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A Bauhaus artist sees the light

Moholy sees the light

The Bauhaus artist Lászlo Moholy-Nagy said that his primary medium was light itself. An exhibition in Los Angeles illuminates his meaning

The Bauhaus artist Lászlo Moholy-Nagy said that his primary medium was light itself. An exhibition in Los Angeles illuminates his meaning

Jonathan Griffin | May 19th 2017

The title “artist” seems hardly adequate to describe the multifarious creative endeavours of Lászlo Moholy-Nagy. A writer, graphic designer, photographer, painter, film-maker, stage designer and teacher, among other roles, he was a major figure in the Bauhaus, a radical art school founded in Weimar Germany in 1919, which promoted the idea of the genre-defying Gestamtkunstwerk – the total work of art. He considered his primary medium, however – as revealed in the exhibition “Future Present”, currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – to be light itself. Moholy marshalled its chimerical and intangible effects in abstract photograms, films and kinetic sculptures that projected or reflected light onto their surroundings.

Moholy, who was born in Hungary in 1895, initially aspired to be a poet and only took up drawing at the age of 22 when he was recovering from an injury sustained on the Russian front in 1917. He soon moved from the countryside to Budapest, then on to Vienna in 1919 and to Berlin a year later, where he was a correspondent for the art journal, Ma (Today).

Immersed in leftist creative circles, Moholy more or less educated himself, first as a painter, then in collage and sculpture. His debut exhibition, at Der Sturm, a gallery in Berlin, was in 1922; a favourable review by El Lissitzky, a Russian artist, brought his work to wider attention. That year he also began experimenting with camera-less photography and published an influential essay, “Produktion-Reproduktion”, which set out his ideas about avant-garde art in a modern age. He argued that technologies such as the camera and the phonograph should be used not just to reproduce that which already existed in the world but to create new images and sounds.

Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, invited him to join the school a year later. For the next five years Moholy painted, sculpted, produced commercial work for design firms and advertising agencies, and expounded his enthusiasm for the mass media and the utopian possibilities of art. After the Bauhaus was shut down in 1934, under pressure from the Nazi regime, Gropius asked Moholy to lead an offshoot of the school in Chicago, which became known as the New Bauhaus. Moholy accepted and moved to America in 1937. There his work flourished, becoming less geometric and more biomorphic and sensuous. He led the New Bauhaus in Chicago until he died of leukaemia in 1946 at the age of 51.

 

“Q” (1922-23)

Moholy’s compositions held to the Bauhaus view that abstraction should distil form to its essential elements. “Q” and its partner paintings “QXX” and “QXX1” (1922-3) consist solely of lines and circles of varying colours and widths floating in darkness. Being able to reproduce pictures on an industrial scale was of prime importance, so Moholy generally limited his paintings to flat colour and solid shapes. He was probably the first artist to commission the fabrication of a piece of artwork over the phone. Though the story may be apocryphal, Moholy claimed to have ordered five paintings with the title “Konstruction in Emaille” to be produced by a factory at different sizes, dictating the graph-paper composition to the foreman.

 

“Photograph (Light Prop)” (1930)

This kinetic sculpture is one of Moholy’s most famous works. It was made in collaboration with the German electrical company AEG from metal, glass, plastic and wood. The motorised contraption revolves on a circular base, lit by coloured lights that throw shadows onto the walls around it. Incredibly, Moholy did not intend “Light Prop” to be seen, only the light effects it produced. “In the near future,” he wrote in 1930, “this technology might be used as advertising, or at public festivals as entertainment, or at the theatre, to intensify moments of dramatic tension.” Moholy designed the sculpture to be presented within a Gestamtkunstwerk which he called “Room of the Present”. To his frustration, the installation went unrealised during his lifetime, but has been reconstructed for the exhibition, with a working replica of the “Light Prop” displayed at the centre.

 

“Photogram” (1925-26)

Moholy did not invent the technique of the photogram – 19th-century pioneers of photography such as Henry Fox Talbot employed similar methods – nor did he coin the term, but he did make the technique his own and brought the term “photogram” into general use. The method required the artist to work blind, in a darkroom, where he would manipulate objects on a sheet of photographic paper before exposing it beneath a light bulb. Moholy used photograms like “Photograph (Self-Portrait with Hand)”, 1925-29 (pictured top), to relate his ideas about the integration of manual and industrial processes; he believed that mechanisation did not make handicraft obsolete, but rather that it augmented the possible effects that an artist’s hands could produce.

 

“Photograph (Berlin Radio Tower)” (1928-29)

Moholy once declared that “the illiterate of the future will be ignorant not of writing but of photography.” The medium was of fundamental importance to him. Between 1928 and 1929, Moholy took six photographs from the top of the Berlin Radio Tower, three in summer and three in winter, when snow heightened the graphic quality of the scene. It appealed to him as an icon of communication technology and a beacon that led – literally and figuratively – to new possibilities of vision and thought.

 

“Photograph (Light Modulator in Repose)” (1943)

After he moved to America in 1937, Moholy enthusiastically experimented with new materials not easily available in pre-war Europe. Plexiglas, which was patented in 1933, was a revelatory discovery: it was far easier to cut and shape than glass, and generated unexpected colours when it refracted light. Moholy called this series of hanging sculptures “Light Modulators”. Light is an essential medium in these works; the artwork does not really exist until light is thrown onto it, and, as with “Light Prop”, the slowly moving shadows complete it. Moholy also made a series of photographs of his sculptures, both in motion and, as here, in repose.

Moholy-Nagy: Future Present Los Angeles County Museum of Art, until June 18th

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