Beyond the Abstract Cabinet

Margarita Tupitsyn: El Lissitzky. Beyond the Abstract Cabinet. With essays by Matthew Drutt and Ulrich Pohlmann. New Haven-Hanover: Yale University Press and the Sprengel Museum, 1999.

Accompanying the traveling exhibition of Lissitzky’s photographic work, which was curated by Tupitsyn at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and the Fondacao de Serralves in Porto, this book attempts to give a scholarly overview of Lissitzkyís career. It includes three essays authored by Tupitsyn, Matthew Drutt, and Ulrich Pohlmann, and a section titled “Archive,” which, as it features photos from Lissitzky’s private archive, is a valuable contribution to the Lissitzky image. Although this selection does not make reference to the total number of documents that Lissitzky treasured, it does contain photograms by Man Ray and Georgy Zimin, works by Klucis, posters designs and film stills by Dziga Vertov, and photos of Soviet life which could have been used in USSR in Construction. A selection of Lissitzky’s correspondence with his wife, mostly from the year 1935 (which was omitted from Sophie Lissitzky-Küpper’s 1967 book) has also been translated and included, although, as is the case for the pieces from the archive, without information on the total number of letters from this period, or on the editors’ considerations concerning this selection. These letters are very personal, and they reveal Lissitzky’s connections with Berija, Ezhova, and Mikojan –which is probably why Küppers chose not to publish them. The book is illustrated with numerous photographs by Lissitzky, as well as with some of his contemporaries.

The core text of the book is Tupitsyn’s essay “Back to Moscow.” It is a survey of Lissitzky’s Soviet career, from the 1927 “All Union Printing Trades Exhibition” –his first exhibition design– to the 1928 “Pressa”. This survey includes reference to his interest in film and photo, his friendship with Dziga Vertov, his Soviet propaganda album designs, and finally, his work for the Soviet propaganda publication USSR in Construction. Among Lissitzky scholars, there is a need for more solid information on Lissitzky’s role in post-revolutionary Russia. There is still some obscurity about his 1921 trip to Germany, leaving some of his statements and activities there open to different interpretations. For the want of hard facts it is generally agreed that NARKOMPROS delegated him as a kind of cultural activist, and that the publication of Vieshch was paid for by the Soviet State. Peter Nisbet, however, argues that just because the editors were paid in Rubles instead of the then ailing Reichsmark, it does not necessarily mean that they were on Soviet payroll. But it is not clear whether at this time Lissitzky was a state bureaucrat, or, and if so, to what extent, a private citizen and artist. Mistrust arose already during his stay in Germany. For example, Moholy-Nagy wrote a letter to Rodchenko on December 18, 1923, in which he remarked: “We lack the cooperation of our Russian friends (who live in Russia). We are not a hundred percent sure that the statements of the here well-known Lissitzky and Gabo are relevant with regard to all Russian artists.”1 But again, mistrust could have emerged out of the personal rivalry between Moholy and Lissitzky that is amply documented in both artists’ letters. Tupitsyn, however, sticks to the standard “Lissitzky went to Berlin by the end of 1921 to disseminate fully articulated theories of Suprematism and Constructivism and to boost Soviet-German cultural contacts…” (p.25). The latter part of the statement may be the truth, but judging from the Russian cultural politicians’ attitude towards suprematists and constructivists in 1921, and the proportionally small number of such works in the official 1922 Russian exhibition in Berlin, this political intention is at least questionable. Also, Lissitzky had a deliberately personal take on both Suprematism and Constructivism –the latter is discussed in detail by Christina Lodder in Russian Constructivism.

Another debatable statement is that Lissitzky, once he had to leave Switzerland, was ready to leave the West altogether, being increasingly dissatisfied with it (p. 25). He may have had such thoughts, and he did confide such ideas to Sophie Küppers, but the problem was much more complex than that and he was ambivalent about leaving, to say the least. In a series of letters written in 1924, he repeatedly asked Sophie to help him get disentangled from the bureaucratic cobweb and correspond with the German and Swiss consulates in order to extend the validity of his visa. In a letter from October 16, 1924, he confessed to her that he did not want to leave his doctor, Franconi, whom he trusted, and that in fact he did not feel at all comfortable leaving: “Habe mich hier schon eingelebt, ein paar sympathische Leute gefunden.” (Have gotten used to living here, have met a few nice people.)2

Lissitzky’s photos, photograms, and exhibition design works –always the result of cooperation with other artists and designers– often raise questions of authorship, some of which Tupitsyn addresses. Sometimes, however, she resolves to guesses rather than evidence, often concerning what appear to me unimportant questions. Tupitsyn brings Lissitzkyís fragile health into focus and contends that although he was trained as an architect, he “often turned to other media because of his weak health, which kept him from projects that demanded high energy and physical endurance.” (p.25, n.3). Yet Lissitzky had already turned to other media long before he contracted tuberculosis: he had painted, designed and illustrated books, and made posters. Moreover, he participated in a number of architectural contests after his return to Moscow, which tells us of his desire to do architectural work even after being weakened by his illness. Tupitsyn points out that a Josef Albers photo, taken at the Bauhaus, portrayed him “sitting on a chair with a camera on his lap, obviously exhausted from having taken some pictures” (p.41), and that he was too weak to shoot from any other angle than the “belly-button level”. Having created the impression of a weak Lissitzky who is not able to take photos but from eye-level, Tupitsyn claims that all those pictures using different angles were taken by someone else. For instance, according to Tupitsyn, the photos of Sophie’s two sons that were taken from a high vantage point are not likely to be Lissitzky’s (p.41). Considering how small a movement is needed to tilt a camera I am inclined to dismiss this consideration. With regard to the Albers photo, one has to be contented with a less interpretative approach: all it actually shows is Lissitzky sitting on a chair in the sunshine with a camera in his hand. And as to the photos of the two boys –private, unsigned family pictures that they are, they do not necessarily raise the issue of authorship –they could have easily been taken from a window or a balcony. The issue of Lissitzky’s health gains more weight when it comes to his medical treatment and stay in a sanatorium, which Tupitsyn aptly points out: “If you do a good job for us, we will put you up in Abastuman for a year,” Berija told him (p. 223). Of course, such a possibility could mean the difference between life and death for Lissitzky.

Lissitzky’s rise to the position of chief designer at the All-Union Printing Trade Exhibition and his subsequent cooperation with other artists in different exhibition projects raise another question, namely that of the obscurity surrounding Lissitzky’s actual position among the artists of the Soviet Avant-Garde. It is not easy to see how Lissitzky connected, if at all, with the various groups and circles –both friendly and professional– of his peers, although it would be important to gain more clarity concerning his collaborative works. For example, how did he connect to the constructivists? How was his relationship to Rodchenko and Stepanova, or what was the reason for their distance?

During the years when the primary relationships between artists were being formed, Lissitzky was abroad. After his return to Russia he got involved in the cause of the Jewish cultural renaissance movement, and hardly made any appearance outside it. So upon reading that “Lissitzky was a close friend of Kruchenikh,” one is eager to learn more, or at least get a hint at what the author means by “close friendship” (p.29). There is a playful photo of Kruchenikh holding Lissitzky’s Victory Over the Sun portfolio, but one would like to know more about this relationship, and see evidence of it apart from just one picture (p. 30). Was it a personal friendship? Is there any evidence of shared ideas? In the pre-revolutionary years, Kruchenikh, Khlebnikov, Matyushin, and Malevich were united by anarchist and futurist ideas, which Lissitzky never shared. We hardly know about any personal relationship between Lissitzky and other Russian artists, although the artist circles were close-knit groups based on solidarity, closeness of thought, and personal friendship. Neither Lissitzky’s oscillation between Malevich and Constructivism, UNOVIS and INkHUK, nor his pronounced criticism of Tatlin’s Tower3 and the bitter words of Klucis, quoted from one of his letters, help much in positioning Lissitzky among his colleagues (p.36). In the light of this, it is hard to assess Tupitsyn’s suggestion that is based on excerpts of a 1921 speech: “Had Lissitzky remained in the Soviet Union, he most likely would have followed this far left course of cultural politics and joined the camp of the Productivists” (p. 30). It is equally hard to accept Tupitsyn’s final question: “What kind of artist would he have been, had he not gotten sick in 1923?” There is, in fact, no telling what would have happened, if….

Tupitsyn rightly points out the increasingly important role that Sophie Küppers played in the late Lissitzky album designs, particularly in the Food Industry album, and she remarks interestingly on Küppers’ Western ideas of advertisement which, due to her participation, infiltrated this album. Although the book’s title promises to focus on Lissitzky’s career “beyond the Abstract Cabinet” that is, on the years after 1927, Matthew Drutt covers “El Lissitzky in Germany 1922-1925” in an essay aimed at a more general public. Drutt gives a very simplistic overview of Lissitzky’s career, mentioning his “increasing attention to typographic projects” in 1921, but at the same time ignoring the artist’s experiences with book design between 1916 and 1919, when working on Bolshakov’s volume and the Yiddish books (p. 10). Drutt refers to Ehrenburg’s “affiliation with the Scythians,” a group of Berlin intellectuals “who supported the revolution but opposed bolshevism,” and who published the journal Vieshch, but he does not tell that the Scythians were appalled by Vieshch, and discontinued its publication (p.10). Ehrenburg writes in his memoirs: “How foreign the ideas propagated by us on Constructivism must have seemed to revolutionary Slavophiles and folksy incorrigibles. They already gave it up after the first issue and publicly ‘disclaimed’ us.”4 It is also stunning that the author, the editors, and even the prestigious publishers overlooked such regularly repeated mistakes as Van Doesburg’s name misspelled as “Doesberg” every time it occurs, the name of László Péri appearing as “Peris,” or the journal “G” referred to as a “Dutch constructivist periodical”, whereas it was edited by Hans Richter and, in various periods, by El Lissitzky himself, Mies Van der Rohe, Werner Graeff and Friedrich Kiesler in Berlin between 1923 and 1926. In fact, the title “G,” with the subtitle “Zeitschrift für elementare Gestaltung,” originated from Lissitzky who had a notorious liking for acronyms.

The most interesting essay of the book is Ulrich Pohlmann’s study on the effect of Lissitzky’s exhibition designs. Pohlmann reveals the strikingly plain truth about the Soviet propaganda exhibitions’ primary connection with Italian and German fascist propaganda shows. The photomontage-frieze, first put to use by Lissitzky as “the power of agitation, propaganda tool,” to quote a critic, was equally suitable as a propaganda tool for other totalitarian states (p.56). According to Pohlmann, the 1932 Mostra della Rivoluziona Fascista in Rome and several national socialist exhibitions in Berlin between 1933 and 1937 show that the exact same methods used to prejudice the visitors in favor of Communism also functioned to prejudice them in favor of a fascist party (p.59). Moreover, he points out that early national Socialist ideology, just as early Soviet propaganda, “bathed in an aura of modernity,” a purpose that was well served by the employment of the former Bauhaus artist and designer Herbert Bayer (p.61).

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