Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Life and Art Periods

"The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras."

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

SYNOPSIS

László Moholy-Nagy is arguably one of the greatest influences on post-war art education in the United States. A modernist and a restless experimentalist from the outset, the Hungarian-born artist was shaped by Dadaism, Suprematism, Constructivism, and debates about photography. When Walter Gropius invited him to Bauhaus, in Dessau, Germany, he took over the school's crucial preliminary course, and gave it a more practical, experimental, and technological bent. He later delved into various fields, from commercial design to theater set design, and also made films and worked as a magazine art director. But his greatest legacy was the version of Bauhaus teaching he brought to the United States, where he established the highly influential Institute of Design in Chicago.

KEY IDEAS

Moholy-Nagy believed that humanity could only defeat the fracturing experience of modernity - only feel whole again - if it harnessed the potential of new technologies. Artists should transform into designers, and through specialization and experimentation find the means to answer humanity's needs.
His interest in photography encouraged his belief that artists' understanding of vision had to specialize and modernize. Artists used to be dependent on the tools of perspective drawing, but with the advent of the camera they had to learn to see again. They had to renounce the classical training of previous centuries, which encouraged them to think about the history of art and to reproduce old formulas and experiment with vision, thus stretching human capacity to new tasks.
Moholy-Nagy's interest in qualities of space, time, and light endured throughout his career and transcended the very different media he employed. Whether he was painting or creating "photograms" (photographs made without the use of a camera or negative) or crafting sculptures made of transparent Plexiglass, he was ultimately interested in studying how all these basic elements interact.
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LASZLO MOHOLY-NAGY BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was born in a small farming town in southern Hungary. His father abandoned the family when he was young, and his mother took Laszlo and his younger brother to live with their grandmother. "I lived my childhood years in a terrible great quietness," he later wrote. He left for Budapest in 1913 to study law, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the Army as an artillery officer in 1916. He experienced the horror of war on the Russian and Italian fronts, which remained with him for the rest of his life. He drew daily during this time as a soldier, sketching field life, his fellow officers, and the civilians he encountered. He discovered a passion for drawing, and though he finished his law degree after the war ended, he had already decided to become a painter.

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Early Training

Moholy-Nagy applied to the Hungarian Communist Party after the revolution of 1918-19, but was rejected due to his bourgeois background. He joined the group MA ("Today"), which believed in the revolutionary potential of art. His style ranged widely in this early period. He painted landscapes with abstract elements and used bright colors typical of Hungarian folk art to depict technological subjects in a Cubist style.

Late in 1919 he left for Vienna, a cosmopolitan city with an avant-garde art scene, but finding it too genteel he quickly moved on to Berlin, where his ideas began to crystallize. He painted completely abstract works influenced by Dadaism, Suprematism, and Russian Constructivism. He used letters as compositional devices and created photomontages that resembled those of Kurt Schwitters - though his serious and passionate nature did not embrace the sarcasm of Dada. Moholy-Nagy was also intrigued by the paintings of Kazimir Malevich, although he did not accept the Russian's spirituality. El Lissitzky and the Constructivists were his primary influences at this time. He experimented with transparency in color as he overlapped geometric shapes, believing in the Constructivist affirmation of art as a powerful social force that could teach workers to live in harmony with new technology.

Although Moholy-Nagy considered himself primarily a painter throughout much of his career, he also produced a great deal of photography. His first wife, Lucia, whom he met in Berlin in 1920, was a talented photographer and went on to record the Bauhaus years with her camera. They experimented with "photograms" (camera-less photographs in which light-sensitive paper is exposed directly to light), which allowed Moholy-Nagy to explore light and shade, transparency, and form. While Moholy-Nagy was not the first to create this type of photograph, he coined the name for the technique. In 1922, his success as a painter secured him a solo show at Galerie der Sturm, the most popular gallery in Berlin. A year later he received an invitation to teach at the Bauhaus from Walter Gropius.

Mature Period

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Biography

From 1923 to 1928, Moholy-Nagy taught at the Bauhaus, an influential school of architecture and industrial design that provided students with groundwork in all of the visual arts. His recruitment to the faculty marked a turning point in the school's direction since he was given control of the school's crucial preliminary course, or Vorkurs. Rather than endorsing the individualism of Expressionist painting, he introduced a new emphasis on the unity of art and technology. Moholy-Nagy's gregarious disposition made him a natural teacher. He taught the metal workshop, taking over from Paul Klee, which designed a line of lighting fixtures under his direction that are still in use today.

He also co-edited the periodical Bauhaus with Gropius, who became his mentor and lifelong friend. They co-published the Bauhausbucher, the fourteen books that acted as the manifesto of the Bauhaus faculty. He designed the typography for the books and wrote two influential ones himself. Painting, Photography, and Film was published in 1924. The second book, and the fourteenth in the series, From Material to Architecture, was published in 1929 (this was translated as The New Vision in 1932) and offers a summary of Moholy-Nagy's Vorkurs.

Political pressure in the late 1920s prompted Moholy-Nagy to resign from the Bauhaus. Next, he explored a variety of creative fields to support his family, no longer identifying himself as a painter. Socialists and Nationalists alike attacked his controversial stage sets for the Krolloper, an experimental opera house in Berlin, for the overt use of machinery that dwarfed the human figure onstage.

Moholy-Nagy expressed himself more fully in the 11 films he made between 1926 and 1936. His first film, Berlin Still-Life (1931), follows a documentary style he often employed. However, it was his famous Light-Play, Black-White-Gray of 1930 that was distinctly avant-garde. In 1932, he and Lucia separated, and he married his second wife, Sibyl, whom he had met at a film production studio. Their daughter Hattula was born in 1933.

Political tension and rise to power of the National Socialists in 1933 led Moholy-Nagy and his wife to emigrate. They moved to Holland temporarily in 1934, then to London in 1935. Moholy-Nagy discovered an international group of artists and intellectuals who had also fled there, finding many opportunities for industrial design. However, he was not satisfied with the situation in London as he truly sought an artist community and a chance to re-create the Bauhaus. His second daughter, Claudia, was born amid his busy work life and just before an opportunity to return to Berlin. He was asked to record the Olympic Games of 1936, but quit the assignment after two weeks, disgusted to find that his revolutionary friends had become Nazis. In 1937, a door opened for the artist when he was recommended by Gropius to direct a new art school in Chicago.

Late Years and Death

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Photo

From 1937 to 1947, Moholy-Nagy dedicated himself to teaching as much as to his own work. He negotiated a five-year contract as director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago, but the school went bankrupt after its first year. While the faculty stood by him, Moholy-Nagy faced personal attacks by the Executive Committee, which instilled his distrust of industrialists. Against all odds, he re-opened the school in 1939 as the School of Design and recruited a board of art supporters who agreed with his educational philosophy, including Walter Gropius, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and philosopher John Dewey. Moholy-Nagy and the faculty supported themselves through other work and taught at the School out of devotion. The start of World War II presented new challenges as the draft depleted the school of both faculty and students. However, Moholy-Nagy's inventiveness kept the school alive, and he found ways for the school to contribute to the war effort through ideas for camouflage and other ventures.

Moholy-Nagy worked tirelessly at a multitude of projects, including teaching and administering the school, dictating a new book, Vision in Motion (1947), and working in industrial design to support his family. In 1944, a board formed by industrialists friendly to the educational ideas of the school offering to support its administration and finances to the newly named Institute of Design.

Moholy-Nagy, however, became seriously ill and was diagnosed with leukemia in November 1945. After x-ray treatment, he returned to work as diligently as ever. In November 1946, he attended the Museum of Modern Art's Conference on Industrial Design as a New Profession. This conference was his last stand for his ideas of art education, especially the idea that art should guide industry rather than industrialists dictate design. He died from internal hemorrhaging soon after his return from Chicago.

LEGACY

Moholy-Nagy's influence on American art was felt broadly in several disciplines. Along with the other emigres from the Bauhaus, he succeeded in instilling a modern aesthetic into American design. His impact was felt most strongly by his students, but his use of modern materials and technology impressed other young designers, including Charles Eames, who visited the New Bauhaus while studying at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Moholy-Nagy's influence on photography is felt equally through his writings as through his photographs and photomontages. His first Bauhaus book established photography as a fine art equal to painting. His experiments in light and shadow reinforced photography's value as a subjective medium, and therefore an artistic medium, rather than simply a means to document reality.

Recent years have brought international attention to Moholy-Nagy's achievements with several major museums organizing retrospectives, including the Tate Modern in London, the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, and the Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago, that celebrate the impact of his work on American art.

Original content written by Julia Brucker
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LASZLO MOHOLY-NAGY QUOTES

"The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras."

"The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen."

"Designing is not a profession but an attitude. Design has many connotations. It is the organization of materials and processes in the most productive way, in a harmonious balance of all elements necessary for a certain function. It is the integration of technological, social, and economical requirements, biological necessities, and the psychological effects of materials, shape, color, volume and space. Thinking in relationships."

"Everybody is talented."

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Influences

Interactive chart with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters was a German multi-media artist who was particularly influential in the development of the Dada and Constructivist movements. By the 1920s, Schwitters was heavily involved in the international avant-garde, touring the world with artists like Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara. These travels earned him wide acclaim in the U.S. and scrutiny in his native Germany, which would soon come under the control of the Third Reich.

Modern Art Information Kurt Schwitters
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky was a Russian avant-garde painter, photographer, architect and designer. Along with his mentor Kazimir Malevich, Lissitzky helped found Suprematism. His art often employed the use of clean lines and simple geometric forms, and expressed a fascination with Jewish culture. Lissitzky was also a major influence on the Bauhaus school of artists and the Constructivist movement.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information El Lissitzky
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir Malevich was a Russian modernist painter and theorist who founded Suprematism. Along with his painting Black Square, his mature works feature simple geometric shapes on blank backgrounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kazimir Malevich
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neoplasticism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Piet Mondrian
Lajos Kassak
Lajos Kassak
Lajos Kassak was Hungary's first influential writer and editor who was a member of the working class. He founded the Marxist group MA (Today) and edited the group's eponymous periodical, and later edited and published Tett (The Deed). He is best known as a socialist and activist who influenced Eastern Europe's avant-garde writers and artists.

Modern Art Information Lajos Kassak
Paul Scheerbart
Paul Scheerbart
Paul Scheerbart was a German writer and poet associated with Expressionist architecture and fantastic literature. His book, Glassarchitektur, which visualized glass buildings in the future, influenced the architect Bruno Taut, philosopher Walter Benjamin and other artists and thinkers fascinated by the material properties of glass.

Modern Art Information Paul Scheerbart
Walter Gropius
Walter Gropius
The German architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar Germany. Along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, he is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern architecture.

Modern Art Information Walter Gropius
Herbert Read
Herbert Read
Herbert Read was an English poet and art critic. As an idealist, he considered external reality to be a construct of the mind and was strongly influenced by Existentialism. Despite the fact that he was an anarchist, he was knighted for his contributions to English literature.

Modern Art Information Herbert Read
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constructivism
Suprematism
Suprematism
Suprematism, the invention of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, was one of the earliest and most radical developments in abstract art. Inspired by a desire to experiment with the language of abstract form, and to isolate art's barest essentials, its artists produced austere abstractions that seemed almost mystical. It was an important influence on Constructivism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Suprematism
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dada
Robert Brownjohn
Robert Brownjohn
Robert Brownjohn was an American graphic designer who studied and later taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago. He is best known for his design of the title sequences of the films From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, where he used projections of images onto bodies of models.

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Marianne Brandt
Marianne Brandt
Marianne Brandt was a German designer who studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar and later taught its metal workshop. Her designs for household objects are considered the precursor to modern industrial design. She also created photomontages that explored the role of women in the complicated society of Weimar Germany.

Modern Art Information Marianne Brandt
Charles Eames
Charles Eames
Charles Eames was an American designer. He and his wife, Ray, were best known for their contributions to modern furniture design and architecture. He was greatly influenced by Eliel Saarinen and partnered often with his son, Eero Saarinen.

Modern Art Information Charles Eames
Herbert Bayer
Herbert Bayer
Herbert Bayer was an Austrian designer, best known for his graphic design and his connection to the Bauhaus. He was a student under Wassily Kandinsky and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy for four years before he was hired by Walter Gropius to direct printing and advertising. He invented the minimalist typeface for which the Bauhaus became known.

Modern Art Information Herbert Bayer
Gyorgy Kepes
Gyorgy Kepes
Gyorgy Kepes was born in Hungary, but his painting and design career took him to Germany and eventually to America, where he taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago. He founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT in 1967 and taught there until his retirement in 1984.

Modern Art Information Gyorgy Kepes
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was an American art historian, collector, and the first director of The Museum of Modern Art. Barr was very influential in MoMA's early years, arranging seminal exhibitions of works by Van Gogh, Léger, the Post-Impressionists and the Cubists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric Abstraction
Geometric abstraction refers to nonobjective art that is based on reductive and geometric principles. At its purest, it seeks to strip art down to its most fundamental shapes and lines. Artists in many different movements and time periods have worked in this mode.

Modern Art Information Geometric Abstraction
Bauhaus
Bauhaus
Bauhaus is a style associated with the Bauhaus school, an extremely influential art and design school in Weimar Germany that emphasized functionality and efficiency of design. Its famous faculty - including Joseph Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe - generally rejected distinctions between the fine and applied arts, and encouraged major advances in industrial design.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Bauhaus
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Renaissance
Renaissance
In the Renaissance, artists rediscovered techniques like rational space, three-point perspective, and plastic forms. Paintings frequently emphasized the human figure, allegory, classical mythology, and Christian themes.

Modern Art Information Renaissance
John Dewey
John Dewey
John Dewey was an American psychologist, philosopher and education reformer. Along with William James and Charles Sanders Pierce, Dewey was one of the founders of Pragmatism, a philosophy that deals in real-world consequence and the qualities of truth of meaning. He also helped found The New School for Social Research.

Modern Art Information John Dewey
Photogram
Photogram

Title: Photogram (1926)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Moholy-Nagy was fascinated by light throughout his career, and photograms offered the opportunity to experiment with the subtlety of light and shade. To create the photogram, he laid everyday objects on light-sensitive paper before exposing them to light. The brightness of the object's silhouette depended on the exposure time - a longer exposure meant a brighter image. In this photogram a paintbrush lays over Moholy-Nagy's hands, perhaps slyly suggesting the photogram is a medium of art that rivals painting.


Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Composition A 19
Composition A 19

Title: Composition A 19 (1927)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Moholy-Nagy's first abstract paintings featured opaque geometric shapes reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist paintings, yet Composition A 19 shows him developing beyond that style into new interests in light and the transparency of forms. The cross motif that appeared in his earlier paintings is here enlarged and doubled, the red and black crossbeams overlapping each other with varying levels of translucency.


Oil on canvas - Private Collection

Bauhausbucher 8, Malerei, Fotografie, Film
Bauhausbucher 8, Malerei, Fotografie, Film

Title: Bauhausbucher 8, Malerei, Fotografie, Film (1927)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Moholy-Nagy was responsible for the typography and graphic design of all but three of the Bauhaus books. His primary concern for the design was the rational organization of space. He employed clean lines and typeface to achieve this effect. These designs were his first real exploration of graphic design, which he pursued further in posters and ads after he resigned from the Bauhaus.


Letterpress printed book - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Lightplay Black-White-Gray, 1930
Lightplay Black-White-Gray, 1930

Title: Lightplay Black-White-Gray, 1930 (1930)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Moholy-Nagy worked with engineer Istvan Sebok and technician Otto Ball to realize his vision for Light Prop for an Electric Stage, also known as the Light Space Modulator, the sculpture featured in this film. Uniting the artist's enthusiasm for the look of machines and for material innovation, it is one of the most famous early examples of kinetic art. It went on to be presented as a freestanding, immobile sculpture and as a device in his experimental theatre and in this short experimental film, in which it is shot from different vantage points. The film captures the reflections and shadows created by the spinning sculpture, at times giving the impression of a functioning machine, a factory, or even an urban landscape.


16 mm black and white film, silent - Hattula Moholy-Nagy

Stage Set, Tales of Hoffmann
Stage Set, Tales of Hoffmann

Title: Stage Set, Tales of Hoffmann (1929)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Moholy-Nagy's first set design after leaving the Bauhaus was for the Krolloper's production of the Tales of Hoffmann. The opera is typically produced with lavish sets and costumes, but Moholy-Nagy's simple design defies expectations in its use of contemporary urban elements such as stainless steel cots and plain white walls. Moholy-Nagy stated in an interview, "Let us test the staying power of so-called great music by having fun with its trappings. If we insist on grand opera, let us see it as contemporaries."


Silver gelatin print - George Eastman House, Rochester, New York

Double Loop
Double Loop

Title: Double Loop (1946)

Artwork Description & Analysis: After exploring light through the media of painting, film, and photography, Moholy-Nagy investigated its properties through transparent sculpture. He abandoned the geometric forms of his earlier work for biomorphic curves. Since his incisions in the Plexiglass could not be corrected, his swooping lines were especially daring. Moholy-Nagy was seriously ill when he made Double Loop, but the freedom of the dynamic form betrays nothing of his doubt or fear of death.


Plexiglass - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.