Lazar (El) Lissitzky’s Self-Portrait ('The Constructor') is a powerful symbol of the artistic, political, cultural and societal sea-changes that upended the world in the 1910s and 20s. It exemplifies the ideologies of the Russian avant-garde, the Bauhaus, Dadaism, modernism, and the Hannover Secession. Photography had played a crucial role in the Russian avant-garde and in promoting Soviet national identity in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution; likewise, it was key to Lissitzky’s personal artistic ideology, which he referred to as 'PROUN.’ This acronym translates roughly to ‘project for the affirmation of the new’.
In the aftermath of the revolution, artists—photographers especially—were offered a unique position in Lenin’s plan for art’s advanced role within a new Socialist system. Russian Constructivist artists embraced this responsibility, with Lissitzky as a key figure at the helm. The broad term ‘Constructivism’ encompasses a range of artistic methodology and was applied to a variety of artistic genres such as film, theater, book design, architecture, and clothing design.
Constructivism acquired connotations of the social role of the artist as constructor and engineer after 1917. “Art” was considered a type of work—production, not creation—and thus, synonymous with industry. These principles served as the foundation for Lissitzky’s artistic output from the late 1910s through the late 20s.
The precision and speed of the camera allowed for the ‘consciousness of human beings’ to be explored most effectively. The camera became the Constructivists’ most effective tool for propagandizing, and Lissitzky himself published numerous articles that championed photographic communication. In 1927 he wrote, ‘The invention of easel pictures produced great works of art, but their effectiveness has been lost… we rejoice at the new media which technology has placed at our disposal’ (Yve- Alain Bois and Christian Hubert, ‘El Lissitzky: Reading Lessons,’ October 11, 1979, p. 115). By the early 1920s, photomontage offered Constructivists the ability to freely combine imagery with text, thus guiding viewers’ new associations and thoughts. Lissitzky himself recognized that ‘in powerful hands [the photomontage] turns out to be the most successful method of achieving visual poetry’ (Yve- Alain Bois and Christian Hubert, El Lissitsky: Reading Lessons, The MIT Press, October, Vol. 11, Essays in Honor of Jay Leyda (Winter, 1979), p. 115.). In 1924, the same year he composed Self-Portrait ('The Constructor'), Lissitzky explicitly turned his back on painting and focused all his artistic efforts on the camera.
“I no longer imagine for a moment that I will return to painting again, even if I recover… the picture fell apart together with the old world in which it had created for itself. The new world will not need little pictures. If it needs a mirror, it has the photograph and cinema’ (El Lissitzky, ‘Conquest of Art’, El Lissitzky 1890-1941, La Fabrica, 2014, p. 61).
The present lot benefits from extraordinary provenance. The original owners, Dr. Ernst and Käte Steinitz were major patrons of the avant-garde art scene. Mrs. Steinitz (née Traumann) was a groundbreaking artist in her own right, most known for her frequent literary collaborations with artist Kurt Schwitters. Her archive is stored in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution; she was an integral member of the Dada and Avant-Garde communities in Hannover, Germany. Steinitz’s work was exhibited at the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926 and the Exhibition of the Société Anonyme at the Anderson Galleries in 1927.
The home she shared in Hannover with her husband was a frequent gathering place for artists, most notably Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters, and El Lissitzky. ‘Schwitters was devoted to Lissitzky… There were frequent meetings with Käte Steinitz and her husband, and the friends stuck together throughout this most difficult time (Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers, Herbert Read, El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts, Thames & Hudson, London, 1968, p. 36. While Steinitz focused on her artistic career and community, her husband was the Head of Internal Medicine at a hospital in Hannover. The couple was known to provide financial support to this community of artists.
Already an established artist, architect and activist, Lissitzky contracted tuberculosis in 1923, suffering his first attack while in Switzerland. Dr. Steinitz secured him a hospital bed and place to recover in the Swiss Alps. To express his sincere gratitude for an act which likely saved his life, Lissitzky gifted them a work of art: the over-sized print of Self-Portrait (‘The Constructor’) the present lot. It has remained in the family since.
Self-Portrait (‘The Constructor’) is a masterpiece of this period. During his time recovering in Switzerland, Lissitzky began experimenting with a 5x7 inch (13x18 centimetre) camera. The self-portrait used in this work was made during this time. Using montage to create was he referred to as his ‘great piece of nonsense’, Lissitzky combined self-referential symbols with the overarching theme of artist as architect and engineer, as evidenced by the compass and hand serving as his eyes (Margarita Tuptisyn, El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999, p. 21).
Lissitzky’s own letterhead is visible as a photogram on the left side of the composition. The stenciled letters XYZ may be a reference to Lissitzky’s writings in the architectural publication ABC. Tuptisyn also speculates that it may refer to an autobiographical essay Lissitzky wrote, in which he referred to his eyes as lenses:
‘My eyes. Lenses and eyepieces, precision instruments… Roentgen and X, Y, Z rays have all combined to place in my forehead 20, 2,000, 200,000 very sharp, polished searching eyes’ (Tupitsyn, p. 21).
Compasses and hands, and compasses as hands, appear independently in various Lissitzky images and advertisements.
Indeed, Self-Portrait (‘The Constructor’) became a symbol of avant-garde art in the 1920s, when creativity was meant to combine human intellect and modern technology (Oliva Maria Rubio, El Lissitzky: The Experience of Totality, p. 14). As a result of the image’s elevated status, elements of Self-Portrait (‘The Constructor’) were appropriated and published in various publications in the 1920s (figs. 1 and 2). And the full image in its entirety, as seen in the present lot, was reproduced widely around the world. Very few vintage prints of Lissitzky’s masterful photomontage are recorded. The original work, which combines photogram, photomontage, drawing, and collage, is in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. An example is housed at the SEPHEROT Foundation, Liechtenstein; Museum of Modern Art, New York, holds an example as part of the Walther Collection, printed on carte postale paper (measuring a mere 7.7 x 8.8 centimetres); a print from the Henry Buhl Collection sold in 2010, also measuring 7.7 x 8.8 centimetres, the same size as the print in the collection of MoMA.
The present work is the largest hitherto recorded early print of this image. Of this group of vintage prints, only the present lot is comparable to the original photomontage in size. This fact, combined with its spotless provenance and amazing exhibition history, deem it a true modernist masterpiece, a lasting and global symbol of the influence of the avant-garde.