Traugott Schakher’s “El Lissitzky” (1928)
Our souls seek the land of the Russians: we feel our way with cautious enjoyment through the work of El Lissitzky…Lenin is making a speech. As far as the eye can see the proletariat is massed outside the Kremlin. A map of Russia is unrolled. It is lost behind tables of statistics. October 25 1917 is hammered into us as the ‘Great Day of the Soviets.’ Again and again and again. Over there is a poster for the Red Army and not far from it is an advertisement by the artist for Pelikan ink. This is the strange mixture in Lissitzky’s work of Russian and German, mercantilism and communism. Amid all that is strange we recognize a lot that is familiar. And then we learn that Lissitzky played a decisive part in the formative struggles of the Dessau Bauhaus, that he designed the gallery for abstract painting in the Hanover museum, that he was responsible for the artistic side of the USSR pavilion at the Pressa exhibition and for the Polygraphic Exhibition in Moscow. Lissitzky does not specialize; his work includes design, painting and three-dimensional art. All of it reveals intellect and a conscious will rather than instinct and inspiration; compared with more typical representatives of the Russian spirit, Lissitzky is not really very Russian at all, but more of a modern Pan-European. His self-portrait bears this out (pl. 118). The hand which projects from the brain between his eyes and forehead is that of an intellectual. The hand is holding a pair of compasses. In the top left-hand corner are the letters XYZ. The Y is intersected by the thin arc of a circle. The background consists of a sheet of paper with a pattern of squares drawn on it. The pattern extends over the face too. The forehead and cheeks are covered with thin vertical and horizontal lines. Or is it that the lines have spread from the face on to the paper? Whichever it is, we can see, on and around the face with its fascinating eyes and pointed nose squares, rectangles and a triangle even, thrown into relief by half-tone shading. XYZ. For the artist the Last Things are no more than three letters of the alphabet, and dispassionately he draws the circle of his experiences through the middle of them. The character of this self-portrait is one of cool calculating reflection bound up with geometrical mysticism. The artist is not above using photography to serve his ends; indeed he is plausibly supposed to be the inventor of photomontage. But an additional achievement is the use of power transmission for advertising. There is a good deal of the propagandist in his art and one of its fundamental traits is rhythmic repetition: he even makes an artistic principle out of the mirror image, as in October Poem and his constructions.
The art of our time has moved from the representational to the abstract and from the abstract back to the representational. The artist’s brush is condemned as either too representational or too abstract. It is being replaced by the T-square, compasses, setsquare and protractor, which are squeezing out the natural play of the free hand. And then suddenly constructivism itself is not enough. Only photography can meet the demands of objectivity. What are we to make of an art like this, which is as rough and gentle, as mystical and material, as seductive and alienating as the world we live in? We might perhaps call it impoverished and inimical to the human spirit, but for the fact that it includes revelations like the marvelous cosmic puzzle of Proun 1919.
[Abridged from Gebrauchsgraphik, Vol. 5, No. 12, 1928]