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Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

By: Demon Eugene


Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity


“The solution lies, accordingly, not in working against technical advances, but exploring them for the benefit of all� -Laszlo Moholy-Nagy


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Essay

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Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

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er li in the 1920’s attracted artists from all over Europe to join smoke filled rooms, stay up late drinking cocktails and discuss what the modern world would be. The traumas of post World War I were still fresh and artists were ready to paint the new. Dada, Futurism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Cubism, Expressionism were floating around in the air in Berlin, inspiring the generation of artists to come. These isms saw the old world of art, that of realistic painting and decorative design, as being a cause of war. The old art of the salon was individualistic and didn’t speak to the common person. The art of the salon was not universal and lacked forward thinking. They wanted to create art that meant more than just a beautifully rendered painting. These artists were on a mission to figure out the mysteries surrounding art, expression and modern life. Laszlo Mohly-Nagy served in the Hungarian army during WWI. Wounded in battle, he discovered his love for art while recovering in the hospital. His passion for art lead him to the experimental circles of 1920’s Berlin. It was there that Mohly-Nagy met other artists that influenced him and began his experiments with painting and

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light. Laszlo Mohly-Nagy represents the modern human, living his life like a great artwork. His contribution to the Bauhaus and beyond helped create what we understand as contemporary art. His devotion to experimentation as a tool of education is reflected in art institutions around the world. Mohly- Nagy elevated the artist from a mere picture maker to a mover of society, advancing human capabilities with education and the intelligent use of technology. Laszlo Mohly-Nagy was born 1895 into a dysfunctional Hungarian household. His father gambled away the family’s money and went to America. His mother was extremely religious and manic. Laszlo was raised by his grandmother. Laszlo’s uncle Gusti Bacsi, was an influential figure. Gusti was educated and rebellious. He had traveled and owned a large library. He sparked Laszlo’s imagination, creating dreams of large sparkling cities. He sought an escape to the endless backwards boredom of life in a small Hungarian village. He found one by joining the army and serving on the Russian Front as a artillery officer. LMN was the only surviving member of his battery, ending up in the hospital with a shattered thumb and infection. He remained in the hospital for months. This was where LMN discovered an outlet for pains suffered in the war and a sincere love for art and expression. He created grease crayon drawings on pa-


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per similar in style to Van Gogh. LMN was fascinated by Van Gogh’s use of line, “that one should try to express three-dimensional plastic quality by the unadulterated means of line” ( Moholy-Nagy 10 ) . LMN was interested in how something simple like a line could be honed to create such depth and space. This becomes something akin to to the paintings LMN would create in the Constructivist style. Van Gogh was LMN’s first look at what modern painting could be. Taking flourishes out of the paintings creating a new image of space by using simple, understandable forms. This was something modern, something that represented a new world. A world of peace, an escape from the war. LMN detested life in the army. “He rarely spoke of his experiences, and when he mentioned war, it was with profound disgust…Revulsion against the drinking orgies of his fellow officers made him an abstainer and a nonsmoker” (Moholy-Nagy 10) . LMN saw a dark side of life and was determined to create a world that took full advantage of the possibilities of human society. In 1922, LMN reached a pinnacle point in his art. He had proven that pure color and form compositions could be created in any medium. “I have learned that the artist may mix techniques; in fact, he can do whatever he pleases, providing he masters his means, and has something to express” (Moho ly-Nagy Laszlo 68) . LMN experiment-


Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

ed with all mediums, fascinated by combinations of mediums and techniques. 01 LMN was one of the first to believe photography was a new art. Photography’s ability to capture the the world made realistic painting seem obsolete. LMN was interested in photography for many reasons. One was that photography was a new technological advancement. “The solution lies, accordingly, not in working against technical advances, but exploring them for the benefit of all” ( Moholy-Nagy Laszlo 16) . LMN believed that the the artists should use technology and utilize the advancements to aid in showing an objective vision. This objective vision was one of the aspects of photography that interested LMN the most. A photograph could be taken from a birds’ eye view, a worm’s eye view, a child’s eye view. This ability to show the world realistically from any angle amazed LMN. He found this new perspective in teaching to be a valuable method in understanding the world we live in. LMN believed that photography was the future and in fact stated that a new type of illiteracy would develop, believing that the illiteracy of the future would be one that didn’t understand photography. How photographs accumulate and the rise of the artist as everyman lead LMN to start to think about the way people display art and how it will change in the new world. Artwork would be brought out to look at. 02 It was in Berlin that LMN became

I see LMN as one of the first examples of the modern artist. An artist that really uses all processes at hand. It especially reminds me of artists like Matthew Barney that use create large scale works using many mediums. By using all processes available you are embracing the world around you and their for creating a more relevant piece of art. Similar in idea to how LMN thought about the typophoto. The typophoto was clearer communication because it was more relevant and captured the current state of society.

It’s interesting how LMN noticed


that if you are photographing you are acquiring a lot of artwork. Accumulating images that can be brought out and looked at then put away. This seems to be predicting how people look at images on the internet. We share lots of images today with Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. We communicating with images. Exactly what LMN said about the illiterate of the future not being able to understand image. .

The loosing up of typography and the ability the use transparency were embraced by the

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

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friends with Kurt Schwitters, a Dadaist who had lived in Zurich during the “Caberat Voltaire.” LMN was inspired by Schwitters’ use of materials. Schwitters and other Dadaist believe in the equal pictorial worth of all materials. LMN worked with typography as object disassociating letters from their word context - using them for their attributes of curved or angular forms. Typographic layouts were to “equalize contrasts and distribute the centers of gravity”, said Schwitters in the first issue of his MERZ magazine. LMN coined the term Typophoto. The combination of typography and photography. This created the most direct form of modern communication. “Typography is communication composed in type. Photography is the visual presentation of what can be optically apprehended, typo photo is the visually most exact rendering of communication” (Moholy-Nagy Laszlo 39) . Since photography was mechanical it created a more seamless pairing with mechanical Typography. Typography for ages had been a liner process and now the use of the camera brought about the “loosening up of typography” (Moholy-Nagy Laslzo 39) . LMN saw how the machine could be unitized to it fullest. “The future of the typographic methods lies with the photo-mechanical processes.” (Moholy-Nagy Laslzo 40) . 03 LMN’s experimental years in Berlin were fruitful. “Through his new vision he


felt himself intimately connected with the social reality of his time” ( Moholy-Nagy 18) . He was realizing a philosophy of “Constructivist design and reconstructed society were an inseparable entity” ( Moholy-Nagy 18) . LMN’s first gallery show was in Berlin in 1922. It was through this show that people began to notice the young artist. Gropius asked LMN to join the Bauhaus teaching staff in 1923. Gropius and LMN were close friends. LMN’s devotion to experimentation and education was akin to Gropius’ belief in play and expression. “Moholy was one of my most active colleagues in building up the Bauhaus; much that it accomplished stands to his credit. The opportunities that the Bauhaus afforded for art of every kind must have proved especially inspiring to a nature so versatile, and a talent so many-sided as Moholy’s. He constantly developed new ideas. These proved as fruitful to the school as to his own development. But his varied activities in photography, theater, films, typography, and advertising designneither diminished nor disseminated Moholy’s powers as a painter.” -Walter Gropius

LMN’s versatility in all forms of art creates a fabulous model of the modern artist. LMN’s belief in the biological human was essential to how he taught art at the Bauhaus. As head of the Metals workshop students created modern light fixtures. These light fixtures were startlingly mod-

postmodern graphic designers. LMN might have been the first to have played with type in this manner. Especially the work of Wolfgang Weingart embraced the use of transparency and the photographic process to make work. Moving transparent slides around creating layers and asymmetric compositions in a painterly manner. This is the the graphic design the LMN was seeing in the future. These ideas are further explored once the computer comes into play. The work of Greiman who was one of the first to see the computer as the new tool for Graphic Design.


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ern at the time but created a new use of space and materials. His fascination with new ways of effecting space with light is reflected in the students work. He was an inspiring teacher, Truly believing in a “new world” and a “new vision”. The traumas of war and repression needed a new way of thinking. LMN was perfect for teaching at the Bauhaus. He fully embraced the new and the modern. His efforts in all artistic mediums created the modern artist, art and life as one, a gesamtskunstwerk. “The human being is developed by the crystallization of the whole of his experience” (Moholy-Nagy Laszlo 14) . LMN believed that primordial man had to be a hunter, a craftsman and a builder. This biological and natural ability to be all in one is forward thinking. This is reflected in the work at the Bauhaus and the strive for a gesamtskunstwerk. Being one with our minds, and hearts to create beautiful intelligent gestures that move life forward. Gropius’ departure from the Bauhaus and the appointment of Hannes Meyer as the new head brought about LMN’s resignation four days after Gropius. Hannes Meyer erased experimentation completely for functionality. LMN went to work in Berlin and started designing theater sets. Ideas of the total artwork “gesamtkunstwerk” went hand and hand with theater. The music, set and lights, writing, and performance came together as a whole with to create theater.


Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

Sometimes even smell was included into the mediums of use. The political situation forced LMN to leave Berlin. Especially after some of his plays took a critical stance against the fascist regime. LMN went to Amsterdam, he had a solo show at the Stedelijk Museum and worked for a photography studio experimenting with color film. LMN worked all the time, waking up early and going to bed late. He was fully invested in his projects. Soon the political tensions of the time forced LMN to leave Europe all together. LMN resettled in Chicago. Chicago was a place LMN dreamed of; a city with skyscrapers and booming industry a place where the modern world was embraced. LMN’s first effort in the USA was the Bauhaus Chicago. The new Bauhaus taught science and humanities, LMN recruited talented professors from all over the world. It was a direct extension of the Bauhaus in the early years revamped for the United States. After the outbreak of the war LMN wanted the school to aid in the war effort. He and students of the school worked on a project to camouflage the city of Chicago. He saw the need to change the way that soldiers are cared for. He thought they should be cared for by teaching them art and philosophy. People returning from battle need to have psychological healing and stimulation as well. The term Occupational therapist was used for this position. LMN saw art and life as


Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

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Art students today are taught to be as versatile as possible. This is because the industry demands versatility in mediums. LMN saw this as a future need. MCAD for example in the foundation years teaches Media, 3d, 2d. In these classes you learn everything at a fast pace. You learn what the possibilities are and how ideas can translate into different mediums. Ideas being able to translate into a variety of mediums is apparent in LMN work with light. Light was able to affect is work in painting, photography, set design and film. Each medium brought out a different aspect of the idea. Creating a more whole understanding of “Light”.

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inseparable. “There is no more urgent a problem than that of realizing our desire to use fully man’s constructive abilities” (Moholy-Nagy Laszlo 18) . LMN saw the dark side of humanity in WWI. He saw the artist as the leader of society, the architect of culture and learning. The artist as a whole human, one knowledgeable in all aspects of learning. The new Bauhaus failed soon after opening. He opened the Institute of Design a few years after with his wife Sibyl, paying out of their own pocket to run the school. He was devoted to education. His experiments in sculpture, film, photography and painting were endless. 04 Unfortunately, LMN’s life was cut short. LMN died of leukemia in 1946. LMN would have inspired countless more students and pushed societies understanding of the artist even further. He created the versatile modern artist paving the way for contemporary graphic design, sculpture, painting, photography and film. His discoveries in art and education are endless. “Our time is one of transition, one of striving toward a synthesis of all knowledge” (Moholy-Nagy Laszlo 18) . LMN is a great example of the future human. The human that is whole. The human who has mastered many areas of their capabilities. One that is open and excited about advancements and bettering the lives of others. The future that was dreamed of by LMN is a utopia, a place that of human accom-


plishment. Only by way of experimentation and education are we able to be whole and bring about a new vision of life and society.


fig. 01

Photogram, 1923 silver gelatin print

fig. 02

Light and Space Modulator, 1930 sculpture

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Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

fig. 03

Bauhaus Dorms, 1925 silver gelatin print

fig. 04

Composition Z VIII, 1924 Oil on Canvas


fig. 05

Lyon Stadium, 1929 silver gelatin print

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fig. 06

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Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

Cover for Bauhaus Book, 1929 print


fig. 07

Photogram, 1929 silver gelatin print

fig. 08

Photogram, 1928 silver gelatin print


fig. 09

Siesta, 1926 silver gelatin print

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Photogram, 1928 silver gelatin print


Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity

Works Cited

Borchardt-Hume, Achim., et al. Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World.

New Haven, CT: Yale University

Moholy-Nagy, László, and Daphne M. Hoffmann. The New Vision, 1928: 4th Rev. Ed., And, Abstract of an Artist.

New York: Wittenborn, Schultz,

Moholy-Nagy, László, Ingrid Pfeiffer, Max Hollein, and Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Retrospective: Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. Munich.

New York: Prestel, 2009.

Moholy-Nagy, László. Painting, Photography, Film.

Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,

Moholy-Nagy, László, et al. László Moholy-Nagy: The Art of Light.

Madrid: La Fábrica Editorial,

Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl. Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality. [2d ed.].

Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T.

Passuth, Krisztina., and László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy. 1st paperback ed.

New York: Thames and Hud-

Press, 2006.

1947.

1987.

2010.

Press, 1969.

son, 1987.


Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Modernity by Demon Eugene

Laszlo Mohly-Nagy represents the modern human, living his life like a great artwork. His contribution to the Bauhaus and beyond helped create what we understand as contemporary art. His devotion to experimentation as a tool of education is reflected in art institutions around the world. Mohly- Nagy elevated the artist from a mere picture maker to a mover of society, advancing human capabilities with education and the intelligent use of technology.

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