In a climate that spawned heavyweights like Marc Chagall, Sholem Aleichem, Irving Berlin, and Isaacs Asimov and Babel, it’s no surprise there were yet other Soviet-era Jewish artists who evaded mainstream recognition.
El Lissitzky is one such fellow. A titan of the early 20th-century Russian Jewish art renaissance, “El” was a leading innovator in the graphic arts.
Born Lazar Lissitzky in a Jewish community near Smolensk, El’s pseudonym was a hat tip to El Greco. He was an artist and educator from a young age, along with his friend and schoolmate Marc Chagall. He even served as cultural ambassador to Weimar, Germany, where he was influential in the burgeoning Bauhaus movement.
One of his most important works is a visual retelling of “Chad Gadya,” featuring acerbic, arresting illustrations. In one scene, the hand of God has slain the Angel of Death, who wears a tsar’s crown in a symbolic nod to the Bolshevik victory.
El’s work eventually adopted classic Soviet styling, but its Jewishness was not lost. His last piece before dying in 1941 was a Soviet propaganda poster rallying against the Nazis. In stark red and white the text reads: Give us more tanks!