The National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning contains an estimated 300,000 photo prints in around 700 different archives. The 1923 photogram, 4/i/Lampe Heliokonstruktion 125 Volt by El Lissitzky and Vilmos Húszar, is a special and rather atypical example, which at the same time illustrates the value of the photo collection as a primary source. The work is part of the estate of architect and urban planner Cornelis van Eesteren (1897-1988), who was in the De Stijl circle.
Introduction to Bauhaus
Van Eesteren was interested in modern art and had contacts in the (international) art world. He was friends with Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, a couple who were key members of the Dutch avant-garde. Van Eesteren’s estate contains various artworks by Karel Appel, Vilmos Húszar, Fernand Léger, Hannah Höch, Cesar Domela, Lázló Moholy Nagy, Karl Moser and others, which he kept separately, and which are part of the visual arts collection (BKVE) of the National Collection. It is striking that Van Eesteren did not keep the Lissitsky and Húszar photogram in his art collection, but as part of his archive. In 2012, Ludo van Halem, curator of 20th-century art at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, drew Het Nieuwe Instituut’s attention to the presence of this photogram in the National Collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut. He discovered it during his research on Til Brugman’s apartment for Til Brugman’s De Stijl Rooms (2013).
In 1921, Van Eesteren had won the Prix de Rome, which he used for a trip to Germany to study North German brick. He visited Berlin and, on the advice of architecture critic Adolf Behne, Weimar. At the Bauhaus in Weimar he took some lessons as part of Theo van Doesburg’s “style course for young artists”. Sandra Guarda. Cornelis van Eesteren, Meeting the Avant-Garde 1914-1929, 2013 p. 25-37 (in Dutch edition) Van Eesteren and Van Doesburg were in regular contact during this period and would design three houses together in the years that followed. From the diaries of Van Eesteren and the photos in his archive, we know that during his stay in Germany he also got to know other avant-garde artists, including Lázló Moholy Nagy, Hans Richter and El Lissitzky.
The Russian avant-garde
El Lissitzky, one of the most important artists of the Russian avant-garde, was born Lazar Markovitsch Lissitzky in Potschinok in 1890. After studying drawing in Russia, he trained as an architect in Germany before returning to Russia at the outbreak of the First World War. There, from 1917 onwards, he devoted his designs to the Russian Revolution. Lissitzky hugely admired the radical Malevich and his suprematism, but also Vladimir Tatlin’s constructivism. It was during this time that Lissitzky made his first ‘Proun’ painting. In many of Lissitzky’s works, including his Proun pieces, his interest in architecture can be recognised in his attention to “volume, mass, gravity, space and rhythm”. J. Leering, El Lissitzky, 1965, pp. 8-9
In 1921, as a cultural attaché, he left for Germany to establish contacts between Russian and German artists. On the advice of Adolf Behne, he got to know artists like Kurt Schwitters, Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren, but it was Theo van Doesburg who introduced Lissitzky to Vilmos Húszar, co-founder of De Stijl. J. Leering, El Lissitzky, 1965, pp. 10-11 In 1922, Lissitzky stayed in The Hague, where – like Kurt Schwitters, Theo van Doesburg and Vilmos Húszar – he designed a room for the apartment of Sienna Masthoff and Til Brugman. L. van Halem, Til Brugman’s De Stijl Rooms: A ‘Flat in The Hague’ with Designs by Theo van Doesburg, Vilmos Huszár, Gerrit Rietveld, El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters, 1923-26, in The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, 2017-2, pp. 143 The following year, the First Russian Art Exhibition opened at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which brought Lissitzky to the Netherlands. He stayed with Vilmos Húszar in Voorburg. M. Tupitsyn, El Lissitzky Jenseits der Abstraktion, Fotografie, Design, Kooperation, 1999, pp 15
Light bulbs and glasses
During this stay in the Netherlands, Lissitzky made his first fully photographic work M. R. Luke, Kurt Schwitters; Space, Image, Exhile, 2014, pp. 29, together with Húszar. The piece, called 4/i/Lampe Heliokonstruktion 125 Volt, was published in 1923 in the sixth issue of Merz, Kurt Schwitters’ magazine, with the scrambled names of its creators in the caption: El Huszar & Vilmos Lissitzky. Everyday objects – a light bulb and glasses – are part of the composition, “a tribute to the aesthetic possibilities of the industrially manufactured and the everyday object.” M. Tupitsyn, El Lissitzky Jenseits der Abstraktion, Fotografie, Design, Kooperation, 1999, pp 15
Although the work is often regarded as a ‘photogram’, in the traditional sense it is not. In a photogram, a negative image is created by placing objects on light-sensitive paper. Lissitzky more often made use of various negatives that he superimposed and sometimes cut and collaged, or partly masked, in order to arrive at the desired positive image. E. Lissitzky, Fotopis, translated into Dutch in J. Debbaut, El Lissitzky: schilder, architect, fotograaf, typograaf, 1990, pp 70 Although there is no comprehensive analysis of the working method for this specific work, and as far as we know no documentation of the creative process survives, it is conceivable that he used the same method here.
Lissitzky’s appreciation for photography gradually grew. Previously, he had regarded photography as inferior to painting as a ‘mirror’ of the (new) world. J. Leering, El Lissitzky, 1965, pp. 8-15 An essay he devoted to the medium concluded that photography can be made an art form (‘fotopis’), but that it depends on the practitioner having developed the right skills for this. E. Lissitzky, Fotopis, translated into Dutch in J. Debbaut, El Lissitzky: schilder, architect, fotograaf, typograaf, 1990, pp 70
Lissitzky would later become more involved in making photograms, in which different objects and portraits together form a composition. He incorporated portraits of Kurt Schwitters and others, and self-portaits, in his work. Often, these works combined several photos and sometimes also objects. This is the case with the work Untitled, in which he incorporated a portrait of Húszar and a self-portrait. A print of the self-portrait used has been found in Van Eesteren’s archive. The round cut-out is reminiscent of photos taken with early Kodak cameras. In this case, however, given the somewhat frayed edges, it is more likely that Lissitzky trimmed the negative himself to arrive at a round portrait. Also depicted here is a light bulb that could refer to their earlier collaboration, 4/i/Lampe Heliokonstruktion 125 Volt. The note on the back by his wife https://www.artic.edu/artworks/119454/untitled confirms that this photogram was made in the same year, 1923.
For Lissitzky, art was part of a social struggle J. Leering, El Lissitzky, 1965, pp. 8-15, as evidenced by his contributions to the Russian Revolution. He also saw opportunities for photography to influence our perception of the world. As he writes, “When we enrich ourselves through a language [of photography] with a special capacity for expression, we enrich ourselves with yet another way of influencing our consciousness and our feelings.” E. Lissitzky, Fotopis, translated into Dutch in J. Debbaut, El Lissitzky: schilder, architect, fotograaf, typograaf, 1990, pp 70
Photography in the National Collection
The photos in the National Collection are as diverse as they are numerous. There is not only great variation in content – from buildings and street scenes to holiday albums and portraits – but also in the materials and applications used. The quality varies from snapshots taken by architects on construction sites, to work by famous architectural photographers. Photos have been used as a means of reporting and communication, in publications or as a source of inspiration, and they have also been part of the design process and used, for example, in collages or design drawings.
As part of the Disclosing Architecture programme, all photos from the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning are being conserved, registered, digitised and, where necessary, restored. For a long time, photos were considered primarily a secondary source. For the first time, this collection is now being mapped out in a thorough manner, creating a clear picture of the materials and techniques used. In addition to photographic material, the collection also includes photomechanical material and mixed-technique works. In 2022, further research will be carried out to assess the value of the collection.