El Lissitzky exhibition in Moscow, November 2017-February 2018

El Lissitzky, renaissance man of the Soviet avant-garde, is the subject of a major career survey in Russia that opened last week. It is the first such show in the country for thirty years.

Ambitiously organized across two venues, the State Tretyakov Museum and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the shows are being treated as a single exhibition. They draw on an archive of the artist’s work preserved against all odds by Sophie Küppers, his German wife, an art historian and collector. Roughly 400 works are on display.

Lissitzky spent a significant portion of the 1910s and 1920s in Germany, promoting revolutionary art. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1925, he left dozens of his paintings, photographs, architectural and graphic designs behind.

Lissitzky married Küppers in 1927 — for which she later paid a chilling price. Three years after her husband’s death in 1941, she was exiled to Siberia as an enemy alien, and works in her collection were seized by Soviet authorities. In July 2017, her heirs won a major battle in a German court over a work she had owned by Paul Klee, which was seized by the Nazis in 1937 and sold off as “degenerate” art.

Tatyana Goryacheva, the Tretyakov’s curator, says Küppers sold “part of her archive and nearly 300 graphic works” to the museum in 1959. “The collection includes drawings and sketches of Prouns” as well as “lithographs, sketches of architectural and exhibition projects, posters and book designs,” she says.

Goryacheva says that while the exhibition underscores Lissitzky’s talent, it also illuminates “the interrelations between the artist and the authorities, avant-garde art, and totalitarian ideology — an issue that inevitably arises in connection with art of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde.”

  • El Lissitzky, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, until 4 February 2018
  • El Lissitzky, Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, Moscow, until 18 February 2018

Installing communism

Boris Groys
In the Flow
Verso 2016

El Lissitzky saw Suprematism as crossing the point zero of the old world towards the free creation of the new world. This idea is reflected in the title of the exhibition in which Malevich first showed his Black Square and other Suprematist works: “0.10.” The show had ten participating artists, who had all gone through point zero — through nothingness and death. Lissitzky saw himself as another such artist, and he believed that on the other side of zero (or, one might say, the other side of the mirror) one could create a new, completely artificial space and world of forms. This belief was an effect of the October revolution. It seemed to many artists and theoreticians of that time that Russian reality itself — including all its explicit and implicit contexts — had been completely nullified by the revolution. Russian reality went the same way that Suprematism had gone before it. There was no context for life or for art left intact. There was nothing to see through the black square, through the gap that was created by the break with nature and historical past. Art had to create its own context — the social and economic presuppositions for its own further functioning. In a language strongly reminiscent of Stirner’s as it was criticized by Marx and Engels, Lissitzky contrasts communism, understood by him as the domination of organized, regulated labor, with Suprematism, understood as the domination of creative, unregulated, unorganized labor — and he expresses his conviction that in the future communism will be left behind by Suprematism, because creativity moves faster and functions more efficiently than regular work.” However, Lissitzky understands unorganized labor in a different way from Marx and Engels. For Lissitzky, as for Russian Constructivists in general, unorganized labor is precisely the work of organization. The artist is not organized because he is an organizer. Specifically, the artist creates the space in which organized, productive labor takes place.

In a certain sense, Soviet artists had no other choice at the time than to forward such a total claim. The market, including the art market, had been eliminated by the Communists. Artists were no longer confronted by private consumers and their aesthetic preferences, but by the state as a whole. Thus, for the artists it was all or nothing. However, already at the beginning of the 1920s Nikolai Tarabukin asserted in his then famous essay “From the Easel to the Machine” that the Constructivist artist could not play a formative role in the process of actual social production. His role was rather that of a propagandist who defends and praises the beauty of industrial production and opens the public’s eyes to this beauty. The artist, as described by Tarabukin, is someone who looks at the entirety of socialist production as a thing readymade — a kind of socialist Duchamp who exhibits the whole of socialist industry as something good and beautiful.

One can argue that such was precisely the strategy of Lissitzky in the late period of his artistic activity, when he was concentrating more and more of his efforts on the production of various kinds of exhibitions. In these exhibitions he tried to visualize the sociopolitical space in which organized Soviet production took place. Or, in other words, he tried to make visible the organizational work that otherwise would remain hidden, invisible to the external spectator. To visualize the invisible is traditionally the main goal of art. Obviously, Lissitzky understood his exhibitions as spaces constructed by the curator-author — spaces in which the attention of the spectator was shifted from the exhibited objects to the organization of the exhibition space as such. In this respect, Lissitzky speaks about a difference between “passive” and “active” exhibitions — or, as we would say today, between traditional exhibitions and [modern] installations. For Lissitzky, passive exhibitions can only demonstrate what has been done before. In contrast, active exhibitions create the completely new spaces in which the general idea of the exhibition is embodied — and in which individual items play a subsidiary role. Thus, Lissitzky argues that an exhibition of Soviet architecture must be in itself an embodiment of Sovietness in architecture, and all the elements of the exhibition, including its space, light, etc., should be subjugated to this goal. In other words, Lissitzky sees himself as the creator of an exhibition space that functions as an extension and realization of his earlier “projects for establishing the new” (proyekty utverzhdeniya novogo, or PROUNS). The exhibition space becomes not quite a utopian, but — to use the term introduced by Michel Foucault — a heterotopian space. The “active exhibition” must not merely illustrate and reproduce the development of the socialist reality and socialist labor that creates a new society, but rather offer a project for designing Soviet reality in its totality. On the one hand, the organizational work by the Communist Party is reconstructed and praised. On the other hand, Lissitzky aesthetically integrates the representation of the organized Communist work into the Suprematist design of the installation space.

Here Lissitzky finds himself in competition with the “active exhibitions” that were mounted in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in Leningrad in the years 1931-1932 by the Marxist art theoreticians Alexei Fedorov-Davydov and Nikolai Punin. These bore such characteristic titles as “Art of the Capitalist Era” or “Art from the Age of Imperialism.” These exhibitions looked like contemporary innovative curatorial installations created to reveal the sociological presuppositions of avant-garde artistic practice. For example, works by Malevich and other artists were presented under a banner with the text: “Anarchism is a reverse side of bourgeois order.” Here, a real attempt was undertaken to socially, economically and politically contextualize the new avant-garde art from the standpoint of art theoreticians who were sympathetic to this art but interpreted it as merely a necessary step on the way to the coming new Socialist art. These exhibitions could be seen as an application of communist organizational work to the productions of the Russian avant-garde, just as Lissitzky’s exhibitions can be seen as an application of Suprematist space design to communist production. From today’s perspective, it is difficult to say who moved faster forward — and who was left behind.

Yet it should be stressed that these sociologically oriented exhibitions of the Russian avant-garde were not denunciatory. They did not lead to the destruction of the avant-garde artworks or their removal from public view — which shows their essential difference from the (in)famous Nazi exhibition “Degenerate Art.” The contextualization of the Russian avant-garde in the late capitalist, (or imperialist, in Lenin’s sense of globalized capitalist order) era corresponds to the interpretation of Marxism as an analytical, critical method. The curators were following the Marxist sociology of art as developed by Vladimir Friche. Friche contended that the development of capitalism made the notion of beauty and the practice of aesthetic contemplation of beauty obsolete. True art was to be found in the design of machines — where function defines form. The true artists of the capitalist era are the technicians that design these machines and make them work. Accordingly, the art of capitalist society reflects this process of mechanization that slowly but inevitably leads to the abolition of art as a separate activity. This sociological interpretation of the avant-garde denies the movement’s ability to change the context of its own emergence: the avant-garde becomes inscribed in the politico-economic context that produced avant-garde art in the first place. But this reinscription of it into the late capitalist order was understood by the curators of the exhibition not only as a critique of the avant-garde but also as its legitimation. The artistic avant-garde is proclaimed here to be a legitimate expression of its epoch, like Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic art. That is why these sociological exhibitions were not experienced as being anti-avant-gardist. The art of the avant-garde was institutionally disempowered in the middle of the 1930s, as Socialist Realism was officially established as the dominant artistic method. Here the work organized by the Communist Party finally achieved a victory over Suprematist unorganized work. But the Communist Party practiced the same sovereigntist [i.e. Schmittian] reading of Marxism as the Russian avant-garde. Accordingly, Friche and his school were proclaimed to be an expression of vulgar (in other words, critical) Marxism and removed from positions of power, together with the artists of the Russian avant-garde.

Now, Lissitzky by no means saw himself in the context of developed or late capitalism but, rather, as a part of the vanguard of communist society. His artistic attitude, however, did not quite harmonize with the role of the artist in a communist society as envisaged by Marx and Engels. In the context of their discussion of Stirner’s unorganized, that is, artistic work, they write:

The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this, is a consequence of division of labor. Even if in certain social conditions, everyone were an excellent painter, that would by no means exclude the possibility of each of them being also an original painter, so that here too the difference between “human” and “unique” labor amounts to sheer nonsense. In any case, with a communist organization of society, there disappears the subordination of the artist to local and national narrowness, which arises entirely from division of labor, and also the subordination of the individual to some definite art, making him exclusively a painter, sculptor, etc.; the very name amply expresses the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on division of labor. In a communist society there are no painters, but only people who engage in painting among other activities.

Thus, Marx and Engels did not assume that in a socialist society the artist would take the role of social designer or political propagandist. Rather, they expected the arts would return to the search for beauty — but with emphasis on the production of beauty rather than on its consumption and contemplation. In a communist society, everybody can become an artist if he or she desires — but in a nonprofessional manner, in his or her free time. It was a vision of the future of art that was still shared by Clement Greenberg when at the end of his famous essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” he spoke about the possibility of saving beauty and art through the victory of “international socialism” — Trotskyism, in fact. Obviously, Marx and Engels could not have foreseen the strategy of self-empowerment that leads many artists to undertake a leap from unorganized labor to organizational work. This self-empowerment was a goal of the artistic avant-gardes that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. But, after all, the organizational work by the Communist Party demonstrated itself as more efficient than Suprematist organizational work. The Party took over artistic labor — and organized it. In a certain way, the Soviet state brought to its logical end the process of the organization of professional artistic labor that, according to Marx and Engels, had already begun in bourgeois society. But at the same time, another prediction by Marx and Engels was also realized. During the Soviet era, unofficial, nonprofessional lay artistic activity emerged that was practiced by members of Soviet society among their other activities. This nonprofessional, lay art was unorganized but at the same time non-organizational, even anti-organizational. In fact, it had no definite place inside Soviet society: no definite purpose, no identifiable social role. This unofficial — some say dissident — Soviet art was a lay art that was not made for the art market or for the museums, but for a small circle of friends. Under these conditions to choose the role of a lay artist meant to choose no place, to choose social absence — if you will, true utopia. But precisely because of its lack of any explicit social, political or economic context, and what I may call its zero social role and status, Russian unofficial art made the hidden, unconscious, everyday context of Soviet life visible. In a certain critical and analytical sense, unofficial Russian art was more Marxist than the art of the Russian avant-garde: It turned the artist himself into a “zero” medium that manifested the “objective” context of his practice.

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