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El lissitsky: on the side of faith: Joseph Masheck discover remnants of faith in Russian Constructivist art.

Today all who believe in anything good may seem to be allied against everybody who thinks that belief as such is irrelevant or at worst a dangerous impediment to the circulation of money as the sole freedom and sole value. (The 'marketplace of ideas', vulgar enough as a principle, was once a significant metaphor; but now all metaphor counts as foul). In art we are used to distinguishing between the ethical, the moral, the spiritual, the religious; but we who care about such things now find ourselves huddled together against the pressure to disallow all non-monetary values.

In the paper which I composed at the kind invitation of the trustees at this year's ACE conference, I addressed '"Convictions of things not seen": A change from Suprematism to Constructivism in Russian revolutionary art'; and the present text is an extended excerpt of that, dealing with a project in painting and a contemporary theoretical text by El Lissitzky (1890-1941), the uniquely gifted disciple of the founder of 'Suprematist' abstract or non-objective painting, Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) whose Suprematist Painting: White on White, of 1918, a very intuitive set-up of a 'nonsquare' skewed within a literally square field, is a classic example. In 1919, while directing the art school at Vitebsk, Malevich and his younger colleague set up 'UNOVIS' (acronym for Champions of the New Art), to take Suprematism, as a new form of painting radically dependent upon discriminating intuition, evangelically 'out there.'

There is interest in Lissitzky's Jewish children's book illustration as a sentimental ethnic attachment which most aspiring Modernists would feel obliged to give up, though this work proves oddly compatible with the artist's Modernist graphic design. Likewise, I think, the younger Lissitzky also remained loyal not only to the basic artistic principles but also to the elevated artistic attitude of his teacher, even as he became a first-generation Constructivist, aware that confessedly 'materialist' Constructivism had an axe to grind against anything so unapologetically metaphysical as a mode of useless abstract painting making embarrassingly spiritual claims. After all, here was a major social revolution, and a new world which urgently awaited building. But Malevich, a Pole raised as a Catholic in Ukraine, proved the perfect kindred spirit for seeing the building up of the Isaiahan Kingdom of God and His Justice and a new art discharged from all obligation to represent the mundane unredeemed world, as one grand prospect. And maybe even the best old wine deserved to be handed on in new bottles.

One particular project by El Lissitzky, and in particular one of two gouache studies for it, strikes me as pivotal in the shifting of the artist's center of aesthetic gravity from Suprematism, at the more idealistic and formal pole with composition, to Constructivism, with its emphasis at the more materialistic pole on construction in a new technical and anti-formal sense of projective engineering. But Lissitzky as well as Malevich was interested in icons; and even as archmaterialist a project as his Lenin Tribune (1920) echoes icons of Jacob's Ladder--or the same motif of inter-modal communication in The Vision of St John Climacus, (first half of the 16th Century, St Petersburg, Russian Museum). (1)

Of the two studies, first came the small piece known as Untitled (Rosa Luxemburg Memorial), 1920-21 (Costakis Collection, Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki), about four inches square, followed by Proun, 1922-23 (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven), just under 20 by 20 inches square, and presumably closer to being the modello for a painting--'Proun' being Lissitzky's concept of a 'transfer station' between painting and architecture. The second is the larger and more finished version of the same, shall we say, compositional construct of a black square off-centered in a red circular disk, surrounded by segmental concentric rings and one or two other forms, reiterating the first but without the name of the socialist-to-communist martyr of 1919, Rosa Luxemburg, which is obliterated but still visible, left and right of the square, in the first version.

Formally speaking, almost identical constellations of elements seem more Suprematist in the earlier work (being all the more worked on such a small scale) and more Constructivist in the later, while the same radial structure seems remarkably balanced between the categories of composition and construction. In both the black square off-centered in the central red disk seems a Suprematistically asymmetric pair of Malevichian forms, while the surrounding irregular but segmental red, white and black broken rings, their beginnings and endings radially determined, have a smooth, tightly fitted character, like machined bearings, and as such, seem of more Constructivist ilk. I would even say that the comprehensive circular whole is also Constructivistically like the pilot wheel of a ship, or for that matter, suggestive of the cameraman Eduard Tisse's ever so centered close-up shot of the muzzle of the ship's gun that may or may not fire in Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). Secondarily, the square-upon-disk in both studies appears atop a 'Malevichian' brace of similar but different diagonal bands while little triangles lightly, pokily invade the outer orbital reaches in a manner reminiscent of Lissitzky's 1919-20 Civil War poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.

This small but fascinating earlier study offers an unusual opportunity to look into specifics of 'iconology', in the modern sense, in respect to a work of abstract art and even to some extent theological specifics, especially if we can look for what was back then not yet categorically discarded as hopelessly religious. Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish Jewish member of the German Social Democratic Party who had defected to the Communists when her own party refused her strongest pleas for peace, and insisted on proving their 'patriotism' by beating the war drums. She and her political associate Karl Liebknecht had been assassinated by paramilitaries in Berlin on 15 January 1919. An official Soviet competition had been announced for a monument as part of Lenin's 1918 'Monumental Propaganda' plan, and Lissitzky is thought to have initiated his unfinished project in response.


Despite its modest size, the first study is charged with a vitality of inspiration: something uplifting is carrying the artist along. The inscribing of the large red disk with the name of the fallen socialist-humanist hero, can almost be considered poised between composition and construction, in that the base line of the inscription hovers just above the horizontal center of the red square, and the superimposed black square also hovers, decentered and uncontrivedly higher than expected. Both features seem Suprematistic in intuitive placement and for a pneumatic, aspirational sense of 'uplift,' as is all the more vivid in comparison with the more normalized Constructivist design that followed. One could rationalize the change as having a more 'advanced industrial' character appropriate to the sitter who had written her Ph. D. dissertation on The Industrial Development of Poland (1898).

Yet the already firmly concentric structure, with strong inside / outside interface, of the more humanist-Suprematist original as well as the tidied-up 'NEP' (that is, the quasi-capitalist New Economic Policy) efficiency of the second version, could just as well be analogized to a major point in Luxemburg's theoretical contribution to Marxism: her criticism of Marx's failure to grasp that capitalism demands an 'outside' into which to expand, so that imperialism is of its essence, for which her treatise The Accumulation of Capital (1913) was long considered heretical. Yet in its original form the Luxemburg memorial idea also referred more Suprematistically to the Russian Icon tradition--not simply broadly, as a big red disk like so many images of Elijahs in the Fiery Chariot but more subtly for the structure of a visage with the saintly would-be subject's name protruding from either side of the head: in this case a 16th-century icon from Novgorod in the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, of, appropriately enough, a third-century woman preacher clothed in the red of martyrdom, namely, St Paraskeva Payanitsa. And if Luxemburg would have had reservations about Mikhail Alpatov's description of Paraskeva as an 'image of lofty femininity, chastity and piety', she would really have liked the rest of his statement: 'There are no grounds for thinking that as he prayed to St Paraskeva a Novgorodian had only the next market day in mind' (Alpatov, q. v.).

Early in the Civil War period Malevich and his students, including, soon, Lissitzky, were already producing 'social' as well what could be called one-person-at-a-time art. Side by side with his Suprematist painting Malevich did such practical graphic design work for the government as a curiously quasi-cruciform Study for a Programme Cover for the Congress of Committees on Rural Poverty, 1918; and in 1919 he and Lissitzky even collaborated on a Study for Backcloth for the Vitebsk Committee for the Struggle against Unemployment. So when Lissitzky did a cover design for the same committee, in the same year, he could be said to be no less Malevichian in his socially utilitarian work. His cover design does seem more dynamic and purposeful, with its Suprematist black square cocked to push its way through difficulties with the firm thrust of a responsible committee behind it--and Rosa Luxemburg would, I imagine, have liked the clear simple lettering of the word 'COMMITTEE,' as possibly against the word 'council,' i.e., soviet, as unnecessarily Bolshevik.

As for the up-floating 'pneumatic' feature of the Malevichian black square in both versions of the Luxemburg image, it must have been indispensible to Lissitzky's conception as a point of personal identification: for it resembles the UNOVIS emblem which meant so much to him, such as in Lissitzkified form, with red instead of black square, for the colophon of his famous Modernist 'children's' book Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions (1922).

Turning to religion as such: it was thanks to the Christian Socialist movement in 19th-century Europe that the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth found himself, by 1915, 'entirely in sympathy with Rosa Luxemburg' (Cort 198), notwithstanding that the revolutionary, Build-the-Kingdomnow position did not constitutionally suit him. A month after Luxemburg's assassination Barth, whom Pius XII once called the greatest Christian theologian since Thomas Aquinas, preached a sermon on Matthew 9:20-22--the cure of the hemorrhaging woman who only needed to touch the edge of Jesus' cloak ('Your faith has saved you'). In addressing the coming of the Kingdom of God, as not contingent on our managing to attain perfect personal faith, hope and charity, nor perfect liberty, equality and fraternity in the social world, Barth acknowledged what had been happening 'in Russia and here and there in Germany' as an effort to establish the Kingdom (Barth, Predigten 81). And a month after that, speaking to what comes just before and after the other Matthew text (now 9:1819, 23-26)--the reviving of the synagogue official's child and return to her house, where revelers could not believe she was alive--Barth remarked that in his day deathly dread attached to Bolshevism and the Spartacus movement (with which Luxemburg was associated) or Communism as an unstoppable monster.

I wonder, as of the January assassinations, at what stage of production was Barth's great book The Epistle to the Romans (1919), which speaks critically of revolution in quite a Protestant way. I say this because revolution can mean tyrannicide writ large, and in Catholic tradition tyrannicide has never been a sin, whereas the Calvinist Barth worries about presumptuous tampering with social order as divinely ordained. Nevertheless, in condemning a Christian's going after 'high things', including even 'ideals', because the Christian is only--only 'to condescend to things that are lowly' (Barth, Epistle 462-63), his sheer ethical extremism reminds me of Rosa Luxemburg's writing, a few weeks before her death in Rote Fahne (Berlin): 'A world must be overturned, but every tear that has flowed and might have been wiped away is an indictment; and a man hurrying to perform a great deed who ... even steps on a worm ... out of unfeeling carelessness commits a crime' (qu., Frolich 198).

It is easy to imagine Luxemburg, not to mention Bertolt Brecht, saying, in much the same spirit as Barth inspired by Paul: 'Christianity knows itself at least more akin to ascetics and pietists, strange though their behaviour may be, than to "healthy evangelical national piety"; more closely related [nb] to the "Russian Man" than to his western brothers ... Christianity displays a certain inclination to side with those who are immature, sullen, and depressed, with those who "come off badly" and are, in consequence, ready for revolution. There is, for this reason, much in the cause of socialism which evokes Christian approval.' Not that the proletariat cannot become blunderingly and coarsely dogmatic' (Barth, Epistle 464); but Luxemburg did not shrink from telling Lenin that he wasn't giving the proletariat much of a chance to take that risk. I doubt that had he been able to retouch his text after January 15th, Barth would have left this statement intact: 'To us, at least, the reactionary presents little danger; with his Red brother it is far otherwise.' Better to let him finish with this heartier Pauline irony: 'The revolutionary Titan is far more godless, far more dangerous than his reactionary counterpart--because he is so much nearer to the truth' (478).

El Lissitzky stands as a pivot or 'transfer station' in his own right, to the Constructivist-materialist from the Suprematist-religious. His Luxemburg project is vital for a problem in Constructivism which can be posed from both extremes, once the new outlook of Productivism sought to eliminate even Constructivist art as such in the interest of purely utilitarian design. (As early as 1920 the Productivists had slogans like 'Down with art. Long live technic. Religion is a lie. Art is a lie'.) From both extremes, Suprematist and Productivist, it became possible to accuse Constructivism of being merely geometric art mere art, vis-a-vis Productivism, but merely geometric, a subtler charge, vis-avis Suprematism. There is no denying that Lissitzky's more finished Luxemburg design looks more perfect and more efficient, but it also looks a bit glibly graphic, more like something Aleksandr Rodchenko would do! The first work had something--something arguably spiritual to aspire to: memorialization. It also carries conviction, as if the always ethical socialism preached by the memorialized Luxemburg really meant something to the painter. Something of faith does seem conveyed, as if speaking of the Kingdom of Justice was by no means a Socialist absurdity. I can imagine Lissitzky seconding the definition of faith given by St Paul, that great pivot or hinge or transfer station between Judaism and Christianity: 'the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.' (Heb 11.1-2; RSV).


In 1920, as if in the moment between his two Rosa Luxemburg studies, Lissitzky produced a major speculative text concerning the role of the new art in, one can almost say, salvation history--'Suprematism in World Reconstruction,'--which, especially in its grand conclusion, dares to offer a practically redemptive promise for humanity in Suprematism. Needless to say, Lissitzky's spirited closing lines, concerning an ultimate supersession of communism itself (supposedly the finally perfect form of socialism) would have upset Communists of the day. No matter that in Lissitzky's eschatological projection no such wonder can occur before communism comes to fruition:

[I]f communism which set human labour on the throne and Suprematism which raised aloft the square pennant of creativity now march forward together then in the further stages of development it is communism which will have to remain behind because Suprematism--which embraces the totality of life's phenomena--will attract everyone away from the domination of work and from the domination of the intoxicated senses. It will liberate all those engaged in creative activity and make the world into a true model of perfection. This is the model we await from Kasimir Malevich.


From the Christian point of view, as from the Jewish before it, this runs some risk of blasphemy (not something that troubled the autodidact Malevich in his swashbuckling writing), the only defense being that one's infraction was for the sake of the good, which for both Malevich and Lissitzky was true. And in a sense this was a recasting of Marx's communism as fulfillment of socialism as a secular, would-be 'scientific' projection of the Kingdom of God and His Justice. Still, in 1920 it could at least have kept a utopic 'ought' alive, as increasingly hard-nosed Constructivism vied for 'supremacy' over idealistic Suprematism.

Actually, Lissitzky was following in the footsteps of the father of abstract art, Kandinsky, that faithful Orthodox whom the Bolsheviks rejected as a hopeless bourgeois idealist in his attempt to stay on and work with the new state. In 'Reminiscences' (1913) Kandinsky declares that, unlike science, where established truth is 'voided' by new discoveries, both art and religion develop by insights opening 'new perspectives.' 'Would the New Testament,' he asks rhetorically, 'have been possible without the Old? Would our epoch of the threshold of the 'third' revelation be conceivable without the second?' ('Third revelation,' which sounds Ouspenskian, can imply a Trinitarian sequence of Old Testament as specially informed by the Father,

New by the Son, and communism, conceivably, by the Spirit.) 'Christ did not come, in his own words, to overthrow the old law. When he declared: "You have been told ... but I say unto you ..." he brought the old material law as it had become his spiritual law ...' (Kandinsky, 'Reminiscences' 39-40). In a footnote to Concerning the Spiritual in Art [1911] Kandinsky had said 'The way to the spiritual lies through the natural' (Kandinsky, Spiritual, which paraphrases Paul's 'Take note: the spiritual was not first; first came the natural and after that the spiritual' [1 Cor. 15: 46; NAB].)

Now where has one heard such a phraseology of supersession before, from even beyond Marx? '[I]is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith (heben wir denn dass Gesetz auf)? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law' (Rom. 3.2931, RSV). I quote the German of Luther's Bible because there one finds that Paul's word is none other than the great dialectical term aufheben. Aufhebung, the nominal form, makes for 'sublation,' that active form of negation which both modifies and upholds. (The word does not occur in 'Ruckblicke', the German original of Kandinsky's 'Reminiscences'.) So it would not be so farfetched to extrapolate Paul's argument to cover a communism doing the Lord's work of building the Kingdom.

Lissitzky's remarkable argument also distantly echoes an analogy of the two testaments and the promised Kingdom explicitly in terms of painting, framed by St John Chrysostom in regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews, quoted later in an anti-iconoclast treatise of St John Damascene: 'In a certain way the first is an image of the second, Melchisedek [an image] of Christ, just as one might say that a sketch of a picture is a shadow of the picture in colors; therefore the law is called a shadow, grace truth, and reality what is to come. So the law and Melchisedek are preparatory sketches of the picture in colors, and grace and truth are that picture in colors, while reality belongs to the age to come, just as the Old [Testament] is a type of a type, and the New [Testament] a type of reality'. Whether or not Malevich or Lissitzky knew either text is unimportant, owing to a living discourse: even today the Damascene's writings are known among laypeople in the Orthodox church. In maintaining that the icon is to Christ (or one step further away, a Christ-like saint) as He is to the Father, the idea is for it to inspire a viewer to become more Christ-like, by prayer and doing social good; and as a Jewish artist Lissitzky would have been all the more interested in the way the Christological argument is but a special case of the general principle of all persons as icons of God. (This paragraph relies on Nichols, ch. 2, 'The Images of Israel').

Rosa Luxemburg was obviously not a Christian martyr because she was not a Christian, and neither was she a martyr to Judaism as such. But because she is known to have been murdered most pointedly for her pacifist opposition to World War I, which in light of that great rabbinical sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, calls for a certain respect, her case may remind us that the Orthodox have, besides martyrs proper, a category of 'passionbearer' for one who, while not dying for the faith as such, dies for what is right in a Christ-like manner. Not that the Russian Church hasn't been rather one-sidedly preoccupied (like the Catholic Church with the Spanish Civil War) with processing Romanovs.

As for Lissitzky, through the 1920s, as one of the lights of Constructivism, he was adept at the Constructivist-to-Productivist medium of photography and photomontage, and as a state exhibition designer--which enabled him to escape Stalin's outright repression of Modernism. In the introduction to an impressive picture book which he compiled on new Soviet architecture, known in English as Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution (1929), Lissitzky seems prepared to discredit his own UNOVIS mentor Malevich as somebody left over from the so-called Dark Ages with their spiritual hoaxes; to some extent, however, the English version may be tinted by Constructivist-to-Productivist enthusiasm on the part of the translator, Eric Dluhosch, a scholar of Czech functionalist architecture. I would like to think that, as Malevich himself had turned to architecture as a matter of justifiable formalism, this book was a 'transfer station' for Lissitzky's own art carrying even him over in changed circumstances to a more Productivist practice, if somehow, as ever, without leaving the Malevich in him behind completely. Lissitzky's poster for a Russian Exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts in Zurich in 1929, in which two faces share three eyes, fused in an image of solidarity, still finds adumbration in the Russian icon tradition (even if Westerners think first of the two faces fused in Giotto's Meeting at the Golden Gate). If, by comparison, a World War II poster Make More Tanks!, produced posthumously under Stalin in 1942, disappoints, by then the artist's health and spirit had faded away.

This is an edited excerpt taken from the keynote lecture given at the 11th ACE International Conference in Boston, USA 10 July 2012.


Alpatov, Mikhail Early Russian Icon Painting, trans. N Johnstone. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1984.

Barth, Karl The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed, trans. Edwyn C Hoskyns. London: OUP, 1957.

Predigten Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1974ff. Vol. 11 (1919), ed. Hermann Schmidt. Cort, John C Christian Socialism: An Informal History. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1988. Frolich, Paul Rosa Luxemburg (1939), trans. Joanna Hoornweg. London: Pluto, 1994. Kandinsky, Wassily Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular, trans. Michael Sadleir. New York: Dover, 1977. 'Reminiscences', trans. Mrs Robert L Herbert. In Robert L Herbert, ed, Modern Artists on Art: Ten Unabridged Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Pp. 19-44.

Lissitzky, El 'Suprematism in World Reconstruction' (1920). In his Life, Letters, Texts, ed Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers, trans. Helene Aldwinckle and Mary Whittall, rev ed London: Thames and Hudson, 1980. Pp. 331-34. Nichols, Aidan The Art of God Incarnate: Theology and Image in Christian Tradition. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.

(1.) If this seems far-fetched, even as a conduit between high and low or ideas and material conditions, Ivan Leonidov's grand unbuilt 1927 Constructivist project for a Lenin Institute has already been construed in relation to the Russian icon tradition: Peter Anders,' The Lenin Institute: Leonidov's Icon of the Future', Journal of Architectural Education 37, no. 1 (Autumn 1983), 20-26.

Joseph Masheck discovers remnants of faith in Russian Constructivist art

Joseph Masheck is an art historian and critic based in New York
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Author:Masheck, Joseph
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Date:Sep 22, 2012
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