László Moholy-Nagy devoted his life to modernity. Whether as a painter, sculptor, author, photographer, or Bauhaus professor, Moholy-Nagy couldn’t be constrained by genre and viewed his art from such a wide array of angles that his multi-disciplinary approach pioneered a utopian type of high modernism, as well as a radical innovation of cameraless photography, to make him a 20th century avant-garde renaissance man.
“The magic possibility of framing a certain space and time is what brought me to photography… This process of recording elements of three dimensions in the flow of time, and fixing them in a two-dimensional image, creates a new context for the elements of the photograph,” László Moholy-Nagy.
Equally at home in fine and applied arts, Moholy-Nagy’s unconventional use of industrial materials in painting and sculpture, experiments with light, transparency, and motion put his work in kinetic sculpture, experimental film, painting, and light projection at the forefront of abstraction, although he never quite eclipsed the reputations of his Bauhauscolleagues, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Following his inspiring dictum of, “everybody is talented,” while professor at Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy developed a curriculum focused on developing students’ natural visual gifts instead of teaching them specialized skills. Forced to flee Germany in 1935 as the Nazis rose to power, he moved to Chicago in 1937 at the invitation of the industrialist Walter Paepcke to found a new Bauhaus. It still stands today as the School of Design in Chicago, which forms part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Advocating an ultimate form of high modernism through his charismatic teaching, Moholy-Nagy was influenced by Constructivist artists like Alexander Rodchenko, as well as modern technology and industry in the arts, leading him to be labelled as “relentlessly experimental” by art critic Peter Schjeldahl. It’s his pursuit of the new and ceaselessly modern in his photograms though that survives as one of his greatest legacies.
The Bauhaus gave Moholy-Nagy the freedom to allow his experimentation to flourish. There he played a key role as a painter, graphic artist, teacher, and impassioned advocate of avant-garde photography. It was at Bauhaus that he produced photograms (his term), which characterized his unorthodox approach. The ghostly projections were made without a camera by placing objects on a sheet of photosensitized paper and exposing it to light to create a residual impression, resulting in a conceptual hybrid of sculpture and photography.
Far from a new technique, it was originally practised in the 19th century and popularized as a child’s amusement, but became an avant-garde favorite among artists in the 20th century for its futuristic quality and light emitting properties. Through his reinterpretation of the technique, he ambitiously wanted photography to replace painting as the vital form of artistic expression in the Bauhaus-inspired modern age. The aim was as wild as his approach, but his photographic skills helped secure an integral place for the medium in modern art.
Newness was imperative to everything Moholy-Nagy produced and he espoused this through the New Vision (das neue Sehen) philosophy. Alongside photograms, he focused on negative prints, sharply angled points of view, and radical cropping, but wasn’t exclusively devoted to the avant-garde. He produced commercial works as photographer for the Architectural Review, illustrated John Betjeman’s book An Oxford University Chest, produced the films Lobsters (1935) and New Architecture and the London Zoo (1936), and even designed two posters for the London Underground. Showcasing the same focus on line, texture, tone, and composition of the classic Bauhaus foundation course, Moholy-Nagy’s London Underground posters create space and movement “so text becomes illustration,” as he said in his last book Vision in Motion, published posthumously in 1947. But despite his legacy being enshrined with photography and photograms, it’s one of his light sculptures that perhaps best represents the peak of Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus experimentations, which he recorded in a short film.
One of the earliest electrically powered kinetic sculptures, Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light-Space Modulator)remains one of Moholy-Nagy’s iconic constructions. Producing a startling array of visual effects when its reflective surfaces interact with a beam of light, the device of moving parts was made with Hungarian architect Istvan Seboek in 1930. It remains a pioneering achievement of kinetic sculpture and is acknowledged as one of the earliest examples of Light art.
The rotating construction is now in the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, but it came about after Moholy-Nagy left the Bauhaus in 1928 and established his own design studio in Berlin. It was there that he experimented with industrial materials and explored painting on Plexiglas for his Space Modulator series; Space Modulator (1939–1945),Papmac (1943), and B-10 Space Modulator (1942). Hand-molded, his Space Modulators produced shadow effects and blended the line between painting and sculpture.
And while he had left teaching at Bauhaus behind him, his almost divine quest to discover new materials and methods made him a trailblazing educator for future generations, who was driven by an unshakable belief that the integration of art, technology, and education could be essential for effective communication and the sharing of information in society.
Moholy-Nagy’s extensive body of work reflects his commitment to Gesamtwerk, or total work, a philosophy that he abided by throughout his life. Motivated by this, the 20th century Renaissance man was at the vanguard of painting, photography, graphic design and typography in the 20th century, as he pushed the aesthetic possibilities of the photogram.
Moholy-Nagy died on November 24, 1946 in Chicago and his prolific legacy can be measured by his lasting impact on future generations of artists. His protégé Robert Brownjohn remained profoundly marked by Moholy-Nagy’s influence throughout the 1950s and 1960s and made a name for himself with his title sequences for the James Bond films From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. Moholy-Nagy’s legacy of information design is also evident in Herbert Bayer and Ladislav Sutnar’s work in the US, while the succinct minimalism of Saul Bass’s era-defining film posters and title sequences echoed with Moholy-Nagy’s trademark teaching.
Blessed with the ability to distil beauty from the ordinary, Moholy-Nagy was a charismatic multi-talent who advocated a utopian type of high modernism. As a teacher, he embraced beliefs beyond art, as he taught people to look beyond the canvas and integrate design and thought. Spreading the avant-garde word, Moholy-Nagy’s legacy was as multi-faceted as his approach to art, as he encouraged unencumbered imagination in the mastery of all techniques, with a particular focus. As he said, “man, not the product, is the end in view.”