Tuesday, 5 May 2009


Seeing a major retrospective of El Lissitzky's work (Sprengel Museum, 1999) is ultimately as disheartening as the Rodchenko exhibition (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998). Both started out with an open experimental style and ended up doing Socialist kitsch for the Soviet Union. The Rodchenko photography exhibit parallel to the Lissitzky has the curious effect of persuading you that his original inventiveness with the bizarre camera angles was gimmicky rather than truly communicative.

The quirky angles invite you to think GOSH rather to be moved to see something important in a new way. It was surprising to learn that Lissitzky spent three years in Germany (1923- where he designed a room for studying abstract art for the Hannover museum. He did advertising work for the Penguin art materials company, hung out with Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus crowd, both in Weimar and in their summer haunt in Locarno, Ticino.

He had left Russia in a huff over criticism of his abstract practices (for a while he was a teacher in Marc Chagall's experimental art school in Vitebsk). He returned to Russia and started designing for the multi-lingual editions of "Building the Soviet Union". More and more there are images of happy workers against the backdrop or gigantic public works. There are even memoranda in which the editor of the monthly magazine makes "suggestions" for stories.

It's a far cry from the era of PROUNS (a neologism for experiments leading to a new kind of art). He collected Man Ray's experimental photos and tried out those ideas of juxtaposition and collage in his work for Russian magazines and exhibitions. Some of the most interesting images are straight photos of the new constructivist style buildings for Russian newspapers like Pravda and Izvestia. He help Vertov in his experimental films--with sequences like a smiling peasant woman entertaining smiling workers with he concerto for spoons and empty wine bottles.

It is hard to agree with Lenin that the film is the most important art form when you try to sit though 95 minutes of such drivel.

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