Ernő Kállai’s “Lissitzky” (1922)
Translated from the German by Helene Aldwinckle
and Mary Whittall. From Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts.
(Thames & Hudson. New York, NY: 1980).
• • •
We have lost the sense of union with nature and of a supernatural religion. The energies which direct our paths are scientifically and technically oriented, organized according to rational principles. This may be regarded as a tragic or a satisfactory state of affairs. For an art which does not wish to remain a fiction but to justify itself in the actual circumstances of our civilization, it creates the need, not to insinuate itself subconsciously or metaphysically, but to display intellectual clarity and discipline in its creative attitudes, to symbolize, not organic growth, but abstract construction.
The first, firm shoots of constructivism are already to be seen in the works of Cézanne, though still overshadowed by the organic growths of nature. The cubists promoted it from a position of secondary importance and made it the guiding principle of their work. But they draped the unity of abstract, spatial energies with a multiplicity of forms, radical enough in their intellectual transformation of nature, but still providing illustrations of an external reality, mechanical though this often was. But the intellect which still managed to assert itself, in spite of this compromise, is a power capable of giving new shape to the world and to life; its characteristic fecundity will only become effective when it attains complete self-sufficiency. Released from social anarchy and the obscure fermentation of psychosis, the man of the future, whose lucid, energetic intellect already radiates from the works of cubism, is still an embryo today, a single living cell, simple, elemental, but with incalculable potentialities for the coming historical objectivization. For that very reason he must in no circumstances get entangled in the contradictory, contaminated toils of present-day relativity, the patchwork of half-hearted half-truths called reality. He must keep away from its representation. He must not and cannot have anything in common with it, even if it were to be completely changed in style.
Intellectual man freed himself from the areas and objects of present reality which resisted the development of his essential being. He became a suprematist, went back to the fundamental elements of his own spatial objectivization, the elementary forms of geometry. The work of the Russian suprematists consists of paintings of surfaces, without representational significance, without perspective effects. The suprematist is satisfied with the consciousness of the material restrictions of his picture and of his own spiritual contrast to the natural world of appearances, formed by the play of homogeneous shades in two dimensions. Of course, this restriction means a severe limitation of artistic potentialities, a truly modest existence. But in the scattered squares, circles and straight lines of the suprematists there lies the possibility of a creative conjunction. The suprematists held in their hands the bricks for a new building. All that was needed was the start of a total activity, to construct from the loose elements a solid, complex unit of form, to make intellectual art embody life in its greatest amplitude. This was brought about by Lissitzky’s Proun.
The new objectivity was in no sense an approximation, at however great a remove, of abstract form to a given reality. That would have been a reversion to cubism, a renunciation of constructivist activity. Lissitzky’s Proun, on the contrary, is utmost tension, violent jettisoning. A new world of objects is in the process of being built. Space is filled by all possible variant physical forms of a constant energy. They are very much synthesized, but down to the last details they are strictly subject to the central, unifying law of their structure. This structure is multi-dimensional. Thrusting sharply into space on all sides, it contains layers and strata, diametrical opposites thoroughly intertwined, held in a state of tension, and drawn into the tightly-knit complex of components, which cut across, embrace, support, and resist each other. Numerous projections, incisions, and gradations in all directions help the physical, defined nature of the form to set. All the dialectical wealth available to the creation of form is concentrated on objective synthesis, definition, and clarification. The space outside the object is only there to provide a standard of metallic sharpness and clarity which gives to the space of the picture the uninhibited, energetic potential of an architect’s plan. From this ground plan the axes move outwards, inwards in depth, diagonally vertically and horizontally, and determine the position of suprematism’s surface elements, from which the formal structure of the object is built up by stages. And since the object must justify itself in every direction and area of the space as an independent, significant reality, its construction must appear meaningful and alive from all sides. Floating unsupported in the middle of a limitless open space, the picture, hitherto only pictorial, is stripped of all limitations, and all the traditional methods of architectonic adjustment are overthrown. The tectonic values of Proun, its essential state of being a pictorial relief, made in part of metals, its tendency towards an outward movement of form into actual space, do not make it analogous to frescoes or mosaics. It is a preparation for a new synthesis of real and illusionist methods of creating space, the realization of which will go hand in hand with modern technical work problems.
Proun’s determination to achieve spiritual independence and objective reality was bound to find its way to technology by its intellectual nature. Proun is the product of a creative power of mathematical and technical exactness. Obviously, it can be related to an airman’s sensation of space. Concentric circles bore down m narrowing shafts, allowing the eve to travel, swift and sure as an arrow, across a space whose freedom extends far beyond all bounds of terrestrial gravity. The diagonals of a spider’s web of razor-sharp, straight lines strive to reach the tip of a Utopian antenna or wireless mast. A technical planetary system keeps its balance, describes elliptical paths or sends elongated constructions with fixed wings out into the distance, airplanes of infinity. Their coloring moves between black and white in shades of intellectual, realistic gray, in which suddenly a single intense red explodes. The living, artistic kernel of the construction opens. What are mere utilitarian purposes beside this overflowing energy and dynamism? What are arid, rational considerations beside the wild, baroque tempo of these lines, not spirals but straight lines, precipices, intersections and collisions crashing through all the barriers of the familiar and the static? Lissitzky says himself, in his introduction to Proun, that this is not an attempt to compete with engineers. Proun should be more than a purely technical sensation.
[From Das Kunstblatt, vol. 6, no. 1, 1922]