Sigfried Giedion’s “Live Museum” (1929)

Translated from the German by Helene Aldwinckle

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

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

• • •

…The design of the abstract gallery in the museum in Hanover was entrusted by Alexander Dorner to El Lissitzky, who, in The Isms of Art, describes his own pictures as the ‘interchange station between painting and architecture.’ Lissitzky had already made one attempt to create a room specially for the display of [383] abstract paintings at the international exhibition at Dresden in 1926, though with more modest means at his disposal.

The surface of the walls appears insubstantial: vertical iron strips are ranged against them, standing dose together.  (In Dresden it was wooden slats).  Only 5 centimeters in width, these strips throw vertical clefts of shadow and dematerialize the wall to the point where it seems to dissolve completely.  You can still see today, in peasants’ houses in Catholic countries, pictures of the saints made out of painted glass strips which form and dissolve and form again as the viewer moves from one side of them to the other.  Perhaps unconsciously, Lissitzky has adopted this baroque practice and transferred it to abstract art.  On this irrational surface are hung the compositions of Lissitzky or Moholy, which can only reveal the life that is in them in this fluid atmosphere.

Periodically the sequence of strips is interrupted to display the calm, flat surfaces of the Dutchman, Mondrian, against a white or black background.  At the far end a movable black panel enables pictures by Picasso or Léger to be isolated and studied one by one.

Along the window wall the entrance of light is regulated by vertical strips of white cloth.  Drum-shaped glass panels, revolving on a horizontal axis, and pictures by Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters and others, are arranged in such a way that only one picture is visible at a time.  A mirror at the side permits a sculpture by Archipenko to be viewed from the front and the back simultaneously.

This gallery proves that museums need not be mausoleums; it all depends on the hand whose touch gives life to the material.

It is particularly important in Germany, where expressionism has been regarded as the new painting for such a long time, that for once a publicly owned institution should show itself aware of the age in which we live and should raise the whole complex of questions implicit in abstract painting…

Note: Not ‘abstract’ painting alone; the whole complex question of the new vision of our age is involved, from cubism to surrealism.  Paris recently saw the publication, by Jean Budry, of an important work by Ozenfant: Art.  In an extraordinarily convincing way it reveals the inner cohesion between these movements and life in general, by means of subtly selected photographic evidence.  We should also remember the work published last year by André Breton: La Peinture surréaliste.  Breton is the spokesman of the surrealist movement; it is a pity that his historic utterances are almost unreadable.  Finally we must not forget, in this context, Du Cubisme, the Bauhaus book by Picasso’s opposite number, Albert Gleizes.

[Abridged from Der Cicerone, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1929, pp. 105-106]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 24, 2010.

One Response to “Sigfried Giedion’s “Live Museum” (1929)”

  1. […] Giedion, Sigfried.  “Live Museum.”  Translated by Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers.  El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts. (Thames & […]

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