About Two Squares: El Lissitzky’s 1922 suprematist picture book for kids

Originally published in the
Cambridge Literary Review

Most children’s books do not come with instructions for how to read them. El Lissitzky’s About Two Squares is not most children’s books.

Lissitzky first announced his plan to write a “suprematist tale”[1] about two intergalactic squares while teaching graphic arts and printmaking at the Vitebsk Institute of Popular Art in 1920. Traces of the idea can be detected as early as September 1919, however, shortly after he arrived in the city. Initially a disciple of the Jewish folk painter Marc Chagall, Lissitzky soon came under the spell of the charismatic avant-garde pioneer Kazimir Malevich (who usurped Chagall’s role as rector of the Institute that winter). Almost immediately one notices a shift in the form and subject-matter of Lissitzky’s oeuvre, as he abandoned village scenes and stylized conventional figures in favor of planar abstractions and floating rectilinear shapes. Within a matter of months, his entire artistic worldview was transformed.

Part of this transformation involved a change in Lissitzky’s approach to typography and book design. These were fields in which he showed prior interest. He had prepared a songbook for the traditional Passover poem Chad Gadya in 1917, and then again in 1919. Both of these versions clearly demonstrate the abiding influence of Chagall, though by the time the second one was published, suprematist elements already began to enter in. Following the release of the 1919 edition, Lissitzky informed Malevich of his newfound perspective:

It is my belief that the thoughts we drink from the book with our eyes must be poured over every visible shape. The letters and punctuation marks, which introduce order to thoughts, must also be taken into account. Besides that, the way the rows are set corresponds to certain condensations of thought; these should be condensed for the benefit of the eye as well.[2]

Evidently, suprematism for Lissitzky had consequences well beyond the realm of the painted object. It implied a broader reconsideration of the medium of print. Lissitzky was an ardent — if self-trained — bibliologist, and in 1926 he hypothesized what effect modern art might have on the future of the book. “There are today two dimensions to the word,” he maintained in an article for the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch. “As sound, it is a function of time; as exposition, of space. The book of the future must be both.”[3]

Yve-Alain Bois, a Swiss art critic and Lissitzky scholar, has noted that authors only began to take an interest in the visuals of their books toward the end of the nineteenth century.[4] Questions of format, font, and layout generally seemed besides the point. Little attention was paid to the arrangement of text upon the page. With the advent of photography and improved printing technology, however, new possibilities were opened. Citing the development of “facsimile-electrotype (or half-tone blocks),” Lissitzky speculated that this would allow for greater flexibility in the illustration of written materials.[5] Great innovators like F.T. Marinetti likewise had a role to play in Lissitzky’s scheme, discerning the potential of boldface lettering and ALL CAPS to convey emphasis or emotion.[6] Nevertheless, the aesthetics of print continued to lag behind other fields of art until the outbreak of World War I, usually held up as a cultural watershed.

Russia was no exception to this trend. “Before October 1917,” Lissitzky explained in a catalog ten years later, “our artists hardly concerned themselves with typesetting. That matter was left to the printers.” He continued: “After October, many of our premier artists in different fields, hoping to express the new through the specific properties of each medium, took up the task of reinventing the book according to the material of the book itself — i.e., type.”[7] Painters especially participated in this process, starting even before the war, working together with poets to revolutionize the medium.[8] By the 1920s, swept along by the maelstrom of revolution, avant-garde bookmakers were employed in the production of posters as propaganda for the masses. Lissitzky even likened such placards and printed visual displays to single pages ripped from books, magnified and blown up several dozen times.[9]

This new movement, which sought to break down the barrier separating art from life, entailed the “death” of painting as it had hitherto been known. Aleksandr Rodchenko gave up painting in order to pursue photography and agitprop. Varvara Stepanova abandoned the canvas for fabrics and textile patterns. For Lissitzky, the prewar experiments in painting had simply prepared artists for the revolutionary enterprise of construction, an idea charged with meaning at the time. His celebrated PROUN series merely provided the point of departure, being “the way station between art and architecture.”[10] Similarly, the book displaced painting and sculpture as the most monumental art form of revolutionary Russia.[11] It was this fact, in Lissitzky’s view, that sealed the fate of older forms of artistic production. “Once the printed page started to seduce the artist,” he wrote morbidly, “painting slowly died.”[12]

Bois has referred to this rhetorical conceit regarding the death of easel painting as “the cliché of the era.”[13] Was it really nothing more than a cliché, though? Might it not have had a real sociohistoric basis?

Indeed, About Two Squares can be read as a dramatization of this very aspiration, though intended for children. Lissitzky stressed the importance of such literature in the upbringing of the New Man: “We should add to the number of illustrated weeklies the flood of children’s picture-books. Children’s reading teaches them a new plastic language. They grow up with a different relation to image and color, the world and space.”[14] About Two Squares recapitulates Lissitzky’s belief that revolutionary form heralds the arrival of revolutionary content, and that the former must act as a vehicle for the latter.

The book finally appeared in 1922, roughly two years after Lissitzky envisioned it, under the imprimatur of the Scythian press [Skythen Verlag] in Berlin. On the back cover, however, was a symbol indicating its origin in Vitebsk: the UNOVIS logo — a red square set inside a thin black frame, partially circumscribed within a circle. Scythian publishing house was loosely affiliated with the Left Socialist-Revolutionary party in Russia, run mostly by Russian symbolist poets living abroad. In some ways it may be seen as a prototype of later samizdat operations. About Two Squares was among the first modernist publications they put out. Continue reading

Der Palast der Sowjets: Entries by German architects to the Palace of the Soviets competition

Hans Poelzig [Ганс Полциг]

Walter Gropius [Вальтер Гропиус]

Hannes Meyer [Ганнес Майер]

Erich Mendelsohn [Ерих Мендельсон]

“The Soviet Union and modern architecture” (1932)

Hans Schmidt

Translated from the German by Eric Dluhosch.
El Lissitzky, Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution.
(MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1970).

• • •

The outcome of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets has filled all radical architects in the West with indignation and disbelief. We have no intention of using this occasion to mollify their outrage; on the contrary, it is incombent upon us to inform the reader in the same breath that the decision was neither accidental nor an isolated occurrence. In fact, a limited competition among ten Soviet architects has been held and since and has yielded similar results. At the same time, however, we do consider it our duty to give our Western colleagues a more objective picture of the architectural situation in the Soviet Union and to put into perspective those matters that have been misunderstood and distorted by overexposure and sensation-seeking publicity. In our case, the attempt to be objective reflects the desire to look at modern architecture not simply as a completed phenomenon, but as a process intimately connected to all the social, political, and technical manifestations of a whole culture.

Let us first attempt briefly to trace developments as faras the West is concerned. The present situation of modern architecture in the West has come about as the result of a long struggle, with many interacting and mutually interdependent movements often appearing to be countermanding each other, as for example the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the Dutch Rationalist Movement (Berlage), the Art Nouveau Movement, the Fin de Siècle Movement, etc. The bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, which after the French Revolution had at first decided to take over the styles bequeathed by feudalism, later attempted by movements such as those mentioned to evolve their own cultural forms in architecture as well as in other fields of artistic endeavor. It is significant to note that all these early attempts had one thing in common: they all tried to find their outlets within the context of high capitalism. As a result of this we had a revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the negation of the metropolis, the embracing of social ideas, i.e., garden cities for the workers, etc. Under the influence of technical developments in the last phase of capitalism, and as a result of rationalization and standardization, the real program of modern architecture eventually came into existence, demanding absolute unity between art form and technical form, both firmly rooted in developed capitalist technology. Even here, social ideas crept in, such as the notion that prosperity for all could be solved simply be harnessing capitalism to modern technology. The realization that this was not necessarily the case had as its consequence the eventual decision by the left wing of modern architecture to embrace the idea of Socialism. Continue reading

Nikolai Ladovskii’s studio at VKhUTEMAS (1920-1930)

With an original translation
of Ladovskii’s 1921 program

Image: Photograph of Nikolai Ladovskii
during his professorship at VKhUTEMAS


Special thanks are due to Monoskop for pointing out to me a number of new images, as well as to TotalArch for providing Selim Khan-Magomedov’s selected Russian text online to translate for this post.

Nikolai Ladovskii and students at VKhUTEMAS, 1922

Nikolai Ladovskii and students at VKhUTEMAS, 1922

“On the program of the working group of architects” (1921)

The task of our working group is to work in the direction of elucidating a theory of architecture. Our productivity will depend on the very rapid articulation of our program, on clarifying the investigative methods to be used and identifying the materials we have at our disposal to supplement the work. The work plan can be broken down into roughly three basic points:

I) aggregation of appropriate theoretical studies and existing theories of architecture of all theoreticians,
II) excavation of relevant material from theoretical studies and investigations extracted from other branches of art, which bear on architecture, and
III) exposition of our own theoretical perspectives to architecture.

The result of these efforts must be the compilation of an illustrated dictionary that establishes precisely the terminology and definitions of architecture as an art, its individual attributes, properties etc, the interrelation of architecture with the other arts. The three elements of the work plan relate, in the case of the first, to the past, to “what has been done”; in that of the second, to the present, and “what we are doing,” and in that of the third, to “what must be done” in the future in the field of theoretical justifications of architecture. A commission, which might be necessary to set up for the program’s elaboration, must build upon the foundations we have suggested.

Continue reading

Soviet avant-garde architectural negatives (mid-1920s to early-1930s)

Blueprint abstractions (all blueprints, really, are anticipatory abstractions) of modernist building projects by Soviet architects Ivan Leonidov, Leonid Vesnin, Aleksandr Vesnin, and Nikolai Krasil’nikov.

From Sovremennaia arkhitektura [Modern Architecture], 1930 (no. 5, pgs. 2-3):

In publishing projects for the Palace of Culture to be built on the Simonov Monastery site as discussion material, the editors of SA observe that not one of them provided a generally and entirely satisfactory solution to the problem. The arguments which have developed around these projects in the press, higher education establishments, and in public debates have mainly emphasized the design submitted by I. Leonidov, and as a result have come to assume the character of an undisguised persecution and baiting of the latter.

The editors of SA are perfectly well aware of the shortcomings of certain of I. Leonidov’s projects: ignoring the economic situation today at the same time as indulging in certain elements of aestheticism. All these features are undoubtedly a minus in Leonidov’s work.

Architectural blackprints.


But the critics of Leonidov’s work totally fail to see what from our standpoint is a great plus in it, which for all these shortcomings makes it in certain respects better and more valuable than the work of his competitors.

…The editors of SA, whilst recognizing that some of the accusations made against him are correct (abstractness, schematicism, etc.) consider that despite this the works of Leonidov are highly valuable as material of an investigative and experimental character, and they most forcefully protest against the groundless persecution of him.

The editors of Modern Architecture.