László Moholy-Nagy (prononciation :
László Moholy-Nagy is known for his participation in various avant-garde movements between the wars, in which he rubbed shoulders with members of Dadaism, Constructivism and De Stijl. He explored the new techniques of photography by designing photograms. Solicited by the founder and director of the Bauhaus school, Walter Gropius, the artist became a teacher there in 1923 with the title of Master. He left the school in 1928 and moved to the United Kingdom in 1934. There he continued his artistic experiments and worked in advertising. In 1937, he left for the United States to open the New Bauhaus school in Chicago.
Origins, family and studies
László Weisz was born on July 20, 1895. He came from a Hungarian Jewish family in Bácsborsód. His father, Lipót Weisz, was a steward on a large agricultural estate. Through his mother Karolina Stein, he had an older half-brother, Jenö, born in 1891. His father left the family in 1897, just after the birth of his youngest brother, Akos. His maternal uncle, Gusztáv Nagy, a nationalist and progressive lawyer, took the family in and provided for them in Mohol.
The young László adopted his uncle”s surname. In 1905, he entered the Gymnasium in Szeged. László Nagy began his artistic career by publishing poems in the local newspaper Szegedi Napló in 1911. In 1913, after graduating from high school, he began studying law at the University of Budapest (Budapesti Tudományegyetem). At the outbreak of World War I, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army as an artillery officer. He was wounded in 1917 and began to draw during his convalescence in the Odessa hospital. László Moholy-Nagy became involved in the magazine Jelenkor (“Present Time”), founded by Iván Hevesy, and then in the revolutionary avant-garde magazine MA (“Today”) of Lajos Kassák. That same year, he changed his surname to Moholy-Nagy: Moholy in recognition of Mohol, the city of his youth, and Nagy in homage to his uncle.
Back in Budapest after his demobilization, he decides to devote himself to painting. He attended the private art school of the Hungarian artist Fauve Róbert Berény and participated in several exhibitions. The short-lived Republic of Councils of Hungary bought four works from him in 1919. After the fall of the communist regime in August 1919, he retired to Szeged and then fled the country. He went to Vienna at the end of the year.
In 1920 László Moholy-Nagy moved to Berlin at the beginning of 1920. There he met the Dadas Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters. He became the correspondent for the magazine MA. That same year he met and married the photographer and writer Lucia Schulz. In Berlin, he discovered Constructivism and Suprematism, embodied in the works of Kasimir Malevich, and in 1921 he produced one of his first paintings, Composition 19. In October of the same year, the Dutch magazine De Stijl published a “Call to Elemental Art. To the artists of the whole world”, text that he co-signed with Jean Arp, Raoul Hausmann and Ivan Puni (Jean Pougny).
In 1922, he met Walter Gropius at a joint exhibition with his Hungarian compatriot Laszlo Peri at the Der Sturm art gallery in Berlin. That same year, during the first “Congress of Progressive Artists”, held in Düsseldorf from May 29 to 31, he represented the MA group and met El Lissitzky and Theo van Doesburg, who had just published a theoretical article on photograms in De Stilj, entitled “Production reproduction”. Moholy-Nagy, for his part, publishes the Book of New Artists with Kassák. That summer he went on vacation to the Rhön Mountains with his wife. She introduced him to making photograms on photosensitive paper.
His first photograms were influenced by the films of Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter. However, he criticized abstract cinema for “emphasizing formal developments at the expense of the representation of movement. In an article published in 1923 by the American magazine Broom, Moholy-Nagy explained that he “aims to use light as the primary formal factor, which creates space and movement, and eliminates the central perspective of photography.” Alongside this article, Broom reproduces four photograms by Moholy-Nagy as well as four others by Man Ray. The photomontages of the Dadaists inspired a new variant that he called “Fotoplastik”. During this period he also sketched out his ideas for what would become his most famous sculpture, the Licht-Raum Modulator, completed in the 1920s.
1919-1928: the Bauhaus years
In February 1923, the Der Sturm gallery organized his second solo exhibition, which allowed Moholy-Nagy to present his Telephonbilder (“Telephone Paintings”): these are works on enameled porcelain “whose colors observe subtle variations according to the enlargement or reduction of the composition.
That same year, Moholy-Nagy was invited to teach at the Bauhaus in Weimar by its founder and director, Walter Gropius. There he took over the position of Johannes Itten as director of the preliminary course. He also replaced Paul Klee as head of the metal workshop. His arrival marked the end of the school”s expressionist tendency. Moholy-Nagy promoted a constructivist vision. Thus, the school began to move closer to its original goal of being a school of industrial design.
Moholy-Nagy was the first artist of the interwar period to propose the use of scientific equipment such as the telescope, the microscope and the X-ray in artistic creation. He also played an important role in the publication of the Bauhausbücher (“Bauhaus Books”), for which he was also responsible for the layout. In 1925 he published the book Malerei. Fotografie. Film (“Painting. Photography. Film”), in which his photograms were exhibited.
1928-1937: European exiles
László Moholy-Nagy is editor-in-chief of the Dutch magazine International Revue i 10. The artist left the Bauhaus in 1928, and Marianne Brandt resumed her role as head of the metal workshop, while Moholy-Nagy founded his own design studio in Berlin. With his studio, he created several sets for the Berlin State Opera and then for Erwin Piscator”s theater. He also designs exhibitions and books, creates advertising campaigns, writes articles and makes films. His studio employs artists and designers such as Istvan Seboek, György Kepes, and Andor Weininger.
In 1929, Moholy-Nagy separated from his first wife, Lucia, but two years later, in 1931, he met the actress and screenwriter Sibyl Pietzsch, whom he married in 1932. They had two daughters, Hattula (born in 1933) and Claudia (1936-1971).
After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Moholy-Nagy was no longer allowed to work because of his foreign background. In 1934, he went into exile first in the Netherlands, where he was active mainly in commerce, before moving with his family to London in 1935. In England, László Moholy-Nagy became part of the circle of émigré artists and intellectuals who settled in Hampstead. He was hired by Jack Pritchard to create advertising content for his company Isokon. There he met Walter Gropius, with whom he planned to create an English version of the Bauhaus, but due to a lack of support, the project was never realized.
László Moholy-Nagy earns his living in London by taking on various commercial design jobs, such as at Imperial Airways. He photographs contemporary architecture for the magazine The Architectural Review, whose associate editor is John Betjeman. Betjeman commissions him to take photographs to illustrate his book An Oxford University Chest. He was commissioned to make the films Lobsters (1935) and New Architecture and the London Zoo (1936). He also began experimenting with painting on transparent plastic, such as polymethylmethacrylate.
In 1936, the Hungarian film producer Alexander Korda commissioned him to design special effects for the film Things to Come (“Future Worlds”) based on the novel by H. G. Wells. László Moholy-Nagy created kinetic sculptures and abstract lighting effects, but they were not used by the film”s director William Cameron Menzies. At the invitation of the British architect Leslie Martin, he also gives a lecture at the School of Architecture in Kingston upon Hull
In 1937, the Nazis included his works in the exhibition Degenerate Art organized in Munich.
1937-1946: The United States
In the fall of 1937, László Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in the city of Chicago at the invitation of the city”s Arts and Industry Association. This design school was based on the creative concepts of the German Bauhaus. Due to financial problems, the school closed in 1938, but this closure was short-lived because, thanks to support he found, Moholy-Nagy reopened the school the same year, under the name of Chicago School of Design. In 1944, the school became the Institute of Design and in 1949 it became part of the new Illinois Institute of Technology university system. The school was the first in the United States to offer a doctorate in design. Moholy-Nagy remained as director until 1945. During his tenure, he organized summer courses at several institutions. In the summer of 1940, he taught courses at Mills College in Oakland, California, and in 1942, summer courses were held at Women”s Teachers College in Denton, Texas.
In 1995 and 1996 the Centre Georges-Pompidou presented more than four hundred photograms of the artist in the exhibition “Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – Light Compositions, Photograms, 1922 – 1943″. In the fall of 2003, the Moholy-Nagy Foundation was established to conduct research on the artist”s life and work. In 2005, the Hungarian University of Applied Arts in Budapest (Magyar Iparművészeti Egyetem) was renamed the Moholy-Nagy University of Applied Art (Moholy-Nagy Művészeti Egyetem), in his honor. In 2016, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a retrospective of László Moholy-Nagy”s work that included paintings, films, photographs, and sculptures.
Along with Christian Schad and Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy was one of the first artists to enter the plastic field of photography, which became one of his most recurrent mediums. With his photograms, the art historian Herbert Molderings judges that the artist “ensures that the viewer cannot, as far as possible, recognize the forms and objects used in the making of the photogram”.
Moholy-Nagy has recorded in various works all his reflections on the new means of expression of which he was one of the pioneers, from typography to film, via kinetic sculpture and photography:
“The illiterate of tomorrow will not be the one who ignores writing, but the one who ignores photography.”