Ernő Kállai’s “El Lissitzky” (1924)

Translated from the German by Helene Aldwinckle

and Mary Whittall.  From Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts.

(Thames & Hudson.  New York, NY: 1980).

• • •

…Lissitzky took this step and created the Proun, as his constructions on the plane of a picture were called, as reliefs, as independent, functional shapes.  The desire to find objects which should be recognized as parts of real life, contributing to its organization, drove him to strictly practical, exact, structural creation, to complex forms which could appear before the world unbroken, objective, complete.  Not with the feeling of pleasure aroused by experiences of the senses, the nerves or the soul, but with the clear-sighted, energetic, planned activity of the will that demands boundless expansion and the conquest of space.  The suprematist Malevich got rid of all the hindrances to expansion in space.  His liberating frenzy splintered in a whirling dance of small and very small units of planimetric form and pure color.  Lissitzky gathers the splinters together and subjects them to the compelling necessity of his objective imagination.  He does not lose himself in the illusion of boundless space offered by the smooth surface of the painting, but spans, transcends, traverses this space, carried along by the dynamism of his constructions.

These startling combinations of forms reveal a fanatical obsession with the marvels of modern technology.  [381] The colors: uncompromising white, grey, black.  The steely, incisive precision of their execution and outline shows how deeply felt they are.  The tense alertness the white-hot concentration of a racing-driver pilot sends intensively worked surfaces hurtling through a dizzy system of diagonals, broad, sweeping curves and sharp bends.  And again and again, like a victorious banner, a symbol of the craziest exuberance of movement, the bright red of a single square or triangle flashes over the boundless racetracks, airfields and building-sites of the rational, practical will.

But wait: fanatical objectivity, fantastic reality, limitless definition – it all sounds like romanticism in disguise, and that’s exactly what it is.  ‘Create objects’ is Lissitzky’s demand, and then he paints complex shapes which look like objects, but are immediately recognizable as figments of the imagination.  It is true that in the system of objects expounded in his artistic manifesto Lissitzky includes every kind of human artifact, paintings and poems as well.  But unless he wants objects, in the specific modern sense, to be lumped together with museum oil-paintings and statues of forgotten generals, he cannot be allowed to suppose that the objectivity of the new art simply lies in a new variety of formalism.  He must give the word ‘object’ a real, concrete, functional meaning, which will distinguish between it and all means to aesthetic pleasure.  The next stage, logically, in demanding objects of this kind would be ‘Create real objects for use: chairs, houses, machines.’ But Lissitzky does not want to compete with engineers and builders.  He denounces what he calls this ‘primitive utilitarianism.’ So what he’s after is an aesthetic, after all.  A modern, practical aesthetic, paraphrasing what is technically useful and intellectually calculated, but all the same a free and individual kind of beauty.  In order to resolve this inner contradiction, the ‘objects’ painted by Lissitzky become the fictive constructions of Active mechanisms.  Modernist representations of technical Utopias.  Pictures, whose plasticity and spaciousness are illusory effects created by the criss-cross intersection of surfaces.

Fortunately, however, artists are not judged by the logical soundness of their theories and programs, but by the quality of the forms they produce.  And in Lissitzky’s case they deserve the greatest respect.  The spatial, formal and tonal equilibrium of his Prouns, the significance of their rhythmic composition, and their total effect, make them indisputably the greatest achievements of constructivism.  Moreover the artist’s more recent works are taking on an increasingly pictorial surface quality.  The complexes of plastic, objective layers are opening and spreading outwards.  The fictive, technical naturalism is giving way to the formal rules of a purer pictorial conception.

Lissitzky’s work is thus seen to be entering a new, artistically freer phase; but there is an earlier work which deserves to be considered as the complete answer to a specific functional challenge.  In his Vitebsk studio, which was a kind of preparatory school for the new architecture, Lissitzky made a model speaker’s podium.  The static potentialities of the concrete, the dynamic adaptability of the iron framework are exploited here to what must be the utmost extent.  The whole rostrum, with ‘Proletarians’ in colossal letters, is the purest embodiment of revolutionary agitation, a soaring gesture, a superb diagonal comparable only with that of the jib of a giant crane.

Another free construction in actual space is the relief which Lissitzky created as a continuous unit formed by the walls and the room they enclosed at the ‘juryless exhibition’ in Berlin in 1923.  The successful union of painted surfaces and relief was particularly remarkable.

All the same, what we are dealing with here is a certain slight confusion of real, aesthetic, constructional motives with fictive, utilitarian ones.  This dichotomy is stronger and more disturbing in the work of some typographers, whose intricate, idiosyncratic typographical rhythm detracts from the clarity and legibility of the text.  But there are also some pages where the artistic arrangement of the words emphasizes, clarifies and underlines what is important in the content.  This kind of typography and the attempts to produce artistically valid designs by purely mechanical manipulation of normal printing techniques (e.g.  the use of screens), justify Lissitzky’s modern practicality and utilitarian [382] intelligence as a thoroughly positive talent, which will overcome all the dangers of its romantic aesthetic.

[Abridged from De Cicerone, vol. 6, no. 22, November 1922, pp.  1058, 1063]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 24, 2010.

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