The following two texts focus on the Hungarian avant-garde painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. “Moholy-Nagy,” written by his countryman Ernő Kállai, principally concerns Moholy-Nagy’s early work in painting. As such, it describes their geometricism and abstraction, as well as their amenability to architecture. He’d been converted to constructivism, of course, by El Lissitzky during his travels to the West. Lissitzky managed to convince a number of members of the De Stijl group in Holland to adopt these principles as well, and stopped by later at the Bauhaus to reconnect with some of his former students and collaborators.
“Production-Reproduction,” the second article reproduced here, was written by Moholy-Nagy himself. It proved to be of immense importance for subsequent theories of photography as a form of art, and by extension art in general. Walter Benjamin read it and was influenced by it, as was his colleague (and sometimes plagiarist) Siegfried Kracauer. Also, if anyone’s interested, you can download the 1968 translation of Moholy-Nagy’s book Painting, Photography, Film (1925), part of the Bauhausbücher series.
In the extremes of its adventures, [László] Moholy-Nagy’s art reaches out on the borders of Cubism and Dadaism, and by organically uniting these opposite poles, he heralds the world of contemporary man who has managed to subjugate the machines.
Speaking purely in terms of form, he constructs either concentric or eccentric systems of forms or tries to interlink these opposing entities.
In the case of those works, in the monumentality of the few masses which are distanced so as to suggest inevitability, a strong will and elementary laws manifest themselves. In his use of the landscape motifs of the railway tracks, for example by the projection of the tremendous diagonal of a factory chimney leaning left, the leaning, resting forces, forces pressing tensed into vertical, are gathered into a compact architecture of form. Details of bridges and architectural structures, having lost all their utilitarian references and practical functions, freely elevate themselves into a self-willed order, an existence meaningful in itself. In another picture, based on a white horizontal stripe, with an almost organic vitality, the form swings and leaps into a slender vertical. This is all discipline of form, self-awareness, and pride, a totally new and individual manifestation of the modern constructive style, which is devoid of the sometimes dangerously short-changing form and color-splitting and space-complicating of the more differentiated Western Cubism. Colors develop themselves into form through their strong contrasts, through their brutal clashing with each other; the articulations of the form are of the most simple kind possible, and that space, which was left empty for a tabula rasa, constitutes a single, wide abstract wall behind the form, on which the artist’s credo concerning the future-shaping power of man’s civilizing activity is written up with lapidary laconicism.
However, Moholy-Nagy is not only a monumental lord and master-builder of contemporary life and of form, but with a naive admiration of the eternal-primitive child-barbarian, and with his raving joy too, he is also an ecstatic admirer of this life. In other people’s hands Dadaism serves as a murderous weapon of moral and social criticism. The exultation over a million possibilities of forms and motion which only the metropolis and modern technology can create, the sudden discovery of a new world and the dancing laughing youth of a vision totally open to the universe: all these are there in Moholy-Nagy’s art.
Semaphores of joys, forms and colors are standing on all points of space.
Freshly felt surprises and perspectives of gravitational pulls of manifold directions, of the many and of the many kinds, spring up from everywhere. Total geometrical abstractions as well as pieces, numbers, letters and realistically represented objects or fragments of objects picked from the primary reality proliferate in Moholy-Nagy’s eccentrical pictures.
“Make it new,” Ezra Pound enjoined his fellow writers and artists at the start of the last century: invent, experiment, work fast, push forward, break eggs. It’s the primary creed of modernism – yet one of the most misunderstood. To “make it new” didn’t mean blowing up the past; it meant rising to its challenge, and marking one’s own age as definitively as one’s predecessors did theirs. What must a painting be, or a sculpture be, or a novel be, or a pencil or a knife or a dress be, to mean as much in this age as the Venus de Milo or Anna Karenina meant in theirs?
László Moholy-Nagy devoted his life to answering that question, and approached it from so many angles that calling him merely an “artist” seems miserably insufficient. Equally at home in fine and applied arts, he has never enjoyed the outsized reputation of some of his colleagues at the Bauhaus, such as the architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or the artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Much of Moholy-Nagy’s reputation rests on his photography, which stretched the boundaries of the medium through off-kilter perspectives, extreme close-ups, solarization, or camera-free reactions on light-sensitive paper.
In fact – and as affirmed by an omnivorous, packed-to-the-rafters retrospective on view now at the Guggenheim museum in New York – Moholy-Nagy was a polymath of almost compulsive character, and created kinetic sculpture, experimental film, light projections, set designs for opera, even ads for Harris Tweed and the London Underground. (“Quickly away, thanks to pneumatic doors!” trumpets the 1935 Tube poster.) Wend your way up the Guggenheim’s spiral, and you can see Moholy-Nagy flitting among media so fast that it’s a wonder he could master any of them. He mastered them all – and made them all new.
Moholy-Nagy was born in the rural south of Austria-Hungary in 1895, and after his military service he went to Berlin in the spring of 1920, a few months after the foundation of the Weimar Republic. (To spare you any embarrassment: the second part of the name is pronounced NAZH, with a dark Hungarian vowel.) In his youth he had ambitions to being a poet – and writing and publishing are important sub-themes of this show, whose vitrines bulge with avant-garde journals and typographic collages. But in Weimar-era Berlin, Moholy-Nagy fell in with the boys of Dada and began to look closely at Russian constructivism, which pushed him away from early representational feints.
Floating half-moons, slashed diagonals, stripes of solid color: these cunningly arranged building blocks cohered into harmonious nonobjective compositions, reminiscent of Alexander Rodchenko or, especially, his fellow Russian El Lissitsky. Moholy-Nagy’s paintings, like theirs, were intended to break the sclerosis of an old society and to accelerate the coming of a new social order—and though today we may find those pretensions ridiculous, a hundred years ago art really did inspire that kind of faith. (Later paintings, made after the exiled Jewish artist had emigrated to Chicago, are airier and daintier.) They also suggested architectural spaces, and chime with the muscular set designs he would later make for the avant-garde director Erwin Piscator.
But Moholy-Nagy always saw the shadier, less idealistic side of abstraction. Three spare paintings on enamel here, dating to 1923, are almost identical – a solid black stripe on a white field, overlaid with two multicolored crosses – but are three different sizes. Moholy-Nagy didn’t paint them, or at least this is how the story goes. Decades before the American minimalists outsourced their production to industrial fabricators, Moholy-Nagy got on the phone to a fabricator of enamel signs, picked colors from an industrial color chart, and instructed the factory to send him three copies. It was a marriage of constructivist utopianism and Dada deception. Leftist critics at the time praised him for “the boldest advance towards the dethroning and secularization of art … [for] the widest masses,” but Moholy-Nagy was puncturing that overheated rhetoric as much as he was filleting the holiness of painting. Creation, he showed, was also consumption; a revolution was also a lark.
Over in Paris in the early 20s, Picasso had moved on from the volatility of cubism to a traditionalist figuration as part of what was called a rappel à l’ordre: a return to order. To the south in Italy, a second generation of Futurists were mellowing their barmy mashups to fit with the revanchist aesthetics of fascism. (Pound was a Mussolini fan too.) But in dreary, industrial Dessau, where the Bauhaus was interweaving the fine and applied arts, “make it new” still held. Moholy-Nagy taught the intro course at the Bauhaus, and at that interdisciplinary school he explored the disjunctive possibilities of photo collage and the sculptural potentials of industrial materials. Sitting at the heart of the Guggenheim’s show is a wondrous kinetic sculpture, Light Prop for an Electric Stage, in which punctured metal discs and spindles of plastic and glass spin on a turntable. The fragile original is in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums. But an exhibition copy here has been placed in a reconstruction of the environment for which Moholy-Nagy first conceived it: a Room of the Present, which was to showcase the newest in design, architecture and even film for a 1930 salon. It spins on occasion, and casts on the other works groovy geometric shadows of indigo and mauve.
Unlike his paintings and sculptures, which committed to pure abstraction, his photographs took the world as it was, then chopped it and screwed it. Aerial shots were a favorite technique of Moholy-Nagy’s. Half a dozen photos here were shot from Berlin’s then-brand-new Funkturm, or radio tower, and transform the German capital into a dizzying array of paths and shadows. Or else he would point the camera in the other direction, straight up, to create disorienting tableaux of sailors atop boat masts. We see Moholy-Nagy’s wife Lucia in a tight closeup, her eyes shut on a rocky beach; we see a cat looming to the side of one composition, then again in a eerie solarized version, its eyes flared to white. And the artist himself, in an amiable self-portrait from the late 20s: he thrusts his palm forward to block the camera, but past his splayed hand you can see the whisper of a smile.
This is the first Moholy-Nagy retrospective in half a century to come together in the United States. (It travels to the Art Institute of Chicago this October, and to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next year.) Outstanding as it is as a showcase of European modernism, it is also welcome as an affirmation of the chops of the Guggenheim: a museum that was once the temple of 20th-century abstraction, but that now is facing something of an identity crisis. Last year its esteemed chief curator, Nancy Spector, left for the Brooklyn Museum after three decades in Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral, and a more pugnacious Museum of Modern Art and a revived Whitney Museum of American Art have left the Guggenheim looking a little light. Add to that an ill-conceived expansion to Abu Dhabi, years delayed and justifiably protested by artists and activists concerned about labor conditions in the United Arab Emirates, and you could ask yourself just what the Guggenheim is for. Answer: for exhibitions such as this one, which bring the art of the last century into focus and inspire our own generation to make it new.
- Moholy-Nagy: Future Presentis on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, through 7 September