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Proun : Proekty ustanovleniya (utverzhdeniya) novogo (Projects for the establishment and (affirmation) of the new)
Proun (pronounced 'pro-oon') was the acronymic name and identity Lazar Markovich (El) Lissitzky gave to the abstract pictorial constructions he first developed in 1919 in response to Malevich's Suprematism. Described by the artist as 'stations on the way to constructing a new form' or 'stations where one changes from painting to architecture', the Proun was Lissitzky's utopian development of Suprematism away from the idealised, mystical and illusionary plane of the flat canvas into the realm of the real world of three or more dimensions.
Lissitzky had first met Malevich at the Popular Art Institute in Vitebsk in 1919 where he immediately underwent an almost religious conversion to Malevich's new art. Suprematism, which took its name from the 'supremacy' of feeling above all other aesthetic and functional considerations in the pursuance non-objective art, 'revealed' to Lissitzky, 'for the first time, and in all its purity, the clear sign and plan for a definite new world never before experienced - a world which issues forth from our inner being'. This Suprematist world was essentially an almost mystical and immaterial new world of infinite and fascinating possibility governed and determined by Malevich's notion of the spiritual transformation of matter through the innate sense of order and construction humans can feel within themselves.
Amidst the utopian atmosphere of the Revolution, Lissitzky, together with Malevich, set up the organisation, UNOVIS (Affirmers of the New Art) - a collective of students and teachers dedicated to the extension of this Suprematist ideal and aesthetic into all areas of life. It was within the UNOVIS at this time, that Lissitzky then, effectively took over the leadership from Malevich, through his development of the Proun - a pictorial construction based on the Suprematist principles that Lissitzky had almost instantaneously understood and absorbed, but which now introduced three dimensional forms, the suggestion of mass and architecture and multiple and contradictory perspectives within the infinite, idealised 'Suprematist' space. The 'Proun' was to be the bridge between the Suprematist world and the real world of the viewer, its self- contradictory multiple viewpoints an encouragement to the viewer to 'circle like a planet round the picture which remains immobile in the centre'. The 'construction of Suprematism follows the straight lines and curves of the aeroplane,' Lissitzky asserted, 'it leads the way in the new space, (and demonstrates that) we are building in it'.
These 'constructivist' elements mirrored many of the utopian philosophies of the time and in particular echoed the concerns of the Constructivist OBMOKhU group who differentiated themselves from the UNOVIS in their insistence on a purely functional utilitarian form of construction based solely on technology and the ethic of 'real materials in real space'. As Lissitzky was later to assert when he brought Suprematism and Proun to the West, for the UNOVIS, such 'basic utilitarianism' was 'far from our thoughts' we regarded 'poetry, plastic form, (and) drama, as essential'.
Lissitzky was one of the first Russian avant-garde artists to come to the West, arriving in Berlin in 1921, where he became one of the foremost influences in the 'International Constructivst' ideal that flourished throughout the 1920s. Developing the Proun aesthetic into the fields of architecture, design, printmaking, photography and typography, Lissitzky worked closely with many of the leading artists of the period, establishing a Dada-Constructivist axis with Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters amongst others and influencing strongly the pioneers of the Bauhaus and de Stijl. During this hectic period of his move to Weimar Germany, Lissitzky's Prounen, as they became known, took on the role of propagandising the Suprematist ideal and swiftly evolved from straightforward paintings into three-dimensional reliefs and even, in the famous Proun Room of 1923, into complete architectural environments. In the constructive logic he developed in these Prounen also lay the foundations for his later experiments in architecture and exhibition design.
The following three Proun works all date from the vital period when Lissitzky, while still at the UNOVIS, was refining his work in accordance with the most Utopian dreams of a new architecture. Like blueprints for the architecture of some new futuristic city in the sky, these extraordinarily dynamic works reveal through the elegance of their simple and the complexity and dynamic harmony of their multiple intersecting angles of form how Lissitzky, having fully absorbed the Suprematist logic of Malevich's forms was able to bestow upon it new energised sense of practicality and purpose.
(fig. 1) El Lissitzky in the studio in Vitebsk, 1919. © DACS 2008.
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