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About 2 Squares is a short picture book for children. It is also one of the most powerful expressions of revolutionary Communism and modern art. It deserves close and careful examination as we embark on a similar revolution from text on paper to electronic cyberspace.
The following pages are each comprised of a JPEG file with the original illustrations and text, in Cyrillic characters of the Russian language. An approximate English translation is given in the following notes, which serve also as a sort of text description for the blind and those of us who look but do not see. Remarks draw heavily on Railing's excellent notes in the MIT Press edition (see below).
Instructions: Size of files is given so you may estimate download times. After selecting a page to view, you may continue on to the next by clicking anywhere on the page. (The page number of the file corresponds to the original; the page number in the title bar corresponds to the numbering below.) If you have a browser compatible with Netscape Navigator 2.0+, the picture will open in a new window separate from this text (however, you may not notice that if the new window is directly on top of the old one--then you won't be able to "go back" to this one.) Thus you can flip back and forth from this text to the pictures without waiting for the frame to reload. The pages may be too large to see without scrolling, but we found that reducing them made them illegible. Also, please forgive the wrinkles: we couldn't flatten the limp paper as much as we wanted.
In a thin ruled rectangle in the top four-fifths of the page are three elements, the Russian word "PRO," meaning "About" or "Concerning," the arabic numeral 2, and a red square. Below the title is the signature of El Lissitzky, printed at an angle, with the first and last names sharing the letter "L."
Lissitzky was very careful with his choice of colors--the intensity of the red square is finely tuned for a psychological contrast to the black square and text. Your computer monitor might not render it as well as the printed copy. Note also the dynamically varying angles of the signature and the word "PRO".
Lissitzky wrote at about this time, "Today we have two dimensions for the word. As a sound it is a function of time, and as a representation it is a function of space. The coming book must be both." Since, he wrote, "the words on the printed page are learnt by sight, not by hearing," he chose number and image on the cover, and only used a word, "about," because he needed it to signify his meaning.
The initial "P" (Latin "R") of "children" is a huge capital letter, emphasizing the sound. The words "to all" are repeated and angled, as if emanating from a radio broadcast. (Railing points out that war radio appeals always began, "TO ALL ALL.") Radio was a fascinating new technology.
This page is black and white; on the other side of the signature, the endpaper is all black. The space of the book is emphatically enclosed.
See also Lissitzky's cover for a Proun portfolio, in which he also used the tilting capital letter.
The movement of the eye reading the slanted text seems to reproduce dynamically the sound as in a radio announcement. The emphasized similar parts to the Russian words for "two squares" (BA BA) is an example of Lissitzky's innovative letter typography. He wrote, "From the passive, non-articulated letter pattern one goes over to the active, articulated pattern. The gesture of the living language is taken into account." (Typographical Facts, 1925)
"Suprematist" refers to the art movement in early Soviet Russia that succeeded cubist-futurism and was associated with constructivism.
In another zig-zag, we read the joke, but also receive a little summary of Lissitzky's artistic philosophy, one that was used at the Vitebsk institute and independently at the same time at the Bauhaus. It is more than Montessori: it is the leap from passive reading to active construction, from the two-dimensional paper world to the three- and four-dimensional real world.
Below the red and black squares are the text in modern sans serif type, angled. The black square sits parallel with the margins, and the consonant "T" seems to be standing still. In contrast, the red square is tilted dynamically, and the letter "A" is emphasized and repeated, smaller each time. Lissitzky: "The pattern of speech becomes increasingly concise, the gesture sharply imprinted. It is the same for typography."
The red and black squares, both tilted and close together, seem to approach the Earth, which is represented by a large red circle, with some abstract constructions rising from its upper circumference.
Beneath, the type has an angled "flying" and "toward earth," and a horizontal "from far away." At the bottom right, the single vowel sound "and" points to the next page in time.
See also a study for this page, in graphite and watercolor on card, 25.6 x 20.2cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1922.
The black and white picture is of miscellaneous blocks and rectangular or angled objects, all rendered without a unifying perspective or projection, so they seem to be floating in a gravityless space. It is chaotic, and also disturbing, because the eye can't organize the scene logically with light and shadowed areas, front to back, or in any other human order.
The text beneath is again in sharp contrast to the picture. It has become almost telegraphic, with emphasized percussive consonants, and the words "black" and "alarming" set perpendicular to the angle of the blocks.
See also a study for this page, in graphite and black ink, 25.4 x 20.3cm, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, Gift of Mrs. Lydia Dorner in memory of Alexander Dorner, 1922.
The sharp corner of the red square falls down on the black and white worldly objects and scatters them. The impact seems already to have produced some sort of order, as the objects somehow are grouped by size and shape. A gray square provides a stable background to sharpen the impact.
The text beneath has the angled word "crash," with the consonant enlarged, and the word "scattered" set horizontal and some distance away.
Here the large black square is a solid but moving base for the reassembled objects, which now are red and white, and organized like skyscrapers in a city. In the middle heights is a small black triangle pointing up.
The text below is stable and horizontal. The phrase "red(ly) and clear(ly)" in Russian, "krasno yasno," shares a suffix, joined in common to both words by two lines. This typographical device is repeated from earlier pages, emphasizing the way Lissitzky is able to transmute words and pictures. The consonants express sharp, energetic sounds, according to Railing. Again the words and images are congruent; Lissitzky's treatment of the letters brings out the sound quality embodied in the words while relating them to the figure.
The black square, now smaller, departs the black circle, with its colony of red-white objects. The larger red square seems to be floating above the Earth here. In the background is a series of cosmic arcs or circle segments, expressed as varying densities of a gray wash.
The text is now tiny. Starting with an angled "here" at the left, it has a horizontal "it ended" and, far to the right, an angled "more" beneath a longer angled line. Railing comments that Lissitzky must have carefully placed the words dynamically on the page after, and as part of, his suprematist construction. The world will not die, but a revolutionary fourth-dimensional change will energize it continually through infinities of time and space. (Well, perhaps Lissitzky communicated this more economically and artistically!)
See also a study for this page, graphite, wash, gouache, 23.4 x 17cm, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, The Frederic Wertham Collection, Gift of Hesketh Wertham, c1920. Also, another study of the same page, gouache, wash, graphite, 23 x 18.5cm, Baltimore collection, 1922.
A red square inside a thin black line and circle stand for the art institute UNOVIS. Below, the words indicate that Lissitzky made this project two years before this publication.
On the reverse of the colophon, verso, is the text in Russian, "assembled by the author for Sythian Press, Berlin, printed in Leipzig by Haberland Printers. 50 copies of this edition autographed and numbered." Below is the same information we supply at the head of this page.
The back cover art shows a quiet but energetic arrangement of three objects. A small black circle at the left is balanced by a large, long gray rectangle at the right, which in turn is shadowed and stabilized by a smaller black rectangle behind.
This short book, intended for children of all ages, is perhaps the best-known work of El Lissitzky (1890-1941). Lissitzky was a Russian artist, architect, designer, typographer, and photographer who was active in the avante garde movement that flourished in Soviet Russia and in Germany, until the dominance of Soviet Realism by 1930 put a stop to its revolutionary activity. He directly influenced the typographical and display advertising innovations of the Bauhaus and "de Stijl". This book entirely integrates modern typographical effects, as Lissitzky intended, with his illustrations in the Suprematist style.
The original book About Two Squares was printed by letterpress, even the slanted text and illustrations. It was first produced ("constructed") in 1920 at the Soviet art institute UNOVIS in Vitebsk, and around April 1922 printed by Sycthian Press, Berlin, by Haberland Printers, Leipzig, in paperback, with 50 hardbound copies autographed and numbered, as the copyright page states.
A Dutch edition, published as Suprematisch worden van twee kwadraten in 6 konstrukties, edited by Theo van Doesburg, was published in The Hague by De Stijl, 1922. In Oct/Nov of that year, it appeared as a regular edition of De Stijl, vol 5 no 10/11. Also, 50 hardbound copies of the Dutch edition were numbered and signed by the author.
The Skythen book has been reproduced in facsimile by the Artists Bookworks, Copyright 1990, Forest Row, Sussex, England, and by MIT Press, 1991. ($40 paperback.) ISBN 0-262-12158-1, N6988.5.S9L5713 1991, 90-27444, 709'.2-dc20. The facsimile is the exact size (280 x 223mm) as the original, on library paper of the same color as the newsprint original.
The MIT edition has an English translation by Christiana Van Manen on tracing paper overlays between the facsimile pages. Accompanying the MIT Press edition, and bound similarly but separately, is a full critical commentary on the text and context, by Patricia Railing, More About 2 Squares. Please see the MIT Press website for complete information on these invaluable books, which are evidently backlisted, though some copies can still be found. We present El Lissitzky's work here in order to once again make it accessible to all. We encourage you to read the excellent work of Patricia Railing and Christiana Van Manen in their edition, since it provides much information we could not present here, and which is necessary or helpful in understanding El Lissitzky's work.