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: Veshch, G, ABC.
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
The Soviet pavilion at the “Pressa” exhibition is a towering achievement, unique in its imaginative content, and unparalleled in its power of illustrative effect.
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)
From a letter to Ilya Chasnik, 6 November 1926:
This summer in Dresden I did a hall for the International Exhibition. The press referred to it as the only Bolshevik work of art at the Exhibition. Herewith I enclose a photograph, but there are some things in it which need explaining (because the piece lives and moves). On paper it appears static. The result of all this being that I received a second commission to design a project according to the same principles for the modern art section at the Hanover museum. The museum is being built at the moment. I am waiting for photographs.
— Galerie Gmurzynska
Lissitzky (1976), p. 75
By state prerogative I was appointed chief artist for the Soviet pavilion at the International Press Exhibition in Cologne [in 1928]. The foreign press praised my design as a great achievement of Soviet culture. For the pavilion I’d designed a photomontage frieze which was 24 meters long and 3.5 meters wide. It became the model for all those gigantic montages, and also a symbol for future exhibitions. I received great accolades from the state for this work. Another part of my duties at the time was the artistic and polygraphic layout of albums, journals etc.
— El Lissitzky (1932)
The main theme of the [Soviet] exhibition concerns the contents of the press, its working methods and means of expression. It provides a highly interesting picture of the governmental and economic reorganization in Russia, in which the press plays a special part. Following this, there is a display entitled “social life in the USSR.” The activation of the masses by means of the press, self-administration, trade unions, auxiliary organizations, etc., and the participation of the press in elections, are shown as important factors. Some fascinating features peculiar to the Soviet press can be seen in the unique way the paper cooperates with its readers, demonstrated by the appointment of press correspondents among laborers, farmers, and soldiers. Readers also organize conferences, editors visit factories and villages, and opinion polls and surveys are gathered, etc. These activities of the press are shown in special dioramas with numerous examples.
There can be no doubt that one of the most interesting sections [at the Pressa exhibition] is the Soviet Union’s, with respect to both form and content. It deserves special and detailed study.
No matter how one might protest the ideological or economic implications, it must be acknowledged that the USSR’s pavilion is one of the best items at the Pressa exhibition.
— Der Sontag
The exhibition pavilion of the Soviet Republics, which opened only a few days ago, is somewhat of sensational. It’s created quite a stir because the means it employs are clearly different from all the others.
— Dresdner Nachrichten
It is in the very nature of things, from the exhibition’s point of view, that the unveiling of the new Soviet pavilion should assume a particular significance. The political aspects decisive to Russia’s participation — as well as the efforts of the Soviet government, which span only ten years — have determined that items are exhibited which go far beyond the framework of its press. Characteristically, a spotlight is thrown upon its internal governmental structure and successful individual achievements. The uncertainties of Russian life and the country’s current form of government, as well as the unresolved status of many of its problems, recede before the social accomplishments and facts on which most of the attention has been focused at the Cologne exhibition.
— Der Mittag
What a contrast between the English and Soviet Russian rooms! Everything that separates the two finds expression when one sees the two brought together under the same roof. England; pious, aristocratic, and historically reverent, at peace in its confidence; so it was and so it will be to all eternity…
And Russia; one must admit, grandeur in its exposition of social conditions, with really mechanical equipment, conveyor belts of great cubistic zig-zags; causing a stir by its enormous steps of progress which are depicted in bold and bragging manner, always in glaring red. Forward! in the struggle and into class consciousness.
— Berliner Tageblatt
(May 26th, 1928)
The first impression is brilliant. Excellent in its technique, the arrangement, the organization, the modern way it is constructed …propaganda, propaganda, that is the keynote of the Soviet Russian exhibitions, whether they be in Cologne or Dresden. And how well the Russians know how to achieve the visual effects their films have been showing for years!
— Union der sozialistischen Sowjetrepublik
(Cologne: Du Mont Schauberg, 1928)