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Major Retrospective of Hungarian Artist László Moholy-Nagy at the Schirn
The exhibition at the Schirn also presents the Raum der Gegenwart (Room of Today), which offers a concise summary of Moholy-Nagy’s work.
FRANKFURT.- The Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) became known in Germany through his seminal work as a teacher at the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau (1923–1928). His pioneering theories on art as a testing ground for new forms of expression and their application to all spheres of modern life are still of influence today. Presenting about 170 works – paintings, photographs and photograms, sculptures and films, as well as stage set designs and typographical projects – the retrospective encompasses all phases of his oeuvre. On the occasion of the ninetieth anniversary of the foundation of the Bauhaus, it offers a survey of the enormous range of Moholy-Nagy’s creative output to the public for the first time since the last major exhibition of his work in Kassel in 1991. Never having been built before 2009, the artist’s spatial design Raum der Gegenwart (Room of Today), which brings together many of his theories, will be realized in the context of the exhibition.

No other teacher at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau, nor nearly any other artist of the 1920s in Germany, an epoch rich in utopian designs, developed such a wide range of ideas and activities as László Moholy-Nagy, who was born in Bácsborsód in Southern Hungary in 1895. His oeuvre bears evidence to the fact that he considered painting and film, photography and sculpture, stage set design, drawing, and the photogram to be of equal importance. He continually fell back upon these means of expression, using them alternately, varying them, and taking them up again as parts of a universal concept whose pivot was the alert, curious, and unrestrained experimental mind of the “multimedia” artist himself. Long before people began to talk about “media design” and professional “marketing,” Moholy-Nagy worked in these fields, too – as a guiding intellectual force in terms of new technical, design and educational instruments. “All design areas of life are closely interlinked”, he wrote about 1925 and was, despite his motto insisting on “the unity of art and technology,” no uncritical admirer of the machine age, but rather a humanist who was open-minded about technology. His basic attitude as an artist, which exemplifies the idealistic and utopian thinking of an entire era, may be summed up as aimed at improving the quality of life, avoiding specialization, and employing science and technology for the enrichment and heightening of human experience.

After having graduated from high school, Moholy-Nagy began to study law in Budapest in 1913, but was drafted in 1915. During the war, he made his first drawings on forces mail cards and began dedicating himself exclusively to art after having been discharged from the army in 1918. Moholy-Nagy moved to Vienna in 1919 and to Berlin the following year, kept in close contact with Kurt Schwitters, Raul Hausmann, Theo van Doesburg, and El Lissitzky, and immersed himself in Merzkunst, De Stijl, and Constructivism. He achieved successes as an artist with his solo presentation in the Berlin gallery “Der Sturm” (1922), for example. In spring 1923, he was offered the post of a Bauhaus master in Weimar by Walter Gropius. Taking responsibility for the preliminary course and the metal workshop, he decisively informed the Constructivist and social reorientation of the Bauhaus. Interlinking art, life, and technology and underscoring the visual and the material aspects in design were key issues of his work and resulted in a modern, technology-oriented language of forms. His didactic approaches as a Bauhaus teacher still present themselves as up-to-date as his work as an artist. For him, education had to be primarily aimed at bringing up people to become artistically political and creative beings: “Every healthy person has a deep capacity for bringing to development the creative energies found in his/her nature … and can give form to his/her emotions in any material (which is not synonymous with ‘art’),” he wrote in 1929.

In spite of his manifold activities and inventions in the sphere of so-called applied art, Moholy-Nagy by no means advocated abolishing free art. Before, during, and long after his years at the Bauhaus, he produced numerous paintings, drawings, collages, woodcuts, and linocuts, as well as photographs and films as autonomous works of art. Like his design solutions, his works in the classical arts, in painting and sculpture, also reveal his aesthetically and conceptually radical approach. His Telephone Pictures, whose execution he controlled by telephone, exemplify this dimension: using a special graph paper and a color chart, he worked out the composition and colors of the pictures and had them realized according to his telephonic instructions by technical assistants. He also pursued new paths with his famous Light-Space Modulator of 1930, conceiving his gesamtkunstwerk composed of color, light, and movement as an “apparatus for the demonstration of the effects of light and movement.” It was equally new territory he conquered in the fields of photography and film: considering his cameraless photography, his photograms, and his abstract films such as Light Play Black, White, Gray (1930), Moholy-Nagy must still be regarded as one of the most important twentieth-century photographers and key figures for today’s media theories.

Thanks to his experiments with photography and the photogram, László Moholy Nagy was one of the first typographers of the 1920s to recognize the new possibilities offered by the combination of typeface, surface design, and pictorial signs with recent photographic techniques. As a Bauhaus teacher for typography, he designed almost all of the 14 Bauhaus books published between 1925 and 1929 and – besides co-editing them with Walter Gropius – took care of the entire presentation of the books’ contents and the organization of their production. With its dynamic cycles and bars and concentration on a few, clear colors, their design resembled the Constructivist artists’ paintings and drawings. While Moholy-Nagy’s early typographic works are frequently still characterized by hand-drawn typefaces, he later strove for a “mechanized graphic design” also suited for commercial advertising through their systematization and standardization. After he had left the Bauhaus in 1928, he founded his own office in Berlin, where he, among other things, developed advertising solutions for Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s designs for the Jena Glassworks. Faced with the Nazis’ seizure of power, Moholy-Nagy emigrated to the United States via Amsterdam and Great Britain and founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937 and, after it had been closed, the Chicago School (and later Institute) of Design in 1939, where he continued to champion an integration of art, science, and technology. László Moholy-Nagy died of leukemia in Chicago on 24 November 1946.

The exhibition at the Schirn also presents the Raum der Gegenwart (Room of Today), which offers a concise summary of Moholy-Nagy’s work. The sketches for this environment, which assembles many of his theories, date back as far as 1930. Not having been built before 2009, the Raum der Gegenwart (Room of Today) is now realized in the Schirn on the occasion of the Bauhaus anniversary 2009.

Schirn | László Moholy-Nagy | Sketches | Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau |


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