of a protractor inscribed in a circle. Reminiscent of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, EL’s source was again the older Kabbalah. It is derived from the Sephirot Tree of Life, through whose emanations The Infinite reveals Itself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms. Man is inscribed at its center. Made at a time when EL was dying from tuberculosis, his connection of abstraction to spirituality is profound.