Lissitzky was born on November 23, 1890 in Pochinok, a small Jewish community 50 kilometres (31 mi) southeast of Smolensk, former Russian Empire. During his childhood, he lived and studied in the city of Vitebsk, now part of Belarus, and later spent 10 years in Smolensk living with his grandparents and attending the Smolensk Grammar School, spending summer vacations in Vitebsk. Always expressing an interest and talent in drawing, he started to receive instruction at 13 from Yehuda Pen, a local Jewish artist, and by the time he was 15 was teaching students himself. In 1909, he applied to an art academy in Saint Petersburg, but was rejected. While he passed the entrance exam and was qualified, the law under the Tsarist regime only allowed a limited number of Jewish students to attend Russian schools and universities.
Like many other Jews then living in the Russian Empire, Lissitzky went to study in Germany. He left in 1909 to study architectural engineering at a Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, Germany. During the summer of 1912, Lissitzky, in his own words, "wandered through Europe", spending time in Paris and covering 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) on foot in Italy, teaching himself about fine art and sketching architecture and landscapes that interested him. His interest in ancient Jewish culture had originated during the contacts with a Paris-based group of Russian Jews led by sculptor Ossip Zadkine, a lifetime friend of Lissitzky since early childhood, who exposed Lissitzky to conflicts between different groups within the diaspora. Also in 1912 some of his pieces were included for the first time in an exhibit by the St. Petersburg Artists Union; a notable first step. He remained in Germany until the outbreak of World War I, when he was forced to return home through Switzerland and the Balkans, along with many of his countrymen, including other expatriate artists born in the former Russian Empire, such as Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall.
Upon his return to Moscow, Lissitzky attended the Polytechnic Institute of Riga, which had been evacuated to Moscow because of the war, and worked for the architectural firms of
Boris Velikovsky and Roman Klein. During this work, he took an active and passionate interest in Jewish culture which, after the downfall of the openly antisemitic Tsarist regime, was experiencing a renaissance. The new Provisional Government repealed a decree that prohibited the printing of Hebrew letters and that barred Jews from citizenship. Thus Lissitzky soon devoted himself to Jewish art, exhibiting works by local Jewish artists, traveling to Mahilyow to study the traditional architecture and ornaments of old synagogues, and illustrating many Yiddish children's books. These books were Lissitzky's first major foray in book design, a field that he would greatly greatly influence over the course of his career.
Lissitzky's The Constructor
, 1924, London, Victoria & Albert Museum
His first designs appeared in the 1917 book, Sihas hulin: Eyne fun di geshikhten (An Everyday Conversation), where he incorporated Hebrew letters with a distinctly art nouveau flair. His next book was a visual retelling of the traditional Jewish Passover song Had gadya (One Goat), in which Lissitzky showcased a typographic device that he would often return to in later designs. In the book, he integrated letters with images through a system that matched the color of the characters in the story with the word referring to them. In the designs for the final page, Lissitzky depicts the mighty "hand of God" slaying the angel of death, who wears the tsar's crown. This representation links the redemption of the Jews with the victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. An alternative view asserts that the artist was wary of Bolshevik internationalization, leading to destruction of traditional Jewish culture. Visual representations of the hand of God would recur in numerous pieces throughout his entire career, most notably with his 1924 photomontage self-portrait The Constructor, which prominently featured the hand.