An upcoming exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, will highlight the troubling history of forgery within the field of Russian avant-garde painting. The Busch-Reisinger Museum’s Proun 12E will be displayed there as a genuine example of El Lissitzky’s artistic output as compared to counterfeit works.
We recently carried out a technical study in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies of the painting’s material qualities, or faktura, as artists of the Russian avant-garde would have said. Our research revealed extensive traces of planning that enabled Lissitzky to achieve the desired material effects.
Proun 12E was acquired by the Busch-Reisinger Museum in 1949. The painting’s well-documented history leaves no room for any doubt of its authenticity. The painting ranks among the Harvard Art Museums’ most celebrated examples of Russian avant-garde art and anchored the ground-breaking 1987 exhibition El Lissitzky 1890–1941. As a trained architect, painter, graphic designer, and educator, Lissitzky was one of the 20th century’s most creative minds. A recent documentary film reminds viewers how unusual Lissitzky’s position was within the international avant-garde. While other artists in revolution-era Russia abandoned easel painting in favor of utilitarian art forms, Lissitzky remained committed to painting and its role in advancing creative and spiritual life. However, his compositions, often named Proun, broke with painterly conventions. Pronounced “pro-un,” Proun is an acronym for the phrase the artist coined, in Russian, to describe his “project for the affirmation of the new.”
In this spare abstract image, a wide yellow band extends across the width of the canvas, anchoring a variety of geometric forms and lines in a limited palette of gray, white, black, yellow, and red. These seem to hover above a warm white background, defying laws of gravity and perspectival logic. Lissitzky’s new approach to painting coincided with new ideas about how non-representational art generates meaning. For the Russian Constructivists, a group of revolutionary artists with which Lissitzky associated, form was secondary to materiality. Faktura—the specific material qualities of an object that lay bare the methods of its making—was in fact one of the core principles of Constructivism. As Russian formalist theorist Viktor Shklovskii put it in 1920: “Faktura is the main distinguishing feature of that particular world of specially constructed objects, the totality of which we [call] art.” For Lissitzky, too, faktura transcended the individual work of art and could become a powerful tool for the transformation of reality:
The new element of faktura, which we have brought to the fore in our painting, will be applied to the whole of the world, which we are still to build, and will transform the roughness of concrete, the smoothness of metal, and the reflectivity of glass into the skin of the new life.
What, then, is the faktura that defines Proun 12E? We raised this question when the painting was requested for the upcoming exhibition Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake, scheduled to open at the Museum Ludwig in Germany in Fall 2020. The show will explore the material contrasts between accepted original works and paintings that have, through close examination and material analysis, been unmasked as counterfeit. This topic is of urgent interest because the market for Russian avant-garde paintings is particularly susceptible to the work of forgers, who are attracted by a combination of high market values and limited historical documentation of genuine works. Proun 12E is a rare authentic example of Lissitzky’s work, and so in collaboration with conservators at the Museum Ludwig, we studied it closely for comparison with forgeries. We were particularly keen to record in detail how Lissitzky engaged with faktura, using paint additives and distinct media. Our hypothesis was that it might be exactly this painterly quality that is missing in counterfeit “Lissitzky” paintings.
As with every focused study of an artwork, our investigation of Proun 12E began by looking closely at the construction and surface of the painting. Conservators can determine many aspects of the artistic process just by using microscopes and flashlights.
Proun 12E was painted on a lightweight, open, and plain-weave canvas. The priming layer, the first pigmented layer applied to a canvas, provides the desired color and texture for painting. It is visible throughout Proun 12E’s composition as the warm white background on which Lissitzky’s shapes seem to float. Under magnification, this layer has a granular quality with numerous small inclusions throughout. Its application disturbed the yarns of the canvas, giving the surface a somewhat fibrous appearance.
The rough quality of this lowest layer translates through subsequent layers of paint and, despite all the precision of Lissitzky’s compositional lines, gives the painting a handmade appearance—relating directly back to the concept of faktura, which reveals the method of manufacture.
Technical imaging allows us to see below the surface of a painting, literally giving us a deeper understanding of the material buildup. Reflected infrared imaging can detect carbon-rich materials, such as graphite.
The reflected infrared image of Proun 12E shows that after applying the rough white priming layer, Lissitzky used a graphite drawing to carefully delineate all the shapes that appear in the final composition. No alterations to the composition were made after the initial drawing, and much of the drawing is covered by paint. The drawing is occasionally visible in normal illumination at the edges of some shapes in the composition, suggesting that Lissitzky carefully applied paint within the pre-drawn shapes, just up to the line, without allowing the painted shapes to overlap.
X-radiography penetrates the entire structure of the painting, revealing information about the canvas as well as the paint layers. The X-radiograph of Proun 12E further illustrates the precision with which Lissitzky planned his composition and the absence of deviation from the drawing made visible in infrared. Though the final composition gives the illusion of stacked forms, each shape has been carefully painted with hardly any overlap between contiguous shapes. It appears that the large gray triangle was laid in first, followed by the glossy horizontal band, which ever so slightly overlays the triangle where they meet. Space was left in reserve around the graphite drawing where other shapes would be laid in, appearing to pass over the gray triangle and the horizontal band. These reserves are darker in the X-radiograph because less material is present than one would find if the paint had been layered.
The fine lines, in a fluid black ink, were painted in various stages. They overlap the gray triangle and glossy band, while other intersecting shapes were painted up to and around the lines afterward. A gap was left in the fine line that passes over the gray triangle. This left space for the small red rectangle, giving it the illusion of having been folded back over the line.
There is strong correlation between each geometric shape and the method in which Lissitzky chose to paint it. The white shapes were applied by brush with a thick paint and then smoothed with a palette knife (see image above). This distinct faktura sets the white shapes in contrast to the fluid, watercolor-like quality of the gray shapes and the thin, opaque matte texture of the red and black shapes.
The glossy horizontal band is set apart from every other element in the painting by its unique materiality. In a composition otherwise characterized by a dry, matte appearance, the horizontal band reflects specular light, appearing to shift as the viewer moves. The band, which extends across the composition, seems to pass behind the foreground shapes and is painted with an unpigmented natural resin. Time has heightened the contrast between the horizontal band and the warm white background because the natural resin has yellowed with age. It is likely that the natural resin would have originally been clear, setting the shape apart from the rest of the background through a subtle contrast in sheen.
Ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence can distinguish material differences by revealing broad characteristic responses to high-energy UV radiation. The UV image of Proun 12E shows distinct levels of fluorescence throughout the composition, suggesting that Lissitzky made specific material choices for each shape, in order to set them apart from one another in terms of their faktura.
Using close examination and technical imaging results as a guide, associate conservation scientist Georgina Rayner and Katherine Eremin, the Patricia Cornwell Senior Conservation Scientist, applied a range of non-destructive analytical techniques to characterize Lissitzky’s material choices without requiring any samples. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) identified a mixture of pigments in the ground color, including lead white, zinc white, and calcium carbonate, all of which are appropriate for the date of the painting. The red circle and small rectangle could not be identified by XRF, which suggests that the red pigment was likely an organic dye of some sort. The other black and gray forms were likely painted with a carbon-based black pigment, like bone black.
Using reference samples from the museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection, Raman spectroscopy demonstrated that Lissitzky used Toluidine Red (Pigment Red 3) in the red circle and Hansa (dinitroniline) orange (Pigment Orange 5) in the small red rectangle. Both dyes were first synthesized in Germany in the early 20th century, which would place them squarely in the appropriate date range for Proun 12E.
Following this non-destructive analysis, six microsamples (smaller than the size of a pinhead) were taken for further study of the various binding media that Lissitzky used throughout the painting. A range of media was identified, each being used to achieve specific material effects and thus enhancing our understanding of Lissitzky’s application of the concept of faktura in Proun 12E. Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy showed that Lissitzky used a proteinaceous binder, likely some sort of animal hide glue, in the white background; an oil binder in the thickly applied white fields; and a natural resin for the shiny horizontal band. The unique properties of each of these binders, combined with the distinct application techniques noted through close examination, allowed Lissitzky to develop the nuanced surface of Proun 12E, where each shape has a distinct faktura.
The work of authentication is inherently collaborative. While conservators and conservation scientists can show whether the techniques in a work seem consistent with an artist’s known output and whether the materials found in the work are appropriate for the time period or if they are anachronistic, their work alone cannot prove that a work is authentic. Our confidence in Proun 12E’s authenticity has long been rooted in the painting’s history of ownership and the expertise of connoisseurs of the artist’s work. However, that assurance is now further bolstered by this recent technical study, which shows Lissitzky’s deep engagement with the concept of faktura. The specific material qualities of Proun 12E’s surface lay bare the exacting methods of its making as they preserve traces of the artist’s hand at work.
 Shklovskii quoted in Maria Gough, “Faktura: The Making of the Russian Avant-Garde,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 36 (Autumn 1999): 32–59; Lissitzky quoted in Maria Kokkori, Alexander Bouras, and Irina Karasik, “Kazimir Malevich, Unovis, and the Poetics of Materiality,” in Celebrating Suprematism: New Approaches to the Art of Kazimir Malevich, ed. Christina Lodder (Brill: Online publication date 1/1/2018), 119.
Ellen Davis is assistant paintings conservator in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums.