Our Notes & References
A scarce children’s book by a major figure of the Russian and Jewish avant-garde: an early Kiev production of the important Kultur Lige, illustrated on every page by Lissitzky.
The ‘Kultur-Lige’ was founded in Kiev in early 1918 during the period of the Central Rada, the Ukrainian Council that declared an independent state in January 1918. Its aim was to promote contemporary Yiddish culture, including education, literature, theatre, art, and music. In 1920, it organized in Kiev the first and only exhibition of Jewish art, with 11 participants, including El Lissitzky.
The actions of the Kultur-Lige became a highlight of Jewish culture in Ukraine. Most of its prominent members worked in Kiev: Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky, Mark Epstein, Sarra Shor, Joseph Chaikov, Isaac Rabinovich, Issachar-Ber Ryback and David Shterenberg. In 1918, the League published 40% of all books in Yiddish that circulated through the former Russian Empire. It also took important steps in art education: in 1918, it created a museum in Kiev and was able to show works of Brueghel, Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Lentulov, etc. The Kultur-Lige operated in all main Jewish centres of Eastern Europe and in 10 years of its history left a noticeable mark on the world cultural process.
In 1920 the Kultur-Lige in Kiev was taken over by the Bolsheviks; its printing presses were taken away, it was denied paper for publishing and its central committee was forcefully disbanded. As a result, the Warsaw branch became the main centre for the organization.
Produced in Kiev in the early stage of the Kulture Lige, the illustrations in Der Ber belong to the Jewish period of El Lissitzky, a most influential polyvalent artist, architect and teacher. The years 1916-1919 played a very important role in his biography, and the fact that much of his early work was lost makes his book graphics all the more notable. Here we see a transformation of Lissitzky into a radical modernist and his acquisition of a new artistic language, clearly announcing other illustrators of Russian children books, such as Lebedev.
Eliezer Lazar Markovich Lissitzky (1890-1941) was born near Smolensk and studied architecture in Darmstadt until the outbreak of the First World War. During his studies, he travelled around Europe, observing key architectural monuments. It was then, as he described in his article “Memories of the Mogilev synagogue”, that he became interested in Jewish antiquities. In 1915 he entered the Riga Polytechnic Institute, evacuated to Moscow. Many Jews studied at the Riga Polytechnic and Lissitzky found himself in a deeply integrated Jewish-artistic environment. At the end of 1915, the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of Arts was established in Petrograd, and Lissitzky became one of the central figures of its Moscow branch. In order to link modern Jewish art to its folk roots, Lissitzky and his friend the artist Issakhar-Ber Rybak travelled across the left-bank Ukraine in 1916, studying murals of synagogues, and he took part in an ethnographic expedition headed by Shlomo An-ski to the Pale of Settlement.
In April 1919, El Lissitzky and Benzion Raskin signed a contract with the Yiddisher Folks-Farlag publishing house in Kiev, in which they sold the rights for eleven Yiddish illustrated children’s books under the general title “Kinder-Garten”. According to the contract, which they most probably signed due to financial distress, they had to accomplish writing and illustrating all eleven books in about five months. Eventually, only three books were published as planned: “Der Ber” [The Bear], “Di Hun vos hot Gevolt hoben a Kam” [The Hen that Wanted a Comb], and “Der Milner, di Milnerin un di Milshtayner” [The Miller, the Miller’s Wife and the Millstones]. The cover of each title bears the same picture of a rooster on a roof. Many of these books, like Chagall’s first book, also an illustrated Yiddish children booklet, were confiscated in 1948 when Stalin outlawed Yiddish and Hebrew, increasing their rarity.
At the same time, Lissitzky was returning to Vitebsk, to teach architecture, painting and graphic arts at the art school directed by Marc Chagall, before moving definitely towards suprematism. Indeed in May 1919 Chagall invited him to the now Belarussian town, to teach at the newly formed People’s Art School. Chagall also invited Kazimir Malevich and Lissitzky’s former teacher, Yehuda Pen. By the end of 1919, Lissitzky fully embraced suprematism and broke away from traditional Jewish art. He joined UNOVIS (“Utverditeli Novogo Iskusstva”, “The Champions of the New Art”) – a group of artists, founded and led by Malevich at the Vitebsk Art School.
In 1921 he took up a job as the Russian cultural ambassador to Weimar, Germany, working with and influencing important figures of the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements during his stay. He innovated in typography, exhibition design, photomontage, and book design, winning international acclaim for his exhibition pavilions for the Soviets. He died from tuberculosis in Moscow in 1941.
A good example of this fragile work, rare: we could trace only two examples in WorldCat (Getty Research Institute and Yale) to which we could add only another example at auction in recent decades.
Illegible blue ink stamps with Hebrew letters to upper wrapper, p. 3 and 10; Uzi Agassi (Israeli historian, critic and publisher, collector of illustrated books, esp. avant-gardes).
The Russian avant-garde book, 1910- 1934, (cat. Exp.). New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2002, no.232.
Kazovsky, Hillel. 2010. Kultur-lige. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Mamonova I.G. Detskiie knigi naidishe 1920-kh gg., Marc Chagall Museum.
Apter-Gabriel, Ruth, ed. Tradition and Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art 1912-1928.
Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1987 .