This Day in Jewish History / Avant-garde Artist Who Loved Judaism and the USSR Dies

Russian-Jewish artist El Lissitzky straddled the worlds of modernist culture and Bolshevist Russia.

On December 30, 1941, the Russian-Jewish artist El Lissitzky died, in Moscow, at the age of 51. As a pioneer of the avant-garde, Lissitzky had extensive contacts with modernist colleagues in the West, even as he devoted much of his career to producing propaganda for the Soviet Union. On top of that, an important phase early in his career was focused on developing a new style of Jewish art.

Lazar (or, Eliezer) Markovich Lissitzky was born on November 23, 1890, in Pochinok, Russia, not far from the city of Smolensk, and he grew up in Vitebsk, Belarussia, some 150 kilometers to the west. His father was an enlightened and modern businessman who emigrated to the United States, and urged his wife and children to join him there. His mother was a strong-willed Orthodox Jewish woman, who, after consulting with her rabbi, told her husband he should come back to Russia.

In 1909, Lissitzky applied to study architecture in St. Petersburg, but was rejected, likely because the quota for Jewish students was filled. He went off to Darmstadt, Germany, instead, where he pursued the same field of study until 1914, when the start of World War I obligated his return to Russia. There, in the summers of 1915 and 1916, he was employed by S. Ansky’s Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society’s explorations of synagogues along the Dniepr River, in which he documented such artifacts as the 18th-century frescoes of the Mohilev synagogue. During the school year, he completed his degree in architecture, in Moscow.

By 1917, the czarist government had been overthrown, and the interim regime, as well as the Bolsheviks that succeeded it, not only allowed Jews to become full citizens, but also encouraged the development of Hebrew and Yiddish culture.

Thus, between 1918 and 1923, Lissitzky illustrated more than 30 children’s books in Hebrew and Yiddish, incorporating Jewish folk themes and modernist design. He published, for example, two illustrated versions of the Passover song “Had Gadya” and also provided artwork for the erotic Yiddish poem “Sikhes Khulin” (Idle Chatter).

In 1919, he headed back to Vitebsk at the invitation of Marc Chagall, who was cultural commissar for the city and directed an egalitarian art school. Lissitzky taught architecture and graphics, and continued working there even after Chagall was pushed out by Kazimir Malevich.

This is when Lissitzky changed his name to “El,” in homage to El Greco, and became involved in the Suprematist movement, which employed only geometric shapes and a limited color palette. In 1921, he set off for Berlin to act as a cultural attaché for the Bolshevik regime. He collaborated with a number of modernist artists, like Kurt Schwitters and Jean Arp, and architect Theo von Doesburg.

It was while in Germany that Lissitzky contracted tuberculosis, which killed him in 1941. He spent several years at a sanatorium in Switzerland, where, despite his illness, he worked vigorously the entire time. In 1925, when the Swiss would not renew his visa again, he returned to Moscow.

During his remaining years, Lissitzky was very involved doing work for the state, principally organizing Russian pavilions at various international exhibitions. As Joseph Stalin began to crack down on artists, Lissitzky remained creative in this capacity.

Lissitzky’s last work was a poster for the Soviet war effort, created after Nazi Germany declared war on the USSR, illustrated with the slogan, “Give Us More Tanks!”

He died on this date in Moscow, leaving behind his wife and collaborator, Sophie Kuupers, and their son, Jen, who was born in 1930.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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