László Moholy-Nagy and the redemptive power of art
Curator Carol S. Eliel illuminates the life of the peripatetic Hungarian-born artist and hero of design from Berlin to London and Chicago — illustrated with exhibition works and others offered in our sales
Writer, theorist, teacher, painter, philosopher, photographer, sculptor and curator, László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) was one of 20th-century art’s great innovators. ‘Openness to exploration, to experimentation, is very much part of his aesthetic’, affirms Carol Eliel, who curated Moholy-Nagy: Future Present at LACMA, the first American retrospective of the artist since 1969.
The early days in Hungary
Moholy-Nagy’s story begins in Borsód (now Bácsborsód), Hungary, in 1895. Born László Weisz, he adopted the surname of his maternal uncle, Nagy, who supported the family when his father left; Moholy was added later, and derives from Mohol (in present-day Serbia), the name of the town where he grew up.
The young Moholy-Nagy did not originally intend to become an artist. While studying law, ‘he enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, was injured and received a medical discharge,’ says Eliel. ‘It was during his convalescence that he decided he wanted to become a visual artist.’
After the First World War, Moholy-Nagy began contributing to the experimental Hungarian arts journals Jelenkor and Ma, but left Budapest after the defeat of Hungary’s Communist regime in August 1919. ‘He went briefly through Vienna and wound up settling for a number of years in Berlin, a major avant-garde arts centre at the time,’ says Eliel.
Berlin and the new aesthetic of experimentation
Moholy-Nagy became active in the Berlin scene, enthusiastically absorbing Europe’s new art movements. ‘He did a number of drawings and paintings in Hungary which were really influenced by Cubism, before Dada seeped into his consciousness,’ the curator explains. The Dada aesthetic of experimentation and radicalism particularly appealed to Moholy-Nagy, as did Constructivist abstraction.
The next significant development in Moholy-Nagy’s practice came when he met his first wife, the photographer Lucia Schulz (1894–1989). Throughout their marriage, Lucia Moholy’s abilities in photography greatly influenced her husband’s work and the two frequently collaborated artistically.
According to Eliel, Moholy-Nagy believed that photography was ‘the essential visual vocabulary of the day’, and that a lack of familiarity with photography made one, on an artistic level, ‘illiterate’.
‘The notion of experimentation was critical to his practice,’ continues Eliel, describing how he went on to invent the photogram — a photograph made without a camera. To create a photogram, Moholy-Nagy laid objects on light-sensitive paper and exposed them to light, with a longer exposure creating a brighter image.
The Bauhaus, a career-defining opportunity and experiments in new mediums
Moholy-Nagy’s artistic reputation grew, bringing with it a career-defining opportunity at the Bauhaus in 1923. ‘Walter Gropius, the head of the Bauhaus at the time, invited him to teach there. Moholy-Nagy was interested in the connections between art, industry and technology, and Gropius wanted to strengthen that aspect of training,’ Eliel explains.
Moholy-Nagy taught the foundation course as well as in the metal workshop, but his role went considerably beyond that of teacher, says the curator. ‘Moholy-Nagy was very influential in creating — with others — the graphic look of the Bauhaus. He became a pillar of Bauhaus aesthetics.’
Moholy-Nagy left the Bauhaus in 1928 to work on his own in Berlin, where he experimented with new materials and light. Here he built the Lichtrequisit einer elektrischen Bühne [Light Prop for an Electric Stage], also known as the Light Space Modulator, first presented at the 1930 Deutscher Werkbund exhibition in Paris.
The Lichtrequisit einer elektrischen Bühne is a kinetic object composed of moving parts through which light is projected to create patterns and shadows. Often described as the first kinetic sculpture, and also the first light sculpture, it reflects Moholy-Nagy’s love of motion, technology and non-traditional materials.
In Berlin, Moholy-Nagy was commissioned to design the set for Jacques Offenbach’s fantastical opera Tales of Hoffmann. The artist’s audacious constructions involved stainless steel scaffolding, beams of light, mirrors and film-projection. Moholy-Nagy’s vision and design for the project — captured in a rare mounted, gelatin silver print diptych by Lucia Moholy (above) — led to several subsequent others, including designs for Madame Butterfly and The Merchant of Berlin.
The 1930s, a move to England and commercial work
In the early 1930s Moholy-Nagy was working prolifically as an artist, designer and writer. However, life was about to take another turn. The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 and Moholy-Nagy moved briefly to the Netherlands in 1934 before settling in England the following year.
Moholy-Nagy formed part of a circle of émigré artists and intellectuals based in London's Hampstead neighbourhood. ‘He did a lot of commercial work in England because that’s how he kept body and soul together, paid the rent and supported his family,’ says Eliel, adding that this wasn’t something he resented. ‘Commercial work was always very much part of his practice and he didn’t think of it as lesser than painting or sculpture or photography.’
Typically diverse, his work in the UK included creating advertising campaigns for the London Underground and Imperial Airways (later British Airways), and designing the curved Plexiglas windows at what is now Waterstones book shop on Piccadilly, which can still be seen today. He took photographs for the Architectural Review, where the assistant editor was the poet John Betjeman (1906–1984). Betjeman would commission Moholy-Nagy to take documentary photographs for his book An Oxford University Chest.
A new life in the USA — and the marriage of art and industry
In 1937, two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Moholy-Nagy was invited to the USA. Gropius at that point was teaching at Harvard and, says Eliel, ‘knew of a group of industrialists in the Midwest who wanted to start an art school that would foster connections between art training and industry. Gropius said, "I have just the man for you".’
Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago to become the funding director of the New Bauhaus. The school lost funding and closed a year later. Unperturbed, he continued to fundraise, and in 1939 opened the School of Design, based on Bauhaus principles. ‘The point of the school,’ says Eliel, ‘was to create artists who could propagate ideas of good design widely, so that everyone would benefit from their education.’
In 1944 it became the Institute of Design, which in 1949 became a part of Illinois Institute of Technology — the first American institution to offer a PhD in design. Moholy-Nagy’s contribution to art education in the US cannot be overstated, Eliel asserts.
Moholy-Nagy’s artistic experimentations continued alongside his role as an educator. He had played with light throughout his career, and was by now investigating its properties through transparent sculpture, abandoning the geometric forms of his earlier work in favour of biomorphic curves.
Moholy-Nagy died in 1946, at the age of 51. Had he lived to see the computer age, believes Eliel, he would have been thrilled. ‘He would be all over digital media, computer art and the internet,’ she says. ‘Those are exactly the kind of intellectual ideas that would have completely fascinated and inspired him — the notion of the endlessly reproducible image that can go out into the world on a multitude of platforms is something he would have loved.’
Piecing together a legacy
The artist’s varied and sprawling body of work made curating the LACMA retrospective a significant challenge. ‘There is not one repository you can go to, there is no comprehensive catalogue,’ Eliel explains. ‘The estate owns some work, but generally it is very scattered.’
One key example is Raum der Gegenwart (The Room of the Present), above, which Moholy-Nagy conceived in 1930 as an exhibition space including film booths, revolving panoramic photography, and industrial design. Moholy-Nagy never built The Room of the Present in his lifetime — but it does feature at Future Present.
German architects Kai-Uwe Hemken and Jakob Gebert created the Room of the Present in 2009 by teasing together the plans from archival research. Owned by the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, the Room is at the core of the LACMA show. The overall design of the retrospective, by architects Johnston Marklee, captures ‘the dynamism’ of Moholy-Nagy’s creations and ‘references some of his own exhibition designs’, says the curator.
Beyond the work itself, it is Moholy-Nagy’s belief in the redemptive power of art that makes him iconic. ‘Art really had a purpose for him beyond the aesthetic,’ Eliel concludes. ‘He firmly believed that, and worked toward that end every day.’