El Lissitzky spent part of his youth in Vitebsk, where at age 13 he met Yehudah Pen at Pen’s art school, which Marc Chagall also attended. Refused entrance into the Academy of Art in Saint Petersburg (most likely because of the Jewish quota), in 1909, El Lissitzky entered the Darmstadt Technische Hochschule. He traveled widely in Europe, creating drawings that he later reworked. In 1914, he returned to Russia, where with the artist Yisakhar Rybak he participated in the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society’s expeditions in the summers of 1915 and 1916, exploring synagogues along the Dniepr River and collecting Jewish artifacts. El Lissitzky made fine drawings of frescoes from the eighteenth-century Mohilev synagogue, which were later published with his Reminiscences (1923) in the early Jewish art journals Milgroym (Yiddish) and Rimon (Hebrew), both meaning pomegranate. These drawings were intended both to prove the existence of and to preserve Jewish folk art, as well as to provide—in imitation of the Russian Mir Iskusstva movement and Cubo-Futurist modernism—the basis for a modern Jewish style.
In 1925, El Lissitzky returned to Moscow. His designs in 1926 for the Room for Constructivist Art at the International Art Show in Dresden cemented his fame as a cutting-edge artist and designer. Beginning in 1926, he produced works for Soviet trade exhibitions and propaganda shows. These included integrated display rooms that fused his interest in architecture, photomontage, photocollage, typography, and posters in the most advanced Constructivist style based on his unique designs. The absence of any Jewish connection in El Lisstzky’s life after 1926 suggests that he followed the lead of others in adapting to changing Soviet realities. Ill health led to his untimely death in 1941. El Lissitzky’s Jewish Period Catalogue Raisonné is currently being prepared by the El Lissitzky Foundation at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and will be published in 2015 by the M.T. Abraham Foundation.