"The Architecture of the Book": El Lissitzky's Works on Paper, 1919-1937
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CitationJohnson, Samuel. 2015. "The Architecture of the Book": El Lissitzky's Works on Paper, 1919-1937. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractAlthough widely respected as an abstract painter, the Russian Jewish artist and architect El Lissitzky produced more works on paper than in any other medium during his twenty year career. Both a highly competent lithographer and a pioneer in the application of modernist principles to letterpress typography, Lissitzky advocated for works of art issued in “thousands of identical originals” even before the avant-garde embraced photography and film. Lissitzky also devoted more effort to theorizing what he called “the architecture of the book” than to any other single issue, publishing statements in 1919, 1923, 1927 and 1931 that demonstrate a consistency otherwise lacking from his incredibly varied career. This phrase encapsulates Lissitzky’s view of the book as a global structure uniting all the formal and technical capabilities of a culture: initially derived from Victor Hugo’s claim that Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type had replaced architecture as the universal form of popular expression, Lissitzky’s term emblematizes the expanded field of architecture in which he operated.
This dissertation approaches Lissitzky as a theorist and practitioner of this expanded architectural field. Chapters one and two outline Lissitzky’s general project, treating the lithographic portfolios in which he circulated his abstract paintings and the journals and books he designed as model structures of print’s “architecture.” Its third chapter examines the changes that Lissitzky’s experiments with photography, both in cameraless abstract compositions and multi-negative montages, wrought on his conception of print. Rather than conceiving photography and film as exemplars of reproducibility as such, Lissitzky saw them as heralding a reorganization of existing systems of reproducible media linked by a broad cultural practice of reading. Chapter four shows how artists and printers in the USSR continued to debate these evolving practices of cultural literacy under Stalin, negotiating new technological possibilities and new political demands. As a leading figure in this debate, Lissitzky’s works exemplified the contradiction between advancing technical possibilities and diminishing popular participation in public life while remaining entirely affirmative toward the regime. The dissertation’s final chapter places the photographic albums Lissitzky produced in collaboration with his partner, Sophie Küppers, in relation to an emergent Stalinist patron class.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:17463124
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