A Radiating World: Kurt Schwitters and El Lissitzky

Were it not for the German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, Lissitzky may not have received the commissions for the two Kestner portfolios, currently on view, which I recently blogged about. Through an introduction from Schwitters, Lissitzky met the president of the Kestner Society during a visit to Hanover in 1922. After hosting Lissitzky’s first solo exhibition early the following year, the society of art supporters commissioned him to produce its first and then second limited edition lithographic portfolio as gifts for its members. You can see the Phillips’s fabulous collage by Schwitters, Radiating World, completed just three years before these Lissitzky prints, in an installation currently on view in the Main Gallery of the house.

Elsa Smithgall, Curator

Kurt Schwitters's Radiating World (1920) hangs at left in this view of the current installation of the Phillips Main Gallery. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Kurt Schwitters’s Radiating World (1920) hangs at left in this view of the current installation of the Phillips Main Gallery. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Raise Yourself into Space

Installation view of El Lissitzky Futurist Portfolios exhibition, 2006-07, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Some of you may remember the El Lissitzky exhibition we had at the Phillips in 2006-07, featuring two of the artist’s striking 1923 futurist print portfolios, Proun and Victory over the Sun. On that occasion, artist Hideyo Okamura presented the prints in a dynamic installation inspired by Lissitzky’s art and the three-dimensional abstract rooms he created in the 1920s. In the accordion-like space of number 6 from the Proun portfolio, Lissitzky provides a glimpse of the first Proun Room he had created for the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1923. Here Lissitzky’s bold compositions meld seamlessly with painted designs and reliefs on the walls to create a continuous sensation of movement.

In their current presentation at the Phillips, these two Kestner Society portfolios from the collection of Fenner Milton are making another appearance. Seen this time without the intervention of a contemporary artist, the lithographs animate an L-shaped gallery, inviting the viewer to move in, through, and around their orbiting planar forms. For Lissitzky, the role of the spectator was key to activating his work. “While we turn,” he once said, “we raise ourselves into space.”

Lissitzky’s synthesis of painting and architecture into fluid, three-dimensional immersive environments was incredibly radical for the time. It is interesting to contemplate the legacy of his invention and its contemporary reverberations in the creation of artist rooms today.

Elsa Smithgall, Curator

Current installation of El Lissitzky's futurist print portfolios. Photo: Kate Boone

Current installation of El Lissitzky’s futurist print portfolios. Photo: Kate Boone

Photo: Joshua Navarro

Photo: Joshua Navarro

Photo: Kate Boone