El Lissitzky (1890-1941)
The Russian artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941) was one of the great avant-garde figures of the early twentieth century. The Getty Research Institute holds a remarkable array of materials on Lissitzky, including book and periodical designs, his complete correspondence to his wife, Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, photographs of his exhibition designs, his two personal address books, and additional manuscripts related to his life and work.
The exhibition "Monuments of the Future": Designs by El Lissitzky, which was on display at the Getty Research Institute from November 21, 1998 through February 21, 1999, explored Lissitzky's career as a typographer, book designer, and architect. This Web site takes its inspiration from the design of the exhibition and shows most of the materials that were on display, grouped according to their original sections. In addition, the Web site links to related holdings on Lissitzky and Russian modernism in the Getty Research Library and in other museums and archives.
Lissitzky's career was deeply marked by the social and political upheavals of the early twentieth century. He consistently sought to create bold and powerful artwork that would further the causes in which he believed.
As a young artist, Lissitzky aided the movement to revive Russian Jewish culture, studying the architecture and ornaments of old synagogues and illustrating Yiddish books. His lifelong engagement with abstract art began in early 1920, soon after he met the artist Kazimir Malevich. Upon settling in Berlin in 1921, Lissitzky was inspired by the utopian dream of internationalism to embark on a quest for a pictorial vocabulary that would be universal. In his later years, Lissitzky spoke of a self-imposed social mission, which required that he align his artistic aims with the goals of the Soviet state.
Lissitzky's art displays his ongoing absorption not only in higher causes but also with particular visual images and artistic mediums. For example, the image of the disembodied hand first appears in Lissitzky's work as the hand of God in a book illustration of 1919; it returns as the hand of the artist in the Constructor (Self-Portrait) of 1924, in his advertisements for Pelikan Ink, and in later Stalinist designs. Letters--Hebrew, Cyrillic, or Latin--feature prominently in his book designs, lithographic portfolios, and Soviet exhibition spaces, serving both as architectural elements and as visual symbols. The book as a dynamic object is a theme that Lissitzky sounds repeatedly. "In contrast to the old monumental art," he notes, "[the book] itself goes to the people, and does not stand like a cathedral in one place waiting for someone to approach."
Lissitzky regarded the book as a "unity of acoustics and optics" that requires the viewer's active involvement, and, more than any other medium, he found in the book his "monument of the future."