El Lissitzky in Berlin

Berlin was swarming with Russians! They made the town, otherwise so ugly and drab, more colourful.

Sophie Küppers wrote this in her notebook in 1922. Sophies first husband Paul Küppers had died early that year as a victim of the Spanish flu. She shared Pauls interest in modern art and already owned works by artists like Klee, Kandinsky and Mondriaan and on her search for what was interesting and new she went to the First Exhibition of Russian Artists in a gallery at Unter den Linden. She was most impressed by a work of El Lissitsky. Shortly after the purchase they met. Lissitsky told her that she had just bought his best work.

One century ago Berlin was vibrant and exciting. It was a meeting place for artist from all over Europe and an artistic bridge between East and West. In Germany a new democratic experiment had started with the founding of the German Weimar republic. Life was hard and inflation was immense. It was one of these amazing in-between moments in history: a time when – despite all the troubles – everything seemed possible, in the cinema, in the theater, in the bookshops, in the galleries and in the clubs, creativity was everywhere.

To understand how things were going in Berlin at that time, I thought it was good to watch the television series Babylon Berlin. Although the series action must have been later than 1922 it gives a very good impression of the city: the way in which it is portrayed, how the people lived, the position of women, the clubs, the Russians, the police, the theater and politics, everything is interwoven. Berlin was the main cente of creativity on earth where at the same time the fear for the future and the nostalgia to a romanticized past could give way to extreme danger. It was the year when Marlene Dietrich made her first appearance on stage, it was the year where Germans and Russians made the theatre co-production Der Blaue Vogel. It was the year of Nosferatu and also the year of the magazine Veshch.

In Russia this was the year when the civil war ended and the Sovjet Union was founded. Lenin was severly ill, Trotsky was still in Moscow and the fight for power between Trotsky and Stalin was not yet decided. Even though there was a wide spread famine all over Russia and living conditions for most people were really bad, there was a widespread sense that a new era had arrived. In this new state there was a great need for new forms of expression and many of the younger artists that supported the revolution were happy to take care of that. This would be the generation of artists that we today refer to as the Russian avant-garde. El Lissitsky was one of them.

El Lissitsky was born as Lazar Markovich Lissitzky in 1890 in Pochinok, a small Jewish community near Smolensk not too far from the border with Belarus. As a boy he attended a Jewish art school in Vitebsk where he then already met with Ossip Zadkine and Marc Chagall, both stil young boys that would become world famous artsist themselves. At the age of nineteen Lissitsky decided to leave for Germany to study engineering. He went to Darmstad and also learned to speak German there.

In these years as a student he travelled all over Europe, he lived in Paris for a while and also walked large distances in Italy. When the war came this meant that it was no longer safe for him to stay abroad. He had to go back to Russia, lived in Moscow and spent most of his time there studying Jewish art and architecture. When the war ended and the revolutionary government came into power it was Marc Chagall who invited him to come back to Vitebsk in Belarus and teach and work at the People’s Art School – a new type of art school that Chagall created. Kazimir Malevitsch – who was ten years older then Lissitzky and already a better known artist joined him in Vitebsk later that year. A friendship between Malevitch and El Lissitsky started. With Malevitsch having quite a strong character things between Chagall and him didn’t work out that well. Chagall left: first for Moscow and three years later – in 1922 – for Berlin and then to Paris.

‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’. – Poster, 1919, El Lissitzky (1890- 1941).

Starting in 1922 Russia reopend its embassy in Berlin. More than 300.000 Russians lived in the German capital during that year, not all for the same reason. Some of them escaped the new regime, others were actually promoting it. Lissitsky was asked to be the Russian art consul.  Sophie Küppers writes: “Lissitzky met his compatriots in the Café Nollendorfplatz. He had rented an attic room (…) near the Kurfürstendamm. The progressive Russian artistic intelligentsia assembled in this club every Friday. Ilya Ehrenburg went there, and a most varied collection of artists (…) Victor Skhlovsky, Nikolai Aseyev, Boris Pasternak, Andrey Bely, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Lilly Brik and Elsa Triolet, and the artists Naum Gabo, Anton Pevsner, Alexander Archipenko, Nathan Altmann, David Sterenberg, and Ljuba Koszinzewa, Ehrenburgs wife.

The cafe was near the theatre am Nollendorf Platz (today the Metropole) a famous place in these days where Georg Grosz and John Heartfield hung out and invented photomontage. The same theatre would be the homeground for Bertold Brecht a couple of years later.

When we see the pictures of these artists in books or on the web today we mostly see them when they are older. I think it is good to realize that all of these artists at this specific time in Berlin were relatively young, most of them were born around 1890. We now say they were Russians but when you look closer at it many of them were Jewish and actually born in what is now Belarus or in Ukraine. The windows of opportunities in Germany and Russia coincided with the phase in their lives where they were making new choices.

In Berlin the quality of printing was very good. Perhaps because the most printed object in that period was money. Inflation was so high that new money had to be printed almost every week. In a few months one US dollar went up from a million to several billion Reichsmarks. For the artists from abroad with foreign money this made life in fact relatively cheap. For the German people paid in Marks it made life crazy.

Lissitsky collaborated with Ehrenburg where they made the first Soviet periodical, Veshch (‘Object’) a magazine that sought to disseminate their ideas about the role of art in revolutionary society and in which they wanted to connect Western European and Russian art and culture. It was published in three languages and among others Boris Pasternak, Theo van Doesburg, Fernand Léger, Mayakovsky, Malevich, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Alexander Rodchenko, Tatlin, and Le Corbusier were contributors.  

When I write this in April 2022 the war between Ukraine and Russia is in its second month. Ukrainian flags are shown all over Berlin. Again there are many Russian – although it might as well be Ukrainian – speaking people in the city arriving by the hundreds on Berlin Hauptbahnhof. The Russian embassy at Unter den Linden is heavily guarded. I walk towards Nollendorfplatz and Kurfürstendamm and there are almost no traces left of the amazing hub this once was. The Nollendorfplatz still has the Metropole theatre, although it stays unclear if much is going on there. In café Einstein around the corner I have a Russian couple sitting next to me. The creative spaces in Berlin are now elsewhere in Friedrichshain, at Tempelhof and in Kreuzberg.

Its how it often starts. With a theatre and a couple of cafes around it. The theatre gives a reason to go there. The bars offer the opportunity to discuss what people just have seen. The cafes and bars are the perfect places for people to meet. During the day for a coffee to energize, during the evening for a beer or a cocktail to relax. Ideas are discussed. As always more plans are discussed than realized. But sometimes big plans become a reality.  That international magazine Veshch was a plan but it was actually made. Ilya Ehrenburg wrote a book in the year he was in Berlin. Lissitsky was quite productive he produced drawings, prouns and books. Someone knew about the Van Diemen gallery at Unter den Linden. The idea was born to organize the First Russian Avantgarde exposition there.

Some years before, in Weimar in 1917 the architect Walter Gropius started the Bauhaus, a new type of art school. It was an experimental school, the kind of art school the world had never seen before. Kandinsky teached there. Paul Klee, Oscar Schlemmer and Lyonel Feyniger worked there. In 1922 the Dutch painter Theo van Doesburg also teached there and that is when the school was also visited by Lissitsky.

The art magazine De Stijl was founded in the Netherlands in 1917. Most people may have heard about De Stijl because the painter Mondriaan was a member. Rightly so, but it was the architect Rietveld who had most of his famous chairs designed before 1922 and who was working on the design of the Rietveld Schröder house in Utrecht that would be finished in 1923. The architect Oud was working on his design for the famous Cafe de Unie in Rotterdam. The one who brought them all together was Van Doesburg. He was the one to take the initiative for the De Stijl magazine, and he asked Lissitsky to design and edit a double issue of the magazine in 1922. Which is why Lissitzky is sometimes even listed as a member of De Stijl.

Sophie Küppers may not have been very impressed by Van Doesburg: “As an organizer he was more successful than as an original artist.” (…) “At the Bauhaus in Weimar, Theo van Doesburg introduced his students to all the latest sensations in the art world. He was full of enthusiasm for Lissitzky’s little book, and reprinted it in the periodical De Stijl – but the cover as altered by Van Doesburg is more obviously a piece of advertising art than its original form designed by Lissitzky.

Then in the summer of 1922 another young Dutch student made his approach at this international scene. His name was Cor van Eesteren. First a bit shy, he was only 24 years of age, but as a Dutch architecture student he had won the Prix de Rome which allowed him to travel for a year. First he went to Berlin where he then did not meet anyone yet, then someone told him to go to Vienna. From there he went to Dresden and eventually to Weimar where he arrived at the Bauhaus. He talked with Gropius and the records say that the latter was not impressed. He heard Van Doesburg’s talk and met Lissitsky. Something must have happened there because they immediately invited him to join them on a trip to Dusseldorf where they took part in the first meeting of the Union of International Progressive Architects. I am not sure when he met with him again but a couple of years later it was Gropius who proposed Van Eesteren to be the chairman for the International Conference of Modern Architects.

Later that year, in October 1922 the first Soviet Art Exhibition opened. It was the first time the world outside Russia could see and admire avant garde sovjet art. The selection of the works was done by Shterenberg, Altmann and Gabo. The exposition was huge. There were more than 700 works by 167 different artists on display. It was only during the exposition that the idea came up to bring everything to Amsterdam and expose it in The Stedelijk Museum. A display in an art gallery is something diffrent than an art exposition in a well regarded modern art museum. Lissitzky together with Altmann accompanied the show to Amsterdam. Van Doesburg introduced Lissitzky to Dutch artists who were all interested in his work. Sophie Küppers: “Lissitzky gave lectures in various towns, and on these occasions he came into friendly contact with architects such as J. J. Oud in Rotterdam, whose working-class housing-estate, built as far back as 1919, Lissitzky studied with the greatest admiration. With Carel van Eesteren, Mart Stam, Vilmos Huszar and Georges Vantongerloo he formed friendly relationships.”

Lissitsky suffered severely from tuberculosis and had to spend long periods in hospitals in Italy and Switzerland. The correspondence between Lissitsky from the sanatorium in Switzerland with the Dutch architect Oud was published by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The chaging of the tide in Germany made Lissitsky want to go back to Moscow and he asked Sopie Kuppers to join him. Lissitsky and Sopie Kuppers married in 1926. Lissitsky returned to Germany several times. He organised and designed the Russian stands at expos.

Van Eesteren started to collaborate with Van Doesburg in Paris. Still without a job when he was in Holand he lived with his parents in The Hague. He had met his future wife in 1922 on a train near Munich. It would take years before he could actually marry her. In 1926 he started to work for Jan Wils the then architect of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. And it was only in 1929 that he became the Head of City Planning in Amsterdam where at the same moment he was asked to become the chairman of the Intenational Conference of Modern Architects.

Berlin kept on roaring during the twenties. When in 1933 Hitler won the elections the roaring became terribly different.

My Russian friend Marina Khrustaleva recently found a copy of Lissitzky’s notebook in the Getty Library in Los Angeles. It reads like a Facebook friends page where you can see that he knew absolutely everyone in art and architecture of any importance. In 1926 Lissitsky and Sophie Kuppers visited the Netherlands. They met with Rietveld and Wils. Mart Stam showed them the work that was going on for the Van Nellefabriek in Rotterdam. They enjoyed the beach in Scheveningen and they met with Vilmus Huszar and Cor van Eesteren.

The notebooks are owned by The Getty Library in Los Angeles

In the twenty years between the two World Wars the Russian Avant garde came and went, the Bauhaus began and ended, De Stijl started and stopped. El Lissitsky was the key figure in that network of the modern movement. What he did not know and acttually could not forsee was where this all would go and how enourmous the impact of his friends was going to be on the world and especially the cities that we live in today.

When the war started in Russia it was almost impossible for Lissitzky to get the care he needed. He died in 1941. A couple of years later (in 1944) Sophie Küppers was deported as an “enemy foreigner” to Novosibirsk, where she lived under difficult conditions. It was there where she wrote about her life with El Lissitzky. Using the notebooks from these magic years. Their son Lev lived with here and she only died in 1978. Novisibirsk celebrates her.

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