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El Lissitzky and Sophie Küppers: A Romance with the Avant-garde

A cover of Wendingen magazine. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery On the occasion of the 130th anniversary of the world-renowned artist El Lissitzky, Goethe-Institut Novosibirsk publishes a long read essay by Novosibirsk art critic Sergey Samoilenko. The fate of this outstanding representative of the Russian avant-garde art, and that of his family, his artworks, and the underground exhibitions in Novosibirsk Akademgorodok in the period of the political thaw of the 1960s, is interwoven into a multi-episode series whose characters experience unimaginable adventures and overcome incredible barriers for the sake of art.




Sergei Samoilenko
Inspirator and consultant: ​Valeria Lissitzky


This November, the world will celebrate the 130th anniversary of the outstanding Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky. He can hardly be called just a painter: during his short life, he also worked as a book illustrator and designer, architect, photographer, furniture and exhibition designer, author of propaganda posters, and art scholar. El Lissitzky is recognized as one of the most significant Russian artists of the twentieth century, a century so rich in protagonists in the field of art. He is one of the best-known Russian avant-garde artists, next to Kandinsky and Malevich.
 
Next year will be the same anniversary of Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers, El Lissitzky’s faithful wife and comrade, who preserved his legacy after his death and did much for its promotion. There is no doubt that without Sofie, the artist’s life would be less fruitful, and his legacy would hardly be so fully preserved.
 
How is Novosibirsk, situated rather far from the world’s cultural capitals, related to these names? The relation is direct. Sofie lived here for nearly forty years, during which she wrote a monograph devoted to her husband’s creative works, and she is also buried here.

Instead of a Foreword: A Century-long Film

El Lissitzky, self-portrait <i>The Constructor</i> El Lissitzky, self-portrait The Constructor | © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia It seems to me that the fates of Lazar Lissitzky (this is his real name, he took a pseudonym when he became an artist) and Sofie Küppers may serve as the basis for an epoch-making novel, or a film series, as now the film series has replaced the novel. There is everything in this film. There is the rise of a talented youth, born in a small town, all the way up to the summit of the art world, and his participation in the magnificent utopian project of creating a new world. There is a love story: an encounter with a young German widow, their marriage, and fourteen years of life in the Soviet Union in the atmosphere of Stalin’s purges and the beginning of World War II. There is politics and there is history, with Germany and Russia becoming the scenes of action in the most dramatic moments of the epoch. There is a plot around Sofie’s life with her son in Siberian exile at a time when the political climate changed after Stalin’s death, at the time of the thaw of the 1960s, and during the frosts that followed.  There is even a detective line – the loss of the collection of paintings stolen during the Nazi regime in Germany, and the attempts to regain it after the war.
 
Generally speaking, this film series could last several seasons, and be co-produced by Germany and Russia, no matter who undertakes the project. In this cinematic novel, we are mainly interested in the stories about Novosibirsk and about the exhibition in the art gallery of the House of Scientists held in 1967. However, for the reader to understand the plot better, it is worthwhile to remind the public of the content of the previous episodes.
 

The Episode Disclosing the Content of the Previous Episodes

  • A portrait of L.M. Lissitzky  © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    A portrait of L.M. Lissitzky
  • Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers, 1930s © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers, 1930s
  • Visiting Le Corbusier’s home in Paris, 1928: below is Pitt Mondrian, above on the right are Sofie and El Lissitzky. On the left are Le Corbusier’s employees. © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Visiting Le Corbusier’s home in Paris, 1928: below is Pitt Mondrian, above on the right are Sofie and El Lissitzky. On the left are Le Corbusier’s employees.
  • Sofie, Jen, and El Lissitzky, presumably 1932 © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Sofie, Jen, and El Lissitzky, presumably 1932
  • El Lissitzky, a photo collage with Jen. El Lissitzky working on stage design for Sergey Tretyakov’s play <i>I want a baby</i> in Meyerhold’s theatre, Moscow, 1930 © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    El Lissitzky, a photo collage with Jen. El Lissitzky working on stage design for Sergey Tretyakov’s play I want a baby in Meyerhold’s theatre, Moscow, 1930
  • Sofie and Jen Lissitzky, Moscow, 1930s © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Sofie and Jen Lissitzky, Moscow, 1930s
Lazar Lissitzky was born in the Smolensk region on November 10, 1890 under the Julian calendar, or on November 22 under the Gregorian calendar. At least, this is what the Russian sources and German Wikipedia state. English sources claim that he was born a day later, on the 11th (23rd) of November. I have been unable to determine the cause of these differences. Let them be as they are.
 
Lissitzky’s childhood and adolescence are omitted. In 1915, he received a Bachelor’s diploma in Engineering and Architecture, and after the revolution he joined the association UNOVIS (Promoters of New Art), founded by Malevich. He taught in the famous VKHUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technology Workshops), worked as an architect, and designed his famous ‘vertical skyscraper’. In 1921, the People’s Commissariat of Education sent him to Germany as a representative of the new revolutionary art, to establish ties with German artists.
 
In 1922, Lissitzky, already El Lissitzky, met Sofie Küppers in Hannover. Sofie was an art scholar, gallery dealer, and recently widowed. Her late husband, Paul Küppers, an art collector and gallery dealer, had fallen victim to the Spanish flu. The woman had two sons, she was a friend of many artists, and she exhibited and bought works by Klee, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. She saw Lissitzky’s works, and met him. They became friends, corresponded, and in 1927, they got married and decided to move to Moscow.

In 1921, the People’s Commissariat of Education sent him to Germany as a representative of the new revolutionary art, to establish ties with German artists.

In 1930, their son Jen was born, who changed his name to Boris later. The political climate changed in the country, and avant-garde artists became unwanted. Lissitzky was slowly but surely pushed from the frontline of art, and his friends began to perish in the slaughter of the purges. Kurt, Sofie’s oldest son, returned to Germany secretly without his family’s knowledge.     
 
In 1941, the Great Patriotic War began. El Lissitzky died on December 30. Sofie was left with two children and practically destitute. Her middle son Hans, as an ethnic German, was sent to a labour camp. Sofie and her younger son Jen were interned in Siberia a year before the end of the war. So, she started a life in Novosibirsk.

The Episode in which the Architecture of Barracks and Constructivism is Compared

  • The burnt frame-house in Novosibirsk, below on the right is the window of the flat in which Sofie and Jen lived in the late 1940s © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    The burnt frame-house in Novosibirsk, below on the right is the window of the flat in which Sofie and Jen lived in the late 1940s
  • Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers teaching handicrafts in the House of Culture, Novosibirsk, 1940s © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers teaching handicrafts in the House of Culture, Novosibirsk, 1940s
  • Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers, Novosibirsk, the late 1940s. Photo: Jen Lissitzky © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers, Novosibirsk, the late 1940s.
  • Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers with her pupils in the House of Culture, Novosibirsk, 1949 © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers with her pupils in the House of Culture, Novosibirsk, 1949
  • Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers in her room. Hanging on the wall is the lithograph, New Man, by El Lissitzky, Novosibirsk, 1970s © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers in her room. Hanging on the wall is the lithograph, New Man, by El Lissitzky, Novosibirsk, 1970s
  • Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers in her last flat, shortly before her death. Novosibirsk. Photo: Jen Lissitzky © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers in her last flat, shortly before her death. Novosibirsk.

How Sofie prepared for her exile, how she left her valuables with her friends for safekeeping, how she and her son went to Siberia by train for several weeks, and how Novosibirsk met and welcomed them – is depicted in German journalist Ingeborg Prior’s book Sofie’s Legacy. From Hannover to Siberia. A Tragic Story of Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers and Her Stolen Paintings, published in Russian in 2016 by the Novosibirsk publishing house Svin’in and Sons

There is something symbolic about the fact that Sofie and El Lissitzky’s archives finally found their way to Novosibirsk. A Constructivist’s wife living in a Constructivist city.

Küppers lived with her son in a communal cabin, a barrack. First they shared a room with another exiled German, then they received their own tiny room. She reported to the commander’s house twice a month. Sofie first worked as a cleaning worker, then, having recalled the lessons of home-making and handicrafts her mother had taught her, she started to sew, embroider, and knit. Word of her skills and talents reached the manager of Kalinin House of culture, who offered Sofie to teach handicrafts there. 
 
Her son grew up and received a passport in which his ethnic origin was described as Russian. At the age of seventeen, he went to Moscow and brought part of El Lissitzky’s archives back to his mother.  
 
After Stalin’s death, Sofie went to the German Democratic Republic for three months in 1958. By that time, she already knew that her son Kurt was alive but she was unable to see him. Kurt was distant from his brothers, too. Meanwhile, Jen mastered photography, took photos for two Novosibirsk newspapers, and mastered a motion-picture apparatus to become a cameraman.  
 
There is something symbolic about the fact that Sofie and El Lissitzky’s archives finally found their way to Novosibirsk. A Constructivist’s wife living in a Constructivist city.

The Episode in which Warming Begins

In 1958, Sofie gave part of El Lissitzky’s archive to the Tretyakov Gallery and to the Central State Archives of Literature and Arts, now the Russian Archives of Literature and Arts. Before that, Jen had photographed all the works and documents. Sofie had a small circle of friends in Novosibirsk, while Jen was friends with artists Eduard Gorokhovsky and Nikolay Gritsyuk.   

Akademgorodok was the unprecedented enclave of freedom, a real bastion of free spirit. Under the Integral club café, the Sigma cinema club, beauty contests, heated discussions, May Day demonstrations with absurd or simply humorous slogans, which preceded contemporary monstrations by forty years – all of these are signatures of Akademgorodok in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, construction of Akademgorodok began; a utopian paradise for scientists set thirty kilometers away from the city center, in the middle of the Siberian forest. The Community Party leadership took a decision to establish a large interdisciplinary scientific centre in Siberia. Serious funds were allocated for construction of the town in the forest, and the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR was established. In the first years, the leaders of the Siberian branch selected and invited the most promising young scientists to work there. The cultural and public life in Akademgorodok was much more liberated and less prone to ideological pressure than in the rest of country as a whole. Scientists were allowed to do more compared to common people. In combination with the hopes and ambitions of the thaw, the romanticism of science made scientists feel euphoric and almighty. Akademgorodok was the unprecedented enclave of freedom, a real bastion of free spirit. Under the Integral club café, the Sigma cinema club, beauty contests, heated discussions, May Day demonstrations with absurd or simply humorous slogans, which preceded contemporary monstrations by forty years – all of these are signatures of Akademgorodok in the 1960s.
Design of the children’s book, <i>4 Actions</i>. 8 sheets. Design of the children’s book, 4 Actions. 8 sheets. | © Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands
In the mid-1960s, Sofie worked on a monograph about the life and work of El Lissitzky. She wrote it in German, hoping to have it published in the German Democratic Republic. In all probability, she did not even think about the possibility of its publication in the USSR: she realized there was no hope for its publication. Such an idea was absurd: the artists who dedicated their talent to socialism proved to be nearly outlaws. El Lissitzky, Malevich, Filonov, Tatlin, Klucis – all these names were tacitly banned.
 
The ban was very rarely lifted. In the early 1960s, in the Mayakovsky library museum in the Gendrikovy (Mayakovsky) Alley, collector Nikolay Khardzhiev arranged small-scale exhibitions of the semi-prohibited Russian avant-garde artists, including El Lissitzky. The exhibition was held on November 16-18, 1960. One could not dream of a large exhibition which could represent all aspects of the generous talent of El Lissitzky.

The Episode in which the Great Combinator Appears

Everything changed in 1965. The House of Scientists was being built, and there were discussions as to what was going to be housed there. The Moscow artist and collector Alexander Zhigalko addressed the administration of the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences and offered to donate his whole collection. Paintings by Zhigalko himself formed the basis of the collection, but it also included paintings by the Peredvizhniks.  
 
Mikhail Kachan, who headed the united trade union committee of the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences, went to Moscow to meet Zhigalko and see his collection. At his home, he met Mikhail Makarenko, whom Zhigalko characterized as his trustee.

Mikhail Yanovich Makarenko deserves more focus. Everyone who spoke about him in the ‘Novosibirsk period’ spoke of him as the great fraud, comparing him either to Ostap Bender or Count Cagliostro.

Makarenko briefly told his new acquaintance about himself: about his work for a collector who taught him to understand art, his uncompleted studies at MSU, marrying a priest’s daughter, changing his surname, being criminally pursued for building a house for his father-in-law using ‘fraudulent gains’ (the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence), and his divorce. All this information, absolutely frankly shared by the young man, impressed Kachan. He saw Makarenko as a real swindler, though a high-classe one.
  Mikhail Makarenko and Vyacheslav Rodionov. Inscription on the back side: 1967, Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk. Mikhail Makarenko and Vyacheslav Rodionov. Inscription on the back side: 1967, Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk. | © Eduard Hämäläinen Mikhail Yanovich Makarenko deserves more focus. Everyone who spoke about him in the ‘Novosibirsk period’ spoke of him as the great fraud, comparing him either to Ostap Bender or Count Cagliostro. 
 
In the book From My Life, written in prison and published by Posev publishing house, Mikhail Makarenko relates his life story, which seems to be borrowed from a picaresque.
 
Mikhail Gershkovich was born in Romania in 1930. He left his parental home at the age of ten and crossed the Romanian-Soviet border under a different surname. An orphanage, an escape, roaming around the country. As the war began, he became ‘the regiment’s son’, had a contusion, was wounded and treated in the hospital, found himself in occupied territory, roamed around the country again, escaped from orphanages, was a cadet in a Suvorov military school, escaped again, worked on a collective farm. In the late 1950s, he settled down in Leningrad, entered the philosophy department of the Moscow State University (studies by correspondence), married Ludmila Makarenko, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest, and took her surname. He built a house for which he was prosecuted, challenged the Soviet functionaries and militia, and earned a living by restoring paintings and ancient furniture, including those for the Hermitage.

The Episode in which Picasso did not meet El Lissitzky and Filonov

First came the container with the paintings, then Makarenko came with a young assistant, the twenty-year-old Vyacheslav Rodionov. Makarenko wanted to stay in order to deal with Zhigalko’s collection, and as it turned out, not only for that reason. From the very start, he offered to deal with more than just the exhibition.
 

Picasso in Akademgorodok seems to be a myth fabricated by Mikhail Makarenko. Yet, according to people’s recollections, the letter in which the famous Spanish artist cursed Moscow bureaucrats and expressed his desire to hold an exhibition in Siberia was framed and hung on the wall in the office of the director of the picture gallery.


In the end, Makarenko was appointed Director of the art gallery, although he was originally employed as a plumber. Soon he moved out of a hotel and into a three-room apartment in 7A Pravdy Street, where he brought his personal collection. As Mikhail Kachan recalled, the apartment was not that simple in its layout: perhaps, it was allocated for secret meetings between KGB officers and their informers.  
 
The Gallery Council was immediately organized, headed by Lev Rozenfeld, department head of the Thermal Physics Institute, Makarenko’s neighbour, and a collector as well. Kachan recalls that there were paintings by Nikolay Rerikh and Zinaida Serebryakova in Rozenfeld’s home.
 
  • A folder from the archive of architect Vladimir Pivkin © Museum of the History of Architecture of Siberia named after S.N. Balandin
    A folder from the archive of architect Vladimir Pivkin
  • A list of exhibits at the El Lissitzky exhibition in the Picture Gallery of the House of Scientists, Akademgorodok, 1967. © Museum of the History of Architecture of Siberia named after S.N. Balandin
    A list of exhibits at the El Lissitzky exhibition in the Picture Gallery of the House of Scientists, Akademgorodok, 1967.

The exhibition that showed the Zhigalko collection opened quite modestly in 1966. Work soon began in preparation of new projects. In the book of monthly plans for 1967, besides the Zhigalko collection we see the names of Deineka, Korin, Falk, Chermnykh, and even Picasso. Picasso in Akademgorodok seems to be a myth fabricated by Mikhail Makarenko. Yet, according to people’s recollections, the letter in which the famous Spanish artist cursed Moscow bureaucrats and expressed his desire to hold an exhibition in Siberia was framed and hung on the wall in the office of the director of the picture gallery.
 
Makarenko’s main merit was that he was able to show the artists who were unwanted in Soviet museums: Robert Falk, a former participant of the Diamond Knave group of artists; Dmitry Grinevich, who spent 11 years in concentration camps due to his noble heritage and his service in the tzar’s army; and Pavel Filonov. An exhibition of Nikolay Gritsyuk was offered to the local public; collections from the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum were exhibited, too. El Lissitzky’s exhibition was among those exhibitions.

The Episode in which Siberian Architects Wanted to Hold an Exhibition in Moscow

It is known that the architects from the Novosibirsk branch of the Union of Architects, namely, Sergey Balandin and Vladimir Pivkin, took part in organizing El Lissitzky’s exhibition. 30 exhibits from the archive of Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers were selected, some of them photographs. The exhibition opened on Dec ember 3, 1967 and was on till the middle of January – at least, this is what Mikhail Makarenko reported in his letter written to the chairman of the Moscow branch of the Union of Architects. In this letter, he asks for permission to show the exhibition in Moscow, in an even more expanded form by including works from the Tretyakov Gallery, Bakhrushin Museum, and private collections. Makarenko asks the Moscow branch to finance the publication of the exhibition’s catalogue, or at least to pay for the manufacture of the typographic master plates, while the picture gallery could do the printing. He also asked to have travel expenses paid for two people coming to Moscow – himself and Jen Lissitzky, or someone from the Novosibirsk architects.
 
However, the offer was not welcome.

El Lissitzky exhibition, Akademgorodok, 1967. Part 1. Early works 
 

  • Trinity <i>Black Church</i> in Vitebsk, 1910, private collection © private collection
    Trinity Black Church in Vitebsk, 1910, private collection
  • Reminiscences of Ravenne. 1914. The collection of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands © Van Abbemuseum
    Reminiscences of Ravenne. 1914. The collection of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands
  • A cover of Moishe Broderson’s book, <i>Sihat Holin</i> (<i>The Prague Legend</i>), 1917. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A cover of Moishe Broderson’s book, Sihat Holin (The Prague Legend), 1917. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • A scroll-like book <i>The Prague Legend</i>, Russian State Library, Museum of Books, Moscow, Russia © Museum of Books
    A scroll-like book The Prague Legend, Russian State Library, Museum of Books, Moscow, Russia

It seems that no evidence was left from that exhibition except newspaper notes, and the contemporaries I have been able to contact could not recall any details. Architect Alexander Lozhkin  told me ten years ago that he had a poster of the exhibition somewhere in his home archives.  
 

El Lissitzky exhibition, Akademgorodok, 1967. Part 2. Prouns
  • Proun Е1 <i>A City</i>. 1919-1921. A lithograph. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands © Van Abbemuseum
    Proun Е1 A City. 1919-1921. A lithograph. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands
  • Proun 6В. A lithograph. Tomsk Regional Art Museum, Russia © Tomsk Regional Art Museum
    Proun 6В. A lithograph. Tomsk Regional Art Museum, Russia
  • Proun 1С. <i>A House Above the Earth</i>. The original (woodboard). 1919. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    Proun 1С. A House Above the Earth. The original (woodboard). 1919. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • Proun 5А. Gouache, pencil, paper. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain © Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
    Proun 5А. Gouache, pencil, paper. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain
  • Proun 43. Embossed black paper pasted to cardboard, gouache, watercolours, graphite pencil, aluminium paint, colour paper stickers. Around 1922. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    Proun 43. Embossed black paper pasted to cardboard, gouache, watercolours, graphite pencil, aluminium paint, colour paper stickers. Around 1922. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • A folder for prouns, the cover. 1923. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A folder for prouns, the cover. 1923. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • A folder of figurines, the cover. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A folder of figurines, the cover. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • A proun-room. Transparency. Reconstructed in the collection of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands © Van Abbemuseum
    A proun-room. Transparency. Reconstructed in the collection of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands

Four years ago, artist Vyacheslav Mizin discovered a folder with documents shedding light on the El Lissitsky exhibition 1967, in the archive of architect Vladimir Pivkin, stored in the Museum of the History of Siberian Architecture (Novosibirsk Kryachkov State University of Architecture, Design and Arts). The folder contains a handwritten list of the exhibits, Makarenko’s letter proposing to show the exhibition in Moscow, the article of S. Balandin and V. Pivkin about Lissitzky, and correspondence between the two authors and Professor Yury Yaralov, editor of the Soviet Architecture collected works. The authors had pitched their article for publication and received an outward refusal.

El Lissitzky exhibition, Akademgorodok, 1967. Part 3. Posters and Covers
 
  • Poster titled <i>Attack the Whites with a Red Wedge</i>. Lithograph. 1920. Russian State Library © Russian State Library
    Poster titled Attack the Whites with a Red Wedge. Lithograph. 1920. Russian State Library
  • A poster of the first Russian exhibition in Berlin 1922. Blueprint on transparent paper. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A poster of the first Russian exhibition in Berlin 1922. Blueprint on transparent paper. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • A poster of the Russian art exhibition in Zürich. Museum of Design, Zürich, Switzerland. © Museum of Design
    A poster of the Russian art exhibition in Zürich. Museum of Design, Zürich, Switzerland.
  • A cover of <i>Broom</i> magazine. Blueprint on transparent paper. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A cover of Broom magazine. Blueprint on transparent paper. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • A cover of <i>Broom</i> magazine. Collection of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands © Van Abbemuseum
    A cover of Broom magazine. Collection of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands
  • A cover of Ilya Erenburg’s book <i>6 Stories</i>. Typographic reprint. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A cover of Ilya Erenburg’s book 6 Stories. Typographic reprint. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • A cover of <i>Wendingen magazine</i>. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A cover of Wendingen magazine. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • Design of the children’s book <i>4 Actions</i>. 8 sheets. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands © Van Abbemuseum
    Design of the children’s book 4 Actions. 8 sheets. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands

S. Balandin and V. Pivkin received an offer to have extracts from their book published, instead of their entire work. As one might guess, either the offer was not accepted, or publication became impossible due to censorship and ideological reasons. The 1960s were coming to an end, and the authorities cracked-down on the people.

El Lissitzky exhibition, Akademgorodok, 1967. Part 4. Photomontage
 
  • <i>Tatlin at Work</i>. Photomontage. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    Tatlin at Work. Photomontage. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • Self-portrait <i>The Constructor</i>. Photo. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    Self-portrait The Constructor. Photo. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • <i>A сonstructor’s hand</i>. Design of the cover of published works by the architecture faculty of VHUTEMAS. 1927 © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A сonstructor’s hand. Design of the cover of published works by the architecture faculty of VHUTEMAS. 1927
  • A poster for the exhibition of El Lissitzky, Mondrian, and Man Ray, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    A poster for the exhibition of El Lissitzky, Mondrian, and Man Ray, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • <i>Lenin and Masses</i>. A mockup of a poster with the image of V.I. Lenin. Russian State Archives for Literature and Arts (RGALI), Moscow © Russian State Archives for Literature and Arts
    Lenin and Masses. A mockup of a poster with the image of V.I. Lenin. Russian State Archives for Literature and Arts (RGALI), Moscow
  • <i>Lenin’s Rostrum</i> (blueprint). PROUN 85, 1924. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia © State Tretyakov Gallery
    Lenin’s Rostrum (blueprint). PROUN 85, 1924. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
  • <i>A Runner</i>. Transparency. 1926. Collection of RUSS PRESS PHOTO, editorial archive of <i>Sovetskoye Photo</i> magazine © RUSS PRESS FOTO
    A Runner. Transparency. 1926. Collection of RUSS PRESS PHOTO, editorial archive of Sovetskoye Photo magazine

The Episode in which the Thaw Ended

In March 1968, the famous festival of bard songs in which Galich sang took place in Akademgorodok, followed by the closure of the Under the Integral café. In the spring of 1968, the Letter of 46 emerged, in which the scientists of Akademgorodok protested against the criminal pursuit of Soviet dissident writers. The letter resulted in dismissals and pressure on those who signed the appeal.  
 
In 1968, the activities of the picture gallery actually stopped. The last drop for the party apparatchiks was Makarenko’s intent to show an exhibition of Marc Chagall.
 
A poster was already prepared, and, by the agreement of Academician Lavrentyev, a letter detailing the exhibition was written to the Ministry of Culture. The ministry sent a refusal.  
 

For the Soviet power, El Lissitzky was an “export product”: in the West, it was promoted to showcase a progressive USSR, a country which did not lose its connection with avant-garde art. At the same time, El Lissitzky’s art was not accessible for the Soviet people.


The following year, Makarenko and Rodionov returned to Leningrad, where first Makarenko and then his assistant were arrested. In 1970, Makarenko was sentenced to eight years in prison, not only for profiteering but also, according to Article 70 of the Criminal Code of RSFSR, for calling to overthrow the state power. Vyacheslav Rodionov was sentenced to three years in prison.
  A poster for the exhibition of El Lissitzky, Mondrian, and Man Ray. A poster for the exhibition of El Lissitzky, Mondrian, and Man Ray. | © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia Meanwhile in the German Democratic Republic in Dresden, 1967, the monograph by Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers was published: El Lissitzky: Maler, Architekt, Typograf, Fotograf: Errinerungen, Briefe, Schirften. The second edition was published in 1976. The book’s publication in the GDR was not surprising, yet how Sofie was able to have her work published in capitalist countries is not clear. In Great Britain, the book was published in 1968 by Thames and Hudson, and that same year, it was also published in the USA, with re-editions in 1980 and 1992. An Italian translation was published in Italy in 1967.
 
It is most likely that the book was published with the support of Novosti press agency, which was involved in political propaganda. For the Soviet power, El Lissitzky was an “export product”: in the West, it was promoted to showcase a progressive USSR, a country which did not lose its connection with avant-garde art. At the same time, El Lissitzky’s art was not accessible for the Soviet people. 
 
By that time, the interest for Russian avant-garde rose in Europe, El Lissitzky exhibitions began to be organized everywhere, and books and albums began to be published. In Russia, twenty more years had to pass before that happened.

Instead of an Epilogue

Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers lived in Novosibirsk until her death: she never returned to Germany, nor did she live to see the return of the paintings stolen in Germany under the Nazi regime. She did not live to see the first large personal exhibition of her husband in Moscow, which was held only in 1990, to commemorate the centenary of El Lissitzky. Sofie Khristianovna died in December 1978 and was buried on the Zayeltsovsky cemetery.
 
Soon after release from imprisonment, Mikhail Makarenko emigrated to the USA, where he was active in human rights activities. He was able to bring along not only his large archive but also some paintings. In March 2007, news reached Russia that Makarenko was killed in New Jersey – he was beaten to death by a mentally ill religious fanatic.
 
Mikhail Kachan lived in the USA from the mid-1980s and spent his last years in California. He died in 2018.
 
Vyacheslav Rodionov served three years in Mordovia, where he met dissidents of the Russian-Orthodox-grassroots kind. Now he is the Director of the Bells company, which restores destroyed churches in the Russian provinces, and casts and hangs church bells. Vyacheslav Semenovich asked me whether any works by El Lissitzky were left in the gallery after the exhibition: according to him, Sofie had promised to give him at least two works. He was a little upset to find out that those works were gone and that one one knows when they disappeared.
 

  • Sergey Samoilenko presents the book <i>Sofie’s Legacy</i> at a book festival, Novosibirsk, 2016 © Yana Kolesinskaya
    Sergey Samoilenko presents the book Sofie’s Legacy at a book festival, Novosibirsk, 2016
  • Jen Lissitzky © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Jen Lissitzky
  • Family likeness: young Sofie and Valeria Lissitzky © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Family likeness: young Sofie and Valeria Lissitzky
  • Valeria Lissitzky at the grave of El Lissitzky, Moscow © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Valeria Lissitzky at the grave of El Lissitzky, Moscow
  • Grave of Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers, Novosibirsk © The private archive of the Lissitzkys
    Grave of Sofie Lissitzky-Küppers, Novosibirsk

In the picture gallery of the House of Scientists, the works of the participants of the international contest Worlds of El Lissitzky, a competition for designing small architectural structures dedicated to Russian avant-garde art, were shown in 2014. In the project, 184 teams of architects, designers, and artists from 42 countries took part.
 
Together with his second wife, Jen Lissitzky left the Soviet Union with an Israeli visa in 1989. They stayed first in Vienna and then moved to Germany.  He sold some of his father’s works quite easily and then attempted to find and take back the paintings by Klee and Kandinsky, which his mother used to own. As a result, he succeeded in reaching a separate agreement with one of the new owners and received a sum sufficient for buying a hacienda in the south of Spain. As for the archive, which included manuscripts, letters, drawings, collages, etc., he gave it to the Sprengel Museum in Hannover in 2013. This year on January 22, he passed away, and the newspaper Hannoversche Allgemeine reported his death.
 
Sergey, Jen’s son and the grandson of El Lissitzky, lives in Israel. In the early 2000s, he established the El Lissitzky Center in Novosibirsk. With his support, Alexandra Arkhipova shot a film about El Lissitzky.  Furthermore, thanks to the support of the El Lissitzky Center, the art scholars Alexander Kantzedikas and Zoya Yargina published an excellent and monumental seven-volume work called El Lissitzky. The Film of his Life in 2004. The name prompted me to use the metaphor of a film series to describe the artist’s life.
 
I hope this film will really be shot someday.

Sergei Samoilenko Photo: Anton Veselov © S. Samoilenko Sergei Samoilenko is a poet, translator, theater critic, and journalist. He worked as Editor in the culture sections of several newspapers, Chief Editor of the Internet magazine Sib.fm, and as Coordinator of the Siberian Center for Contemporary Art. He has translated, among other, Molière’s comedy Le Tartuffe, plays by Georges Feydeau, Yasmina Reza, Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Alan Ayckborn, and other playwrights. He is an author of four books of poetry. His poems have been translated into English and Spanish.



Valeria Lissitzky © V. Lissitzky Valeria Lissitzky was born and lives in Novosibirsk. She studied Linguistics and Psychology and is a charity project manager, translator, and body-oriented psychotherapist. Her interests lie at the intersection of psychology, art, innovation, and quantum interaction. She is in love with music, sings, and writes poetry. She develops and promotes an integrative approach to life, health, relationships, and peace. She is the great granddaughter of El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers.
 

 

This text has been written as part of the realization of The City of Tomorrow exhibition, devoted to Soviet Modernist acrhitecture. In 2019, Goethe-Institut showed the exhibition in Minsk, Yerevan, and Moscow, and from November 24, 2020 to January 24, 2021, it will be shown in Novosibirsk in the Centre of Culture CC19 in the framework of the Germany Year in Russia 2020/21. The exhibition covers a long period from 1920s Constructivism to the Soviet Modernism of the second half of the 20th century, ending with the transition to postmodernist architecture at the beginning of the 1990s.

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