Sophie Lissitsky-Küppers, El Lissitsky, Dresden, 1967, pl. 80-92, another example illustrated
Vasillii Rakitin, "Dva eksperimenta Lissitskogo," Detskaia literatura, no. 11(1970), p.46
Yve-Alain Bois, "El Lissitzky: Reading Lessons," October 11 (winter 1979), pp.113-128
Alla Rosenfeld, The Russian Experiment: Master Works and Contemporary Works, New York, 1990, p. 11, illustrated (1/5)
Patricia Railing, More About Two Squares (Forest Row, East Sussex: Artists Bookworks and Cambridge: The MIT press, 1990)
While El Lissitzky made a great contribution to the Russian avant-garde as a painter, architect, advertising designer, and theoretician of abstract art, he is equally remembered for rethinking the entire concept of the printed book. Lissitzky's work in book design expresses a strong social vision while at the same time exemplifying new forms of visual expression. Lissitzky arrived at his new concept of the book by 1919, although he began to work in book design as early as 1916. Between 1917 and 1923, Lissitzky illustrated a number of Jewish children's books.
Lissitzky's children's book The Suprematist Tale of Two Squares was conceived in Vitebsk in 1920 while the artist was lecturing on typography at the Vitebsk School of Art, opened by Marc Chagall in January 1919. Chagall's departure from Vitebsk, and the subsequent arrival of Kazimir Malevich, had a major impact on Lissitzky. Under Malevich's influence, Lissitzky abandoned his figurative mode and became one of Malevich's disciples, joining Malevich's group UNOVIS (Affirmers of the New Art).
Of Two Squares emerged out of the tradition established by the Futurist artists in the area of book production; the many dynamic publications by the German Dadaists of the time may also have played a role in its creation. But it was Lissitzky's encounter with the non-representational movement of Suprematism, developed by Malevich, as well as the creation of Lissitzky's own Proun (an acronym for "Project for the Affirmation of the New") paintings that led the artist to apply a new artistic language in his design for Of Two Squares. The Proun—a link between painting and architecture and a cross between Constructivist and Suprematist ideals—made its initial appearance in Of Two Squares. In this book, the axonometric constructions and architectural renditions of Suprematist planar rhythms are for the first time united with elements of typography and combinations of lines. Therefore, the compositions in Of Two Squares can be viewed as a bridge from Malevich's two-dimensional Suprematist painting to Lissitzky's Prouns, created by architectural projection. Of Two Squares is also related to Lissitzky's 1919-20 poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, where the image is as dynamic and active as the words.
Conceived according to the laws of the Suprematist system, Of Two Squares at the same time conveys in a playful form the ideas of the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent triumph of the Bolsheviks. The book is a fable about the cooperation of a black and a red square in the dispersal of absolute chaos and the establishment of new order. At the beginning of the book, the earth is represented as absolute chaos consisting of rectangular shapes leaning in different directions. On the following page, a red square, which signifies active force and power, slices into the chaos. Like many progressive Russian artists of the period, Lissitzky identified with the general outlook of the political revolutionaries and enlisted his art in support of the radical new regime. After the Revolution, he became a member of the Art Department of IZO Narkompros (Commissariat of Enlightenment), which gave him a great deal of influence on the development of cultural policy in the Soviet Union.
Of Two Squares is a sequence of six "constructions," as Lissitzky called the visual compositions that parallel the text. The sequence of pages is distinctly cinematic. It is known that Lissitzky was interested in Viking Eggeling's experiments with abstract films in 1920.
Scholars have offered differing interpretations of the symbolism of the squares in Of Two Squares. The conventional view sees the red square as positive, a symbol of the Revolution and freedom, and the black square (that probably stands for Suprematism) as negative. One scholar who argues against this view describes the sequence of scenes as indicating that both squares participate in affirming the new order. Another scholar has proposed that the black square that helps the red square carry out the Revolution could be a reference to the abruptly terminated anarchist movement. Another writer believes that the black square represents "economy and the zero, the end and the beginning of the new," while the red square represents "the new consciousness of space to which man must now aspire." Even more important than the book's allegorical meaning is its innovative form, which posits a new mode of reading by creating a different graphic syntax from that of the traditional book, with its lines of horizontal text and ancillary illustrations.
Of Two Squares was the first of Lissitzky's books in Russian to be published in Berlin in 1922 (fig.1). At the end of 1921, Lissitzky had been sent to Germany as an informal ambassador of the Soviet government because of his role in IZO Narkompros. From Berlin, Lissitzky traveled to Weimar to attend the meeting of International Constructivists held on September 25, 1922. He also stayed in Holland, where he met members of the De Stijl movement, whose aesthetic program was so close to his principles that he soon became a member. Through the initiative of Theo van Doesburg, the leader of De Stijl, Of Two Squares was published for the second time in Dutch translation in 1922 in the October-November issue, Volume V, of De Stijl—an indication of both the international interest in Constructivist design and the parallels between Russian Constructivism and Dutch De Stijl.
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