Proun 2 (Construction)

El Lissitzky (Eleazar Lissitzky), Russian, 1890 - 1941

Geography:
Made in Russia, Asia

Date:
1920

Medium:
Oil, paper, and metal on panel

Dimensions:
23 7/16 x 15 11/16 inches (59.5 x 39.8 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Modern Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
1952-61-72

Credit Line:
A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952

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Label:
Produced between 1919 and 1923, Lissitzky’s series of works called Prouns were counterparts to the universal space theorized by his friend Theo van Doesburg. A Russian acronym that stands for “Project for the Establishment of the New,” a Proun expresses the idea that society could be revolutionized through the transformation of perception. The abstract composition of floating shapes evokes a futuristic city seen in aerial perspective, but here, the laws of gravity, orientation, and relative size that govern our understanding of space have been suspended.

Additional information:
  • PublicationTwentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Lissitzky's wide-ranging innovations in painting, architecture, typography, and photography emanate from his earliest venture into abstract art, the body of works he called "Prouns," created between 1919 and 1923. Named after the Russian acronym for "Project for the Establishment of a New Art," this series of paintings, prints, and drawings was produced in the climate of utopian expectation immediately following the Russian revolution, when many artists believed in the power of art to change the world. Lissitzky did not attach his art to concrete political goals, a position that eventually brought him into conflict with his colleagues. But he was committed to the idea that society could be modernized through the transformation of perception, a vision expressed in the Prouns.

    All the Prouns have in common an organization of geometric shapes dispersed as if seen from an aerial perspective. Proun 2 (Construction), comprised of overlapping rectangles, squares, triangles, and semicircles arranged along a variety of axes, recalls an architectural drawing or a model set in motion. Its textured materials include paper, metal, and oil paint on a wooden panel. These serve as a concrete counterpoint to the dynamic, floating spatial arrangement and refer to the realm of architectural construction, which guided the artist's conception of the Prouns. Lissitzky's interest in architecture soon led him to extend the Proun aesthetic into three dimensions. The pioneering models of exhibition design that he realized in the 1920s, a period when he lived in Berlin, were but one manifestation of the vital link he was able to forge between avant-garde artists working in Russia, Germany, France, and Holland. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 56.

Provenance

Städtisches Museum Halle, Germany, purchased 1929 [1]; Hanover Provinzialmuseum/Landesmuseum, Germany, on loan from Städtisches Museum Halle, 1929(?)-1937 [2]; German government, confiscated by the National Socialist authorities (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda), Berlin, July 8, 1937-January 27, 1939 [3]; sold on commission to Karl Buchholz, Buchholz Gallery, Berlin, 1939; transferred to Curt Valentin, Buchholz Gallery, New York, 1939 [4]; sold to A. E. Gallatin, New York, 1939 [5]; bequest to PMA, 1952. 1. See Andreas Hüneke, Die faschistische Aktion "Entartete Kunst" 1937 in Halle (Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg Halle, 1987), p. 38, no. 42; and Peter Nisbet, ed., El Lissitzky 1890-1941, exh. cat., 1987, Proun inventory no. 14, p. 160. The acquisition is also noted and illustrated in Museum der Gegenwart 1 (1930/1931), p. 13. The painting was one in a total of 46 oil paintings, drawings, and watercolors by Lissitzky purchased by the Halle museum in that year (see Im Kampf um die moderne Kunst: Das Schicksal einer Sammlung in der 1.Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts, exh. cat., Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg, [1985], p. 48 and p. 52). 2. Alexander Dorner, the director of the Hanover Provinzialmuseum until his forced resignation by the Nazis in 1936, recollected that Mondrian's "Composition in Blue" (1952-61-87) and Lissitzky's "Proun 2C," both later purchased by Gallatin, hung in the famous Abstract Gallery (Abstraktes Kabinett) of the Hanover museum designed 1927-28 by Lissitzky (Cauman, The Living Museum, 1958, p. 55, repr. p. 62 and p. 63, respectively, both horizontally). The information that the painting was on loan to, rather than owned by, the Hanover museum is supplied by a 1958 Art News article in which the author, Ella Winter, quotes a letter from Dorner's widow stating that 'the Lissitzkys you refer to hung in the Abstract Gallery; it [the gallery] was destroyed by the Nazis while my husband was opening the first Munich exhibition in London. When he returned he found that unique and beautiful room dismantled and himself accused of promoting "degenerate" art. The Lissitzky on loan was sold . . . and is now in the Philadelphia Museum' [ellipsis is the author's] (see "Lissitzky: A Revolutionary Out of Favor," April 1958, p. 63). In addition, this painting is not listed in the 1930 catalog of works owned by the Hanover Provinzialmuseum (Katalog der Kunstsammlungen im Provinzialmuseum zu Hannover, Bd. 1, 1930). 3. Assigned the EK (Entartete Kunst) inventory no. 14283 ("Entartete Kunst" typescript inventory, c. 1941/1942, Victoria and Albert Museum National Art Library, Fischer Collection; see also Beschlagnahmeinventar "Entartete Kunst", "Degenerate Art" Research Center, FU Berlin, http://emuseum.campus.fu-berlin.de/eMuseumPlus?service=ExternalInterface&module=collection&objectId=118954&viewType=detailView) (copy of inventory entry in curatorial file). This number is stamped on a sticker on the back of the painting. It is clear from the letter quoted in the Art News article cited above that the Nazis confiscated the painting from the Hanover museum. It is not certain where the painting was stored after confiscation; Mondrian's "Composition with Blue" (PMA 1952-61-87), also confiscated from Hanover, was stored at the Schloss Niederschönhausen, the Nazi sales repository for "Entartete Kunst" confiscated from museums. 4. Four prominent German dealers were appointed to market the inventory of confiscated works, including Karl Buchholz. According to the EK register, this painting was assigned to Buchholz, owner of the Buchholz Gallery in Berlin. Buchholz was the mentor and pre-war partner of Curt Valentin (1902-1954) who named the New York gallery he opened in 1937 in Buchholz' honor. Between 1934 and 1937 Valentin ran his own gallery in Buchholz' dealership in Berlin (Nicholas, Rape of Europa, p. 3, 24; Yeide, AAM Guide to Provenance Research, p. 239, 290). Valentin, a German citizen, left Germany in 1937 to go into exile. However, he maintained contact with Buchholz, frequently travelling to Germany, where he acquired works from the Schloss Niederschönhausen and the Lucerne 1939 auction. According to Nicholas he "was able to obtain from this source [Germany] much of the inventory which established him as a major New York dealer" (Nicholas, p. 24). Hüneke, underscoring the connection between Buchholz and Valentin, refers to the latter's New York gallery as "a ready-made platform from which Buchholz could sell to America" (see "Missing Masterpieces," in Degenerate Art, p. 129). 5. Receipt from the Buchholz Gallery/Curt Valentin to Gallatin dated August 24, 1939, for purchase of both the Lissitzky and Mondrian's "Composition with Blue" (stamped "Paid" August 31, 1939).