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Finding aid for the El Lissitzky letters and photographs, 1911-1941
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Collection Details
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical/Historial Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Material
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms
  • Bibliography

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: El Lissitzky letters and photographs
    Date (inclusive): 1911-1941
    Number: 950076
    Creator/Collector: Lissitzky, El, 1890-1941
    Physical Description: 1.0 linear feet (3 boxes)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles, California, 90049-1688
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: The El Lissitzky letters and photographs collection consists of 106 letters sent, most by Lissitzky to his wife, Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, along with his personal notes on art and aesthetics, a few official and personal documents, and approximately 165 documentary photographs and printed reproductions of his art and architectural designs, and in particular, his exhibition designs.
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    Language: Collection material is in German

    Biographical/Historial Note

    El Lissitzky (1890-1941) began his artistic education in 1909, when he traveled to Germany to study architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt. Lissitzky returned to Russia in 1914, continuing his studies in Moscow where he attended the Riga Polytechnical Institute. After the Revolution, Lissitzky became very active in Jewish cultural activities, creating a series of inventive illustrations for books with Jewish themes. These formed some of his earliest experiments in typography, a key area of artistic activity that would occupy him for the remainder of his life.
    He was invited by Marc Chagall in 1919 to teach architecture and graphics at the Vitebsk Art School. There Lissitzky was influenced by faculty-member Kazimir Malevich's method of Suprematism, a form of non-representational painting in which colored planes hover in space over a neutral ground. Inspired by Malevich's invention, Lissitzky introduced a new form of abstract composition that he called "Proun" (an acronym for "Project for the Affirmation of the New".) The Prouns consisted of sharply delineated arrangements of colored geometric forms, intended to suggest architectural structures floating in space. Lissitzky conceived of the Prouns as existing half-way between painting and architecture, an idea which epitomized the aesthetic of Russian Constructivism. Widely reproduced in books and journals, Lissitzky's Prouns influenced the work of many leading European modernists.
    Lissitzky became a member of Moscow's INKhUK (Institute of Artistic Culture) and joined the faculty of VKhUTEMAS (The Higher State Artistic and Technical Workshops) in 1921. Later that year he returned to Germany. There he became an important representative of the Russian avant-garde to the West through friendships he made with artists such as Làszlò Moholy-Nagy, who transmitted Lissitzky's ideas on art to western Europe and the United States through his teaching at the Bauhaus, and Kurt Schwitters, with whom Lissitzky collaborated on a number of projects. Lissitzky's role as a cultural ambassador of Russian modernism was enhanced by his activities in publishing and writing on art. During the early 1920's he worked with writer Ilia Erenburg on a tri-lingual journal on modern art subjects, titled Vesch/Objet/Gegenstand. Other literary collaborations included an article and the design layout for a volume of the journal Merz, known as the Nasci-Heft, which he co-published with Kurt Schwitters in 1924, and a collaboration with Hans Arp on Kunstismen, a book chronicling the "isms" of art. He also translated Kazimir Malevich's writings on art in hopes of making the ideas underlying Russian Suprematism available to a wider European audience. Lissitzky was closely associated later in his life with the editorial board of the propaganda magazine begun by Maxim Gorky, USSR im Bau, contributing layout designs and photomontages for a number of commemorative issues devoted to the Stalinist Constitution, Soviet Georgia, and the Red Army. During these years in Germany he also gained recognition as a notable figure in experimental photography, developing techniques of graphic representation which would characterize of much of his later work in publishing and exhibition design. Furthermore, it was during his stay in Hannover in 1922-1923 that he met Sophie.
    Lissitzky was diagnosed with tuberculosis late in 1923, for which he sought treatment at a sanatorium in Switzerland. He paid for his treatment and accommodations there by executing advertising commissions for the firm Günther Wagner, the makers of Pelikan-brand ink and other office products, for which he received a monthly retainer of 300 Marks. He adapted Prouns in some cases into his designs for the Pelikan advertisements.
    Lissitzky left Switzerland in the spring of 1925, and moved back to Russia where he subsequently taught as a member of the Wood and Metalwork faculty of the Moscow VKhUTEMAS. He had become associated by then with the group ASNOVA (Consortium of New Architects), which advocated a synthesis of architecture, painting, and sculpture as opposed to a plain utilitarian approach to architecture. The plans for Lissitzky's Wolkenbügel project--a building conceived of as a horizontal skyscraper supported on three piers--were published in 1926 in the ASNOVA Bulletin, of which Lissitzky was co-publisher and designer. He continued working as well on an array of typographical projects, theater, furniture, and exhibition designs, and participated in various architectural competitions in Russia and Western Europe.
    During the years immediately following his departure from Switzerland in 1925, Lissitzky began focusing his attention in earnest on his activities as a designer of exhibition spaces, one of his most influential areas of interest and, by his own account, the most important artistic activity of his career. His designs for international exhibitions in Dresden (1926, 1930), Hannover (1930), Cologne (1926), Leipzig (1930), Stuttgart (1929) and elsewhere remain some of his most significant and influential accomplishments.
    His level of activity in later years was somewhat slowed by his continuing struggles with tuberculosis, for which he sought further treatment at Abastuman in the Caucasus Mountains for several months in 1935. Despite declining health during the last years of his life, however, he remained active in his work until his death on December 21, 1941 at his home in Schodnia, near Moscow.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    El Lissitzky letters and photographs, 1911-1941, Getty Research Institute, Research Library, Accession no. 950076.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 1995.

    Processing History

    Carl Wuellner processed the collection and wrote the finding aid in December, 1995-March, 1996.

    Related Material

    El Lissitzky photographs, 1910-1934. Getty Research Institute, Research Library, Accession no. 2000.R.11.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The archive of El Lissitzky's letters and photographs contains original manuscripts and documentary photographs from the personal papers of El Lissitzky, the Russian avant-garde artist who was a leader of Russian Constructivism. The bulk of the archive consists of all the surviving letters (1923-1935) written by Lissitzky, most in German, to his wife, the art historian Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers. The archive also contains rare photographs from the late 1920's and early 1930's depicting Lissitzky's innovative designs for international exhibitions. Photographs include reproductions of some of his designs for art and architectural projects. Two address books, an original inventory of his work, professional contracts, a personal workbook and official papers, provide further documentation of Lissitzky's personal and professonal life.

    Arrangement note

    The archive is organized in three series: Series I. Letters, most to Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, 1911, 1923-1941, undated; Series II. Personal notes and documents, 1911-1912, 1924, undated; Series III. Photographs, ca. 1920s-1930s

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Arp, Jean, 1887-1966
    Gropius, Walter, 1883-1969
    Lissitzky, El, 1890-1941
    Lissitzky-Küppers, Sophie, 1891-1978
    Malevich, Kazimir Severinovich, 1878-1935
    Moholy-Nagy, László, 1895-1946
    Oud, J. J. P. (Jacobus Johannes Pieter), 1890-1963
    Roth, Emil
    Tschichold, Jan, 1902-1974

    Subjects - Corporate Bodies

    VKhUTEMAS (Art school)

    Subjects - Topics

    Advertising layout and typography
    Architecture--Soviet Union
    Book design--Soviet Union
    Constructivism (Architecture)
    Exhibitions--Soviet Union
    Graphic arts--20th century--Soviet Union
    Suprematism in art

    Subjects - Titles

    L'esprit nouveau

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Address books
    Drawings (visual works)
    Photographic prints
    Photographs, Original


    Cambridge, MA, Busch-Reisinger Museum. El Lissitzky 1890-1941 [exh. cat.] 1987. Cologne, Galerie Gmurzynska. El Lissitzky [exh. cat.] 1976. Eindhoven, Municipal Van Abbemuseum. El Lissitzky [exh. cat.] 1965. Eindhoven, Municipal Van Abbemuseum. El Lissitzky 1890-1941: Architect, Painter, Photographer, Typographer [exh. cat.] 1990. Halle, Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg. El Lissitzky 1890-1941, Retrospektive [exh. cat] 1988. Lissitzky-Küppers, Sophie. El Lissitzky 1890-1941: Maler, Architekt, Typograf, Fotograf (Dresden: Veb Verlag der Kunst, 1967). Lissitzky-Küppers, Sophie, and Jen Lissitzky. El Lissitzky: Proun und Wolkenbügel, Schriften, Briefe, Dokumente (Dresden: Veb Verlag der Kunst, 1977). Westheim, Paul, ed. Künstlerbekenntnisse: Briefe, Tagebuchblätter, Betrachtungen heutiger Künstler (Berlin: Propyläen, 1925).