El Lissitzky’s Soviet pavilion at the Pressa exhibition in Cologne, 1928

The revolution on display

El Lissitzky was one of the great masters of Soviet avant-garde art and architecture. Besides Malevich, Tatlin, and Rodchenko, Lissitzky is probably the most famous Russian modernist from this period. He was certainly the most internationally renowned. Part of the reason for this was his numerous expeditions abroad, throughout Western Europe, usually sent there by the USSR’s Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatolii Lunacharskii.

International constructivism followed him, as he met and worked closely with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, J.J.P. Oud, Mart Stam, and a host of others. Journals, too: VeshchGABC.

El Lissitzky, The Constructor (self-portrait, 1925)

El Lissitzky, The Constructor (self-portrait, 1925)

After 1926, Lissitzky began to design pavilions for the Soviet Union for international exhibitions. Konstantin Mel’nikov’s striking pavilion from the 1925 Paris Expo set a very high standard for formal dynamism and innovative use of materials. Many looked to the Soviets to continue to lead the way. (De Stijl impresario Theo van Doesburg was only impressed by Mel’nikov’s building and one other at the 1925 show). Lissitzky’s crowning achievement as far as exhibition displays went was the 1928 “Pressa” exhibition in Cologne. “Pressa” was meant to showcase the journalistic culture of the various countries that participated.

What follows are a number of rare images from that show. Some of them are extremely high resolution. A few translated passages of reviews in the German and British press are also included along with some of Lissitzky’s own remarks.

With Lissitzky, all the possibilities of a new exhibition technique were explored: in place of a tedious succession of framework, containing dull statistics, he produced a new purely visual design of the exhibition space and its contents, by the use of glass, mirrors, celluloid, nickel, and other materials; by contrasting these newfangled materials with wood, lacquer, textiles and photographs; by the use of natural objects instead of pictures…by bringing a dynamic element into the exhibition by means of continuous films, illuminated and intermittent letters and a number of rotating models. The room thus became a sort of stage on which the visitor himself seemed to be one of the players. The novelty and vitality of the exhibition did not fail: this was proved by the fact that this section attracted by far the largest number of visitors, and had at times to be closed owing to overcrowding.

Jan Tschichold, “Display that has
dynamic force: Exhibition rooms by
Lissitzky,” Commercial Art (1931)

A trip to the individual displays, and around the pavilion as a whole, will give the viewer an idea of the tremendous results achieved during ten years of Soviet activity.

— Die Welt am Abend
Berlin (5/25/1928)

The Soviet pavilion at the “Pressa” exhibition is a towering achievement, unique in its imaginative content, and unparalleled in its power of illustrative effect.

— Freiheit


Katalog des Sowjet-Pavillons auf der Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung Köln 1928, pgs 3-5Katalog des Sowjet-Pavillons auf der Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung Köln 1928, pgs 6-8Katalog des Sowjet-Pavillons auf der Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung Köln 1928, pgs 9-11

My most important work as an artist began in 1926: the design of exhibition rooms. That year I was asked by the committee of the International Art Exhibition in Dresden to create the room of non-objective [Suprematist] art and was sent there by “Voks” [the commissariat/embassy that works with countries abroad]. After an educational trip — the new architecture in Holland being the subject — I returned to Moscow in the autumn.

El Lissitzky (1932) Continue reading