Barney called him Lie Shits Ski
There’s a class or two out there somewhere studying our avant-garde hero, the Russian Constructivist (or is he a Suprematist?) artist, El Lissitski. If any of you readers of this log would care to comment, and tell tales of where you came across this post, what you think, or how Barney or El have influenced you, and the like, I’d be most grateful.
I spell his name differently
Barney called him Lie Shits Ski. OK, I’m rambling a bit here. I’d never even heard of Lissitsky (or is it Lissitzky? I’ve seen both, and Lissittsky, depends on the translator maybe, or was it El’s choice in changing from cyrillic characters to European spelling and all the other spellings are just plain wrong? ) before I started writing this blog (not true, see below), so, although a fan, I’m no expert. Earlier on in this site Naz said as how Barney Bubbles thought El was a “hack” for hire. There’s an up-close on the details of the relationship between Lissittsky (and his chums Rochenko, and Maholy-Najy) and the Moscow Ministry of Enlightenment to be found in Victor Margolin’s book on the “The struggle for Utopia: Rochenko, Lissittsky(Sp!), Maholy-Najy, 1917 – 1946.” (1997), Margolin is (or was) associate professor of design history at the University if Illinois, Chicago and editor of the journal Design Issues etc. so he knows his El.
Seems El went after for what they called the high ratings of a “simultaneous collective reception,” Newspeak for the dowhatyou’retold aspect of social realism, or that which would be accepted as appealing to the widest audience by an unimaginative Party account-executive in a clunky suit. What my dad called the lowest common denominator. The theory is that the result of El’s attempt to satisfy head office was that his work suffered, as seen in the Stalinist propaganda magazine USSR in Construction. But I think Margolin says ( he’s quite obscure) that El’s work there was not as bad as the critics would have it, and f’sho these example look pretty good to me.
Did a recall. Barney had a collection of these mags, that I recognize now he’d put out on display for me to see. The stack was about 5 inches high, on the sideboard in Islington, by his copy of Oz, a pile of maybe twenty copies or so of Soviet propoganda, maybe 10 x 14 ins, sort of like Picture Post or Life, but bigger, and more to the point. Bold two color (?) graphics. He said that Tatlin was working there too, that there was some politics with Malevich. “You get into it.” Barney mentioned El Lissitski too, now I think about it – so much for me thinking I’d never heard of him before. I said I knew of Malevitch and Maholy but not Liswhatsit, he goes, “Yeah, the names are are a bit comnfusing” specially when you get familiar, and everyone changes their name. (Which I think was maybe relevant to Barney’s name change back in ’67, along with that Mark Twain book The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson). He said I’d worked on magazines, what did I think? (I expect he may mave been thinking of Town in particular, but we’d also both worked on Nova and Oz, and at various times for Let It Rock, Friends/z and Oz. I said something about it being difficult to work in that time there, but it looked like he was doing a pretty good job, considering, Barney looks ambivalent. Maybe this was around the same time that Naz had the conversation with Barney about El and all.
I’m of the opinion that this was one of the covers Barney had in Islington. Further: This is an earlier cover and one of the better ones, as time went by, they became more bland, I said, “they kind of taper off.” Barney’s all about staying true to ones ideals.
On not selling out
But whatever the facts, that was why Barney said he was “a hack.” That would be Barney ignoring the reality of the situation, that of working in a gangster state, and exaggerating for effect by dissing his Hero of the Black Cube. Barney thought intensely about all this, since he avoided the sell-out with total conviction and he took it all so personally. After all, Barney said he’d kill himself in protest of something one day… and did. And, in character, left a mystery.
But riffing on all this I’m thinking that one of the many things Barney was good at was how he could feel at home in the immense fields created by exaggerating the possibilities within his graphic and theatrical language, allowing him to see the whole picture and to find the obvious, to him, answer. “To take it to the extreme, as far as you can go in every direction” is a way to discover all the dimensions of a project. The Blockhead logo looks like a joke text-book diagram (it’s square) of that idea, “Go to the corners.” I learned the very physical equivalent of that process from our patent lawyer at SAgA Fuels, Dr. Howard Peters, when measuring liquids researching rocket-fuel for a patent application. Graphic design when done well has many of the same elements of surprise as discovering an invention.
It is not true that this was Barney B’s design for Ian Dury’s album, Blockhead. Nope. It wasn’t for the Ian Dury LP ‘Blockhead’. In fact there never was an Ian Dury LP called ‘Blockhead‘ It was actually the logo Barney designed for Ian Dury’s band ‘The Blockheads‘ and got used in all sorts of places, but never as an actual cover design. This is the correct version, ignore all the other examples, like those with a rule border and so forth, they are counterfeit and should be replaced at the earliest possible convenience.
El wasn’t the only one being the first to use a black square as an icon, Malevitch did too, wonder who was more first?
Continuing to ramble, I think another way of ‘seeing’ that Barney had, was he could turn the dial way over, to ‘see’ in simple mode. To borrow the language of the patent office, he could conjure symbols and connections surprising to those skilled in the art. Recent (to me) research in Sci-Am (2007) tells me that our eyes are not just a lens and rods and cones, but a neuronal part of our brain, and that we have as many as twelve different receptor-sets in our goggles, all used for different interpretations of what’s out there. One receptor-set each (or more) for outlines, for highlights, shadows, for shapes, space, movement and so on.
I guess most of the skills are learned real early. But I know from experience that our eyes can learn to see in cross-hatching if we hatch a lot. You can see in black and white – or see in bright colors, and switch back and fore if you need to. I think Barney had trained his eye to see connections, as easily as some see faces in a tortilla. He had highly evolved space-connection peepers, which together with his understated wit, came up with all-sorts of wry grist for a hook.
Dr Strangelove meets Maholy-Nagy
In other vaguely related thoughts I like to imagine that my old nemesis, Tom Wolsey at Town Magazine, since he was at the Bauhaus in New York, would have studied under Maholy-Nagy. But I learn that Maholy was in Chicago, so perhaps not. I should write and ask Tom. Tom Wolsey was also the German accented person and designer of note who was Peter Sellers voice coach for the Herr Doctor role in the film Doctor Strangelove, “You vill do as I say!”
Further further thoughts: I’m pretty sure that Tom Wolsey worked in New York at some time, but it could have been that he studied with Maholy in Chicago.