László Moholy-Nagy - Biography and Legacy
Hungarian-American Designer, Filmmaker, Painter, Photographer, Sculptor, and Theoretician
Biography of László Moholy-Nagy
László 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 László and his brothers to live with their grandmother. "I lived my childhood years in a terrible great quietness," he later wrote. Along with his mother and brothers, he left for Budapest in 1913 to study law, but his studies were interrupted when he enlisted into the Austro-Hungarian Army as an artillery officer in 1915. He experienced the horror of war on the Russian and Italian fronts, which remained with him for the rest of his life. During this time as a soldier as he sketched field life, his fellow officers, and the civilians he encountered, he discovered a passion for drawing.
In Budapest, encouraged by his friend and mentor the art critic Iván Hevesy, he began taking art classes, studying the old masters, especially Rembrandt, as well as the works of the Expressionists and Futurists. 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. He also developed an interest in photography, encouraged by the photographer Erzsébet Landau.
In 1919, when the Communist Hungarian government, with which he sympathized, was replaced by a military dictatorship, he withdrew to the neighboring city of Szeged, and, after a few months, moved to Vienna. There he joined MA (Hungarian Activism, also referring to the Hungarian word for 'today'), a Hungarian avant-garde group that believed in the revolutionary potential of art. In 1920 he moved to Berlin, then the vibrant hub of Central and Eastern European avant-garde art, 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. 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.
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 1925. The second book, and the 14th in the series, From Material to Architecture, was published in 1930 (this was translated as The New Vision: From Material to Architecture 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 1929 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. A British film agency asked him to record the Olympic Games of 1936, as he described it to capture, "the spectator psychology, the physiognomic contrast between an international crowd and the rabid German nationalists," but, disgusted at finding that former friends and students in Berlin had become Nazis, he quit after three days, telling the agency, "I'll never go back to Germany." 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
From 1937 to 1946, 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 offered 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 to Chicago.
The Legacy of László Moholy-Nagy
Moholy-Nagy's influence on modern art is felt broadly in several disciplines. Along with the other emigres from the Bauhaus, he succeeded in instilling a modern aesthetic into modern 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. In addition, by combining photography with typography to create what he called the typo-photo, Moholy-Nagy is considered by many to be the initializer of modern graphic design.
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.