When we published the Jakobson-Tynyanov theses last year (nlr 37), we wished to draw attention to the confrontation of vanguard art and aesthetics with revolutionary politics and theory in the Soviet Union during the decade after the Bolshevik Revolution. El Lissitsky’s polemic on the future of the book is another key document from the same period. Just as Jakobson and Tynyanov prefigured much of the current debate on structuralism, Lissitsky in an obvious way foreshadows many of the insights of Marshall McLuhan. By going back to the twenties we are not being in the least antiquarian but posing the problems which, say, Barthes or McLuhan have raised, but in a revolutionary context. Moreover Lissitsky was himself a practising artist, for whom theoretical problems were inextricably intertwined with his work and his politics.

Lissitsky was born near Smolensk in 1890. Before the Revolution he trained as an engineer and architect in Darmstadt, visited Paris and travelled throughout Italy. On his return to Russia he worked as an apprentice architect, but devoted his time increasingly to painting and book illustration, especially children’s books. His work was heavily influenced by both Jewish and Russian peasant popular art. In 1917 he rallied to the Revolution and a year later designed the first Soviet flags which were carried across Red Square on May Day. Chagall, who shared his preoccupation with Jewish and folk art, invited him to teach at the Vitebsk Art School. But it was here, paradoxically, that Lissitsky fell under the influence of Malevich, who was to oust Chagall from his post as Principal. In this way he came in contact with Constructivism and entered the modern era. He worked principally on posters, such as the famous Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, architectural drawings and book designs. Lissitsky also devoted himself to elaborating a network of contacts throughout Europe, addressing conferences of Dadaists, contributing to De Stijl, lecturing widely and co-founding the trilingual magazine Veshch-Gegenstand-Objet in Berlin. During the latter part of the twenties he began to concentrate on furniture and interior design and, after the onset of Stalinism, was able to continue work designing exhibition displays and pavilions and from 1932 onwards was the typographer of the periodical U.S.S.R In Reconstruction. Since 1923 he had suffered from tuberculosis; during the thirties his health declined seriously and he died in 1941.

Lissitsky’s own life and work reflect the interpenetration and cross-fertilization of the arts which took place in Russia during the twenties. The idea behind his Proun series of drawings was to make a bridge between painting and architecture; he was a pioneer of the integration of word and image in poster and book design. We can see the same thing with many other artists of the time: Tatlin’s development from painting to reliefs, architecture and, concerned over every Russian’s needs during the cold winter, the design of clothes, stoves and samovars; Rodchenko’s work in photo-montage in collaboration with Mayakovsky and Dziga Vertov, the film director; the work of Mayakovsky, Shklovsky, Brik, etc, in the cinema and, indeed, Eisenstein’s development out of theatre into film, and his interest in synaesthesia. Once again we are living in a period in which the arts are merging into each other: Lissitsky’s projects in typography are clearly related to the growing movement of concrete poetry today; photo-montage reappears in the work of Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers; and the invocation of Gutenberg immediately calls to mind McLuhan.

However, we should be clear of the distinction between Lissitsky’s approach and McLuhan’s. Lissitsky stresses that the hieroglyph or ideogram should be the carrier of a concept and points out the difference between the American advertising poster, momentary and sub-liminal, and the Soviet agitation poster, designed to be read consciously. This is a far cry from McLuhan’s ‘sacralization’ and ‘tribalization’. Moreover, McLuhan’s theories are drawn from an uncritical observation of modern capitalist society; Lissitsky’s from an active involvement in the construction of a socialist society.

If we are to discusss Marxist aesthetics, we must go back to the twenties in Russia when all the crucial problems were posed in a situation of urgency and struggle. We must consider the kind of relationship which developed then between art and agitation (agit-trains, films, posters, etc) and art and design (architecture, ergonomics, the so-called ‘applied arts’: furniture, typography, clothing, etc). We must consider how the work started in Russia, found a continuation in the Bauhaus, and its development from there, in order to be able to re-integrate the past into the ongoing present. We must also look closely at futurism—Lissitsky mentions its English manifestation Blast!—and at phenomena such as the ‘theatre of fact’ in the light of the work of Meyerhold and Tretyakov (e.g. his plays, Roar China!, and Gas-Masks staged in a gas factory) to which Lissitsky also alludes.

The modernity and relevance of Lissitsky’s ideas are remarkable at all levels. Specifically on the central subject of this article—the book—many of Lissitsky’s headier prognostications have not been fully realized: so far young West German writers have been the quickest to realize the possibilities of the technical innovations Lissitsky refers to. But Lissitsky’s implicit condemnation of ‘American posters, designed for rapid perception from a passing motor-car’ still holds good. Notions of slicing-up or reorganizing the conventional design of a book are greeted as examples of unbridled, self-indulgent avant-gardism. Notions of varying typefaces for varying series of rhetoric are often dismissed as being technically impossible and economically expensive, and we are thus confined to simple roman and italic type. To asperse the typeface of a book is regarded as pedantic aestheticism. To extol the fact that there are now typewriters with varying type-balls and which automatically justify their margins is not regarded as particularly important, except by the few who realize that these new technical devices have opened up a whole new terrain of communication, no longer held in the rigid and expensive grip of letterpress and linotype. The world of the poster is still largely unexplored. All along the desolate stretches of hoardings and underground stations we have only ephemera, to be consumed in the twinkling of an eye. Only when books can be serialized on large posters in these undergrounds, when we have this kind of expansion of the possibilities of the printed word and the image, will the revolution indicated by El Lissitsky be properly in train.

This article was first published in the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, Mainz, 1926–27.