The Nature of Representation in the work of El Lissitzky

By Ashley Ellen

El Lissitzky was a Russian designer whose ideas inspired and innovated typography and graphic identity in the twentieth century. Influenced by post world war one Russia, and movements such as constructivism, suprematism, Bauhaus, dada and in reaction to communism and poverty, Lissitzky upheld a new approach at understanding design, type and image that represented much meaning in its context to communicate messages that even the illiterate could understand.


This selection of Lissitzky was designed for a book of poems, written by Vladimir Mayakovsky, called “For the Voice” or “For Reading Out Loud.” It was created in 1923, around the time of Vladimir Lenin’s death and the rise of Stalin. Communism and technology were becoming widespread in Russia, which influenced Lissitzky to represent a metaphor of these concepts in his work.. With a background in engineering and architecture, “mathematical and structural properties of architecture formed the basis for his art.” (Meggs 289)
Emerging a good 30 years after the arts and crafts movement of the late 1800s and into the later realm of the modernist era, designers like Lissitzky, “did not decorate the book- [they] constructed it by visually programming the total object.” (Meggs 291)
The function of pictorial representation was a large component of Lissitzky’s work, he closely based his ideas on the constructivist ideology. Constructivism was held together by three principles; tectonics- which, “represented the unification of communist ideology,” texture- which, “meant the nature of materials and how they are used in industrial production,” and the principle of construction- symbolizing “the creative process and the search for laws of visual organization.” (Meggs 289) Lissitzky actually did not refer to himself as an artist, designer or typographer, but as a constructor, as if he were an information architect.
In his 1923 design of the book,“For the voice,” we can see these elements as they function to narrate each of Mayakovsky’s poems. In the construction of the pages, based on the notion that each poem is to be read aloud, Lissitzky represents a narrative with the forms, color, typography, layering and rhythm which is inherent in not only the positive, but the negative space as well.
On this selected page, “the poem ‘Our March’ begins, ‘Beat your drums on the squares of the riots, turned red with the blood of revolution.’” He represents the essence of a beating drum in the layered form of the right-most “w” shape, where the staccato seems to appear like a drum mallet in motion. The blatant red square on the left is representative of the blood-stained squares of the riots, like Moscow’s historic Red-Square.
Lissitzky designed his pages with “an understanding of such printing possibilities as overlapping color, [which was] important in his work.” (Meggs 291) The spatial composition and the contrast of color was evident in “For the voice” as he interprets issues of the revolution. The diagonal and offset lines were meant to negate a parallel line, which would represent order. The historical context of the book took place in times of conflict and he wanted to resemble a change which would lead to a new international art that had no ties to a particular culture.
Special to this book, is the use of the die-cut tab system. Enabling the reader to view and easily turn to any of the poems, each signified with typography as well as a symbol. It was an element of the suprematist ideology that parts of the design should be, “transformed into political symbolism that even a semiliterate peasant can supposedly understand.” (Meggs 290)
Lissitzky made his layouts on graph paper, which was modular, which allowed him to place the elements of the page in a logical structure and mathematical order. The ramifications of his designs were indicative in their effect to communicate a feeling and a message through the color, image and rhythm of each page. They were political in nature and meant to be understood by the broadest group. They were symbolic. His work was a means to push the world in a new direction, which he especially spread by his frequenting the schools of Bauhaus, the Dadaists, as well as through cover designs in which he was commissioned by radical American groups, like that for “Broom Magazine.”
Some other significant work of his was “The Isms of Art” in 1924, which used bold rules, sans-serif typography, tri-column grid structure and interpreted the work into three languages. This text was very indicative of the modern era in its asymmetrical balance, use of type, thick lines and consideration of white space, especially on the pages of reference images. Another revolutionary work of his is a 1929, “poster for a Russian exhibition in Switzerland.” (Meggs 294) The poster conveys a positive equality of gender in the Soviet Union, as the lettering of USSR is stretched across the figures of a male and female, appearing the same size, smiling and looking off into the distance.
Lissitzky’s nature of representation, such as in “For the Voice” lies in his contruction of the page. In the rhythm he creates through contrasting color, like that of the overlayed black and red type, he creates a sense of movement, in the beating of the drum, while the red square in the work depicts the illusive events of the revolution. The intent of his work in the context of representation is significant. His means are to communicate the messages of political symbolism and to depict the meaning through the typography and structure of the forms. Typographer Jan Tschichold writes of El Lissitzky as, “one of the great pioneers… His indirect influence was widespread and enduring… A generation that has never heard of him… stands upon his shoulders.”

Works Cited
Meggs, Philip. History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey. 2006
Van Abbemuseum, Stedelijk. El Lissitzky, 1890–1941: Architect Painter Photographer Typographer. 1990
Mayakovsky, Vladimir; Lissitzky, Lazor. For the Voice (Dlia golosa). The MIT Press. Reprinted 2000