László Moholy-Nagy, painting and photography

The following two texts focus on the Hungarian avant-garde painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy. “Moholy-Nagy,” written by his countryman Ernő Kállai, principally concerns Moholy-Nagy’s early work in painting. As such, it describes their geometricism and abstraction, as well as their amenability to architecture. He’d been converted to constructivism, of course, by El Lissitzky during his travels to the West. Lissitzky managed to convince a number of members of the De Stijl group in Holland to adopt these principles as well, and stopped by later at the Bauhaus to reconnect with some of his former students and collaborators.

“Production-Reproduction,” the second article reproduced here, was written by Moholy-Nagy himself. It proved to be of immense importance for subsequent theories of photography as a form of art, and by extension art in general. Walter Benjamin read it and was influenced by it, as was his colleague (and sometimes plagiarist) Siegfried Kracauer. Also, if anyone’s interested, you can download the 1968 translation of Moholy-Nagy’s book Painting, Photography, Film (1925), part of the Bauhausbücher series.



Péter Mátyás [Ernő
Kállai] Ma vol. 9
September 15, 1921

In the extremes of its adventures, [László] Moholy-Nagy’s art reaches out on the borders of Cubism and Dadaism, and by organically uniting these opposite poles, he heralds the world of contemporary man who has managed to subjugate the machines.

Speaking purely in terms of form, he constructs either concentric or eccentric systems of forms or tries to interlink these opposing entities.

In the case of those works, in the monumentality of the few masses which are distanced so as to suggest inevitability, a strong will and elementary laws manifest themselves. In his use of the landscape motifs of the railway tracks, for example by the projection of the tremendous diagonal of a factory chimney leaning left, the leaning, resting forces, forces pressing tensed into vertical, are gathered into a compact architecture of form. Details of bridges and architectural structures, having lost all their utilitarian references and practical functions, freely elevate themselves into a self-willed order, an existence meaningful in itself. In another picture, based on a white horizontal stripe, with an almost organic vitality, the form swings and leaps into a slender vertical. This is all discipline of form, self-awareness, and pride, a totally new and individual manifestation of the modern constructive style, which is devoid of the sometimes dangerously short-changing form and color-splitting and space-complicating of the more differentiated Western Cubism. Colors develop themselves into form through their strong contrasts, through their brutal clashing with each other; the articulations of the form are of the most simple kind possible, and that space, which was left empty for a tabula rasa, constitutes a single, wide abstract wall behind the form, on which the artist’s credo concerning the future-shaping power of man’s civilizing activity is written up with lapidary laconicism.

However, Moholy-Nagy is not only a monumental lord and master-builder of contemporary life and of form, but with a naive admiration of the eternal-primitive child-barbarian, and with his raving joy too, he is also an ecstatic admirer of this life. In other people’s hands Dadaism serves as a murderous weapon of moral and social criticism. The exultation over a million possibilities of forms and motion which only the metropolis and modern technology can create, the sudden discovery of a new world and the dancing laughing youth of a vision totally open to the universe: all these are there in Moholy-Nagy’s art.

Semaphores of joys, forms and colors are standing on all points of space.

Freshly felt surprises and perspectives of gravitational pulls of manifold directions, of the many and of the many kinds, spring up from everywhere. Total geometrical abstractions as well as pieces, numbers, letters and realistically represented objects or fragments of objects picked from the primary reality proliferate in Moholy-Nagy’s eccentrical pictures.

This is a cosmic harmony, nonetheless it has not been kindled by a Futurist Romanticism and, still yet, these works, despite of all their divergences, form, after all, a perfectly intelligible system of absolutely interdependent units.

Anarchy is getting perceptibly arranged into a system of unified law. Although still not with the centralism of the self-containing architectonic structures, the pieces are coalescing into cohesive units, replacing the exploded conglomerate forms. Structures, still open, but set into motion from sharper defined and closer interrelated centers, emerge. Here, the mechanism of the modern machine and its kinetic system has been converted into art through the process of a fruitful coalescence of centrical and eccentrical pictorial factors with the creative principles connecting with Dadaism and Cubism.

Q 1 Suprematistic László Moholy-Nagy. (American, born Hungary. 1895-1946). Q 1 Suprematistic. 1923. Oil on canvas, 37 1:2 x 37 1:2%22 Space Modulator L3 László Moholy-Nagy. (American, born Hungary. 1895-1946). Space Modulator L3. 1936. Oil on perforated zinc and composition board, with glass-headed pins, 17 1:4 x 19 1:8%22

This fusion without inner contradictions of the style forming and negating trends of modern art gives Moholy-Nagy a chance to elevate his paintings on the terms of their own forms the level of vision. His art, after all, maintains a close link with its own well-defined objective territory. But in his relatedness to reality he is not satisfied with pointing out that meaning which is already present, although more or less hidden, in our senseless, chaotic age.

Just as the anarchistic manifestations of Moholy-Nagy’s art mean neither the rejection nor the approval of the all-destroying selfish instinct of the bourgeois free enterprise. Over problematical features of the present, Moholy-Nagy proclaims law and liberty which throw light on the perspectives of the infinite future.

Translated from the Hungarian by Krisztina Passuth.
Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-
Gardes, 1910-1930
. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).

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László Moholy-Nagy
De Stijl No.7
July 1, 1922

If we want to understand correctly the mode of human expression and shaping in art and in other related domains, and if we want to achieve progress therein, we have to examine the contributing factors: namely, man himself as well as the means he applies in his creative activity. Man as construct is the synthesis of all his functional apparatuses, i.e. man will be most perfect in his own time if the functional apparatuses of which he is composed — his cells as well as the most sophisticated organs — are conscious and trained to the limit of their capacity.

Art actually performs such a training — and this is one of its most important tasks, since the whole complex of effects depends on the degree of perfection of the receptive organs — by trying to bring about the most far-reaching new contacts between the familiar and the as yet unknown optical, acoustical and other functional phenomena and by forcing the functional apparatuses to receive them. It is a specifically human characteristic that man’s functional apparatuses can never be saturated; they crave ever new impressions following each new reception. This accounts for the permanent necessity for new experiments. From this perspective, creative activities are useful only if they produce new, so far unknown relations. In other words, in specific regard to creation, reproduction (reiteration of already existing relations) can be regarded for the most part as mere virtuosity.

Since it is primarily production (productive creation) that serves human construction, we must strive to turn the apparatuses (instruments) used so far only for reproductive purposes into ones that can be used for productive purposes as well. This calls for profound examination of the following questions:

  • What is this apparatus (instrument) good for?
  • What is the essence of its function?
  • Are we able, and if so to what end, to extend the apparatus’s use so that it can serve production as well?

Let us apply these questions to some examples: the phonograph and photography — single pictures (stills) and film. Phonograph. So far it has been the job of the phonograph to reproduce already existing acoustic phenomena. The tonal oscillations to be reproduced were incised on a wax plate by means of a needle and then retranslated into sound by means of a microphone (correctly: diaphragm, moving cone).

An extension of this apparatus for productive purposes could be achieved as follows: the grooves are incised by human agency into the wax plate, without any external mechanical means, which then produce sound effects which would signify — without new instruments and without an orchestra — a fundamental innovation in sound production (of new, hitherto unknown sounds and tonal relations) both in composition and in musical performance.

The primary condition for such work is laboratory experiments: precise examination of the kinds of grooves (as regards length, width, depth etc.) brought about by the different sounds; examination of the man-made grooves; and finally mechanical-technical experiments for perfecting the groove-manuscript score. (Or perhaps the mechanical reduction of large groove-script records.)

Photography. The photographic camera fixes light phenomena by means of a silver bromide plate positioned at the rear of the camera. So far we have utilized this function of the apparatus only at a secondary level: in order to fix (reproduce) single objects as they reflect or absorb light. In the event of revaluation taking place in this field, too, we will have to utilize the bromide plate’s sensitivity to light to receive and record various light phenomena (parts of light displays) which we ourselves will have formed by means of mirror or lens devices.

Many experiments are needed here, too. Telescopic recordings of stars as well as radiography represent interesting preliminary stages.

Film. Kinetic relationships of projected light. This can be achieved by sequences of fixed partial movements. Cinematography as practiced so far is limited mainly to the reproduction of dramatic action. There are certainly many important activities to be carried out in the domain of film. Some are scientific in nature (dynamism of various motions: of man, animal, city etc.; different observations: functional, chemical etc.; wireless projection of film news etc.); some involve the completion of reproduction itself from a constructive standpoint. But the main task is the formation of motion as such; naturally, this cannot be realized without a manmade play of forms as motion carrier.

Naïve experiments relative to such development were the trick-films (advertisements). Much more highly developed are the works of Ruttman and the Clavilux of Th[omas] Wilfred; these, however,p resented motion as an objectless dramatic action (abstraction or styling of erotic or natural events), albeit by trying to introduce the color picture.

So far the most perfect works are those of [Viking] Eggeling and [Gerhard] Richter, in which instead of dramatic action there is already a play of forms, although to the detriment of kinetic formation. In fact, movement is not given formal purity, for over-emphasis upon the forms’ development absorbs almost all the kinetic forces. The way ahead here will be the formation of motion without the support of any direct formal development.

6 thoughts on “László Moholy-Nagy, painting and photography

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