Lissitzky painting El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

100 years on, the UNOVIS collective remain an inspiration for radical artists everywhere, writes Paul Rouhan

El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919 (1966). Offset print on paper. 

One hundred years ago, the UNOVIS collective was founded on 14 February 1920, in Vitebsk (now Belarus) and its legacy is worthy of celebration today.   UNOVIS is an acronym in Russian that can be translated as: Affirmers of the New Art, which included Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Nina Kogan, Vera Ermolaeva, David Yakerson, Ilya Chashnik, Lazar Khidekel, Nikolai Suetin and many more.  Much more than simply the Bauhaus of the East, as it has been called, UNOVIS, were a collective of politically committed art teachers and students from the Vitebsk People’s Art School.  Up until 1922, they took art out of the school and onto the streets of Vitebsk and into everyday life.  They were inspired by the limitless possibilities for humanity which opened-up following the Russian revolution of 1917.     

An important part of the output of UNOVIS were the experiments in art, design and architecture.  These experiments focused on a future world of possibilities, when human need was paramount and had triumphed over a world, based on profit and a cycle of war.   This was despite the daily hardships of everyday life in Vitebsk at the time, as the collective arose during the bitter Civil War, with the revolution under attack from foreign invasion and the remnants loyal to the old regime.  


Nina Kogan, Tram Decoration for May Day, 1920. Linocut, gouache and ink.

Twenty years later, Sergei Eisenstein, then a Red Army engineer (and later the renowned Soviet film director), recalled the impact of his arrival in Vitebsk, back in June 1920:

 ”A strange provincial town. Like many other cities in the west, built of red brick. Sooty and drab. But this town was particularly strange. Here the red brick streets are covered with white paint and green circles are scattered across the white background.  There are orange squares. Blue rectangles.  This is Vitebsk in 1920.  Its brick walls have met the brush of Kazimir Malevich.  And from these walls you can hear: ‘the streets are our palette.'”

Unknown Photographer, White Barracks in Vitebsk decorated in Suprematist decoration by UNOVIS, circa 1919.

Following the Russian revolution of 1917, taking art out of the art schools and onto the streets was common for festivals. The old architecture symbolising the old Tsarist power remained.  Artists were supported in seeking ways of neutralising the symbols of the old power, by clothing them in new colourful forms.  UNOVIS had its own abstract visual language of Suprematism.  

Suprematism had begun its life in a gallery in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg).  It was the first conscious fully abstract art style in the world, invented by Malevich in 1915, with his famous twentieth century art icon, The Black Square, as its starting point.  The possibilities for art and wider application into everyday life, were infinite for UNOVIS, as Suprematist compositions were built on combinations of geometric shapes with added colour.   

Nikolai Suetin, Design for a wall decoration, 1920. Coloured ink and water colour on paper  

UNOVIS arose in the particular conditions following the Russian Revolution of 1917.  Following the revolution, Anatoly Lunarcharsky, the Commissar of Enlightenment (NARKPROMPROS) in the revolutionary government had appointed comrade Marc Chagall, a Vitebsk-born artist as the Cultural Commissar for the town, which included opening a People’s Art School.  Building a new art school was not a priority in time of civil war, so they took over the mansion of a local merchant for the school’s premises.

By September 1919, the school was opened with 120 students enrolled.  The revolutionary government was committed to education for all, including ending the discriminatory strict quotas set by the Tsarist state, that had limited access to further education for women and minorities, which would have reduced opportunities for the large Jewish population of Vitebsk. The free school with access for all attracted the young revolutionary generation into further education previously denied them, attracting locals, including many young Jewish students, such as Lazar Khidekel and Ilya Chashnik.  As well as soldiers serving in the Red Army, like Nikolai Suetin.  


Comrades Malevich and Lissitzsky return Vitebsk

Kazimir Malevich joined the school in Vitebsk and he was the catalyst for the foundation of UNOVIS.  In November 1919, Lazar Lissitzky, the Head of the Architectural, Graphics and Printing department was sent to Moscow to obtain equipment and supplies for the school.  Lissitzky returned to Vitebsk with Malevich, as a new teacher for the school. They had previously met back in 1917, when Malevich was head of the arts section, for the Moscow Soviet of Soldiers.  Malevich internalised what the revolution meant for him as an artist.  This led him to a conclusion of the need to end easel painting as a profession, by 1919, proclaiming it outdated and belonging to the old regime.  Painting now, could stimulate creativity, it was not the thing itself.  It could fuel creativity to serve a social purpose for the benefit of the new life, following the revolution.

Kazimir Malevich, Red Cross on Black Circle, 1920-22. Oil on canvas.

Malevich accepted the teaching role in Vitebsk, which enabled him to continue to teach, experiment, write, and additionally, publish his theoretical writing on Suprematism.  Malevich planned to stay six months in Vitebsk, though the inspiration of his comrades in the UNOVIS collective would keep him based there for the next two and a half years.  There were other pressing reasons for Malevich to leave Moscow.  The revolution’s focus on fighting the Civil War to keep the revolution alive, had led to severe food shortages in the capital Moscow, with meagre rations provided for the population.  Malevich’s personal situation was another reason to move.  His wife was pregnant and they were living in a summer house, with no source of heating as the freezing Russian winter took hold. Vitebsk still had hardship, but as a provincial town offered an easier supply of everyday essentials. 

Following the revolution, Malevich had been active in the Fine Arts section of NARKOMPROS. He already organised exhibitions, had a solo exhibition in Moscow planned and he was teaching at Moscow SVOMAS (Free Art School).  As a successful left artist, Malevich’s impact was instant in Vitebsk.  His paintings were on show in an exhibition and he lectured to packed halls outlining how the new world needed new forms, which his system in art offered. Very quickly other left teachers at the school, including Lissitzky, Ermolaeva, Yakerson and Kogan, gathered around Malevich. They began learning about Suprematism and were simultaneously teaching the new art system to their students.

Lissitzky was the first follower of Malevich’s Suprematism.  Lissitzky changed his name from Lazar to El.  He took his new first name from a transrational poem that Malevich had written, in an introduction to his own book of art writings, The New Systems in Art.  Lissitzky and his students printed and published the book at the school.  

Lissitzky soon became an equal partner and he was central in connecting the new art with the revolution in concrete ways.  In late 1919, Lisstizky designed the famous poster, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge for the Red Army. The Red Wedge represents the collective power of the Red Army in the battles against the White Army, an alliance of foreign invaders and remnants of the old regime.  In a country with high levels of illiteracy, the simple agitational message of the poster could be quickly understood.   Lissitzky’s poster was a graphic design innovation, integrating words and geometric forms, with black and red print added to the low quality off-white paper available.  Lissitzky would continue integrating words and the page throughout the 1920s, making use of advances in technological printing available in Germany.  The example of Lissitzky’s work in graphic design, highlights the limits of the backward economy of Russia and its need to spread to an advanced industrial country, like Germany, for the revolution to survive.


UNOVIS collective in Vitebsk, 1920-22

El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich, Sketch for a curtain for a Meeting of the Committee to Combat Unemployment, 1919.

Even before UNOVIS was founded, Suprematism had started to become a part of the everyday life of the town.  In November 1919, the school received an important commission to decorate the second anniversary celebrations of the Vitebsk Committee to Combat Unemployment.  The decoration had to be completed quickly, by 17 December 1919.  Malevich and Lissitzky used the visual language of Suprematism to create the sketches, whilst student and teachers worked hard to deliver against the tight deadline.  They produced huge decorations, signs, and posters with objectless, Suprematist compositions. The success of the decorations was followed by further local commissions in the town. 

In the early years of the revolution, democracy was at heightened levels.  Students selected their teachers.  Many soon flocked to Malevich and teachers that had allied with him.  An initial attraction to the young students was that the new system in art was taught in a progressive way, with teachers providing their students with a grounding in Cubism, Futurism and Suprematism. Then Malevich and other teachers encouraged individuals to find their own way with this structure in art, design and architecture.  Possibilities of Suprematism were infinite, with students and teachers adding their own innovations and creating their own ways, underpinned with the principles of Suprematism.  

On 19 January 1920, many young students at the school publicly committed to affirming Suprematism, which they did by founding MOLPOSNOVIS (Young Followers of the New Art).  Quickly, they were joined by their teachers to form POSNOVIS (the Followers of the New Art), which would quickly evolve into the UNOVIS collective, by February 1920.  A principle underpinning the UNOVIS collective, was that members did not sign their work as individual artists, but as a collective work of UNOVIS.  This fitted the revolutionary times for collective unity. With the foundation of UNOVIS, Chagall lost many of his students and took this badly.  By June, Chagall would leave his native town and never return.  

Vera Ermolaeva, Façade for a Vitebsk Building, 1920.

The Front Week taking place starting on 6 February 1920, provided the emerging UNOVIS with the opportunity to provide entertainment for the town and the soldiers from the Red Army. It enabled the collective to expand their creative endeavours. The week’s programme included a performance of the Futurist Opera, Victory Over The Sun, with sets and costumes designed by Vera Ermolaeva, with one by Malevich.   Additionally, an innovative Suprematist ballet by Nina Kogan was performed, which involved a sequential unfolding of forms culminating in the supremacy of the black square. The black square was the symbol of UNOVIS, which members of the collective wore sown to their clothes. 

Nina Kogan, Sketches for a Suprematist Ballet, 1920. Paint, gouache and pen on paper.

David Yakerson, teacher, sculptor and UNOVIS member, was successful in having two monuments erected in Vitebsk by May 1920.  One of Karl Marx.  The other of the murdered German Communist leader, Karl Liebkneckt, in the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin of 1919.  Both combined the volumetric forms of Suprematism, topped with representational images of Liebkneckt and Marx. Due to shortages of plaster, he used cement moulds for both monuments.

David Yakerson. Model for the monument to Karl Liebkneckt, 1920. Plaster. © Vladimir Tsarenov collection / Archive photograph, Monument in Vitebsk with the artist, 1920.

Lissitzky also designed a monument using the new visual abstract language to another German Communist leader Rosa Luxemburg, also murdered in the Spartacist Uprising.  Her name was added in Cyrillic lettering.  Although the monument was unrealised, it provided Lissitzky with the inspiration for further architectural experiments. 

El Lissitzky, Design for Monument to Rosa Luxembourg. 1920. Gouache, watercolour and ink on paper.

Lissitzky, as Head of the Architecture School took up Malevich’s challenge to start the process of exploring Suprematism into architectural space.  Although it was almost impossible to build new buildings at the time, Lissitzky described his work as “way stations between painting and architecture.”  Here, he introduced volumetric representations into the visual vocabulary of Suprematism and would later refer to them as Prouns (Projects for Affirmation of the New).  Lissitzky’s Prouns would become influential, published inside the Soviet Union and abroad. 

El Lissitzky, Proun 1D, Circa 1920. Oil on canvas. 

In October 1920, Lissitzky left the school and moved to Moscow.  Following the departure, Lazar Khidekel, a 17 year old Vitebsk native, now led the Architectural workshop. In a UNOVIS questionnaire Khidekel wrote:

“I’m studying… Suprematism as a new system for constructing global architecture.”

This is one of the many examples of how the UNOVIS collective connected their contribution with the spread of the revolution to advanced economies, beyond the hardships of the civil war reality in which they lived. 

Lazar Khidekel, Suprematist Composition with a Blue Square, Ink, watercolour and graphite on paper.


UNOVIS influence beyond Vitebsk

In June 1920, a UNOVIS delegation attended the First All-Russian Conference of Teachers and Students of Art.  The UNOVIS collective came to the fore, with their clear art system of art, organisation, achievements and their powerful speeches.  They also distributed a handbill, the first copy of the UNOVIS Almanac highlighting the uses of the Suprematist system for everyday life, as well as Malevich’s booklet, On New Systems in Art.  UNOVIS branches sprung up in Smolensk, Orenburg, Perm, Ekaterinburg, Saratov and Samara.  UNOVIS also had three collective exhibitions in Moscow, including representing the work of other branches beyond Vitebsk.  

Lazar Khidekel, Project for a tribune for a Square in Smolensk, 1920. Gouache, pencil and ink on paper.


The end of civil war, UNOVIS & the rise of constructivism

UNOVIS doing what it could to brighten up Vitebsk, together with its vision of the future, was inspiring both then and now.  By 1921, the Civil War had ended with victory for the revolution, though with an exhausted economy, hunger and disease.  An uprising at Kronstadt meant the revolutionary government had to act.  It crushed the uprising, increased food rations and, out of necessity, introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), reintroducing the mixed economy.  The aim of the NEP was to encourage the peasant population in the countryside to grow surplus food and sell it to the cities.  The profits from the sales of surplus food would lead to the peasantry buying consumer goods in return from the cities, which would support the rebuilding of industry. Many factories were closed and output at almost zero levels compared with 1913, before the First World War and the Civil War.   

Following the adoption of the NEP, state support for culture initiatives was cut-back. This reduced the resources for the art school in Vitebsk.  By June 1922, Malevich had moved to Petrograd and many members of the UNOVIS collective followed, where they continued to contribute to the culture of the revolution, including creating new forms in porcelain at the State Porcelain factory, further architectural experiments for the future at GINKHUK (the State Institute of Artistic Culture) and pragmatic Suprematist architectural designs, by Lazar Khidekel were built. 

Archive photo, Workers’ club, near Leningrad 1923 –designed by Lazar Khidekel, age 24.

Two years in revolutionary time is more than two years in normal times. In 1920, VKhUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technical Studios) was set-up in Moscow.  By 1921, Constructivism became the majority trend of students and teachers at the studios, with their focus on bringing art into factory production and into everyday life.  This aligned with the shift in the policy of the revolutionary government, to industrialise at a human pace, in the mixed economy. Many designs from VKhUTEMAS were constructed using geometric shapes, including the successful textile sketches of artists, Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova, which went into production at the First State Textile Factory in 1923-24.  These designs built on the experimental legacy of UNOVIS, as did other work of artists, designers and architects contributing to everyday revolutionary life in the Soviet Union of the 1920s.  

Ivan Chervinka, sketch by Kazimir Malevich, Fabric design with a printed pattern, 1920. Canvas and printing.


Disappearing UNOVIS and its reappearance

After the death of Lenin in 1924, the struggle to continue with expanding revolution abroad was finally defeated by Stalin, by 1927.  Stalin and his regime would crack down on all aspects of the revolution to cement his nationalist state capitalist regime.  Culture and art would not be outside the reach of the bureaucratic state controls.  By 1934, the policy of Socialist Realism was imposed, with one style based on realism and earlier pre-revolutionary artistic traditions.  The counter-revolution abruptly ended the golden age of culture and innovation following the Russian Revolution of 1905.  Art and design, from UNOVIS and many other inspiring left artists, of the revolutionary period was banished from public display by 1936.  It was hidden in museum vaults and started only to resurface again in public life of the Soviet Union from the 1960s.  

The political committed art, design and culture of the UNOVIS collective was one of the many flowerings of the generation following the revolution of 1917.  It is worth celebrating.  The UNOVIS collective brought art into the streets and into everyday revolutionary life.  It arose out of the revolutionary government opening further education to workers, peasants and soldiers, underpinned by equality and inclusion for previously marginalised and excluded sections of society.  

The UNOVIS collective led the way, it was the first art school to have a clear Modernist style, before the more famous Bauhaus. Additionally, UNOVIS arose out of the revolution, with its politically committed artists began experiments for a different kind of world, where people and human creativity mattered more than profit.  A world without discrimination and war.  UNOVIS remain an inspiration for radical artists and anyone that shares that vision today.