László Moholy-Nagy and his vision

You can download the 1969 translation of
László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (1927) by clicking on the embedded link. A while ago I posted some of Moholy’s work, but this is much more comprehensive. Otto Stelzer’s postscript to the 1967 reissue of the classic Bauhausbuch release appears below along with some examples of his films, photographs, and paintings.

Nearly out of space on my WordPress account. So I might have to set up a Paypal account and start soliciting donations. For now, though, enjoy.


Otto Stelzer
Janet Seligman
(March 1969)

László Moholy-Nagy saw photography not only as a means of reproducing reality and relieving the painter of this function. He recognized its power of discovering reality. “The nature which speaks to the camera is a different nature from the one which speaks to the eye,” wrote Walter Benjamin years after Moholy had developed the experimental conditions for Benjamin’s theory. The other nature discovered by the camera influenced what Moholy, after he had emigrated, was to call The New Vision. It alters our insight into the real world. Much has happened in the meantime in this field and on a broader basis than Moholy could have foreseen. Painting, Photography, Film today exists as a new entity even in areas to which Moholy’s own creative desire could scarcely have led: for example, in the Neo-Realism of Bacon, Rivers, Warhol, Vostell and many others whose reality is no more than a second actuality produced by photography.

Moholy is one of those artists whose reputation continues to grow steadily after their death because their works have a prophetic action. Moholy always saw himself as a Constructivist but he passed quickly through the static Constructivism of his own time. In a few moves he opened a game which is being won today. His light-modulators, his “composition in moving colored light,” his leaf-paintings of the forties, represent the beginnings of a “kinetic art” — even the term is his — which is flourishing today. Op Art? Moholy did the essential spade-work of this school (the old expression is in order here) in 1942, even including the objective, important for Op artists, of a “use”: with his pupils in Chicago he had evolved studies for military camouflage. The display of these things, later mounted in the school of design by his collaborator and fellow Hungarian György Kepes, was at once the first Op exhibition, “Trompe l’oeil,” and its theoretical constituent. New materials? Moholy had been using celluloid, aluminium, plexiglass, and gallalith as early as the Bauhaus days. Modern typography? Moholy has influenced two generations of typographers. Even in the field of aesthetic theory Moholy found a new approach; its aim was a theory of information in art. Moholy enlisted pioneers of this now much discussed theory as long as twenty-five years ago, nominating Charles Morris, the authority on semantics, to a professorship at the New Bauhaus, Chicago and inviting Hayakawa, another semanticist to speak at his institute. In 1925, when the Bauhaus book now being re-issued first appeared, Moholy was regarded as a Utopian. That Moholy, this youthful radical, with his fanaticism and his boundless energy, radiated terror too, even among his colleagues at the Bauhaus, is understandable. “Only optics, mechanics, and the desire to put the old static painting out of action,” wrote Feininger to his wife at the time: “There is incessant talk of cinema, optics, mechanics, projection and continuous motion and even of mechanically produced optical transparencies, multicolored, in the finest colors of the spectrum, which can be stored in the same way as gramophone records” (Moholy’s “Domestic Pinacotheca,” p. 25). Is this the atmosphere in which painters like Klee and some others of us can go on developing? Klee was quite depressed yesterday when talking about Moholy.” Yet Feininger’s own transparent picture-space seems not wholly disconnected from Moholy’s light “displays.”

Pascal discovered in human behavior two attitudes of mind: “One is the geometric, the other that of finesse.” Gottfried Benn took this up and made the word “finesse,” difficult enough to translate already, even more obscure. “The separation, therefore, of the scientific from the sublime world…the world which can be verified to the point of confirmatory neurosis and the world of isolation which nothing can make certain.” The attitudes which Pascal conceived of as being complementary and connected are now separated. The harmonization of the two attitudes of mind to which the art of classical periods aspired is abandoned. The conflict between the Poussinistes and the followers of Rubens, conducted flexibly from the 17th to the 19th century, became a war of positions with frozen fronts.

Photography 1

The Bauhaus carried on the conflict until the parties retired: on the one side the sublime: Klee, Feininger, Itten, and Kandinsky too, whose “nearly” Constructivist paintings still reminded Moholy of “underwater landscapes’; on the other “geometricians” with Moholy at their head (“forms of the simplest geometry as a step towards objectivity’), his pupils and the combatants, Malevich, El Lissitzky, Mondrian, Van Doesburg, all closely connected with the Bauhaus. On the one side the “lyrical I” (in Benn’s sense), on the other the collectivists, “one in the spirit” with science, social system and architecture, as Moholy formulated it in a Bauhaus lecture in 1923.

The fronts which emerged in the Bauhaus have persisted: things have advanced on parallel lines. Contrasts between phenomena existing simultaneously are among the stylistic symptoms of the present day. Even during the sway of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950’s “Concrete” painters headed by Bill, Albers, and Vasarely (another Hungarian) held their own. And although today “hard edge” Constructivism, Op Art, and technoid art have won much ground, “painting,” hand-writing and the brush-stroke — in short belle peinture and belle matière going back in an almost unbroken tradition to Courbet who, when asked what painting was, held up his hand and replied: “finesse de doigt” -—persist too. Moholy called belle matière quite simply “pigment” and ceased to use it, more radically than Mondrian, who still put on pigment, although not as peinture. Moholy rejected (c. 1925) all hand-produced textures, gave up painting and called for “drawing with light,” “light in place of pigment.” This beginning led logically to the sequence “Painting — Photography — Film.”

Moholy was prepared to subordinate the human eye to the “photo eye” (Franz Roh). A remarkable parallel may be drawn: at the end of the 19th century Konrad Fiedler wrote of the “mechanical activity of artistic creation,” of a “realm of the visible, in which only the formative activity of the visible, no longer the eye, can advance.” Yet Fiedler belonged to the other side. He meant the mechanical activity of the handfinesse de doigt. The hand takes up the development and continues it “at the very point at which the eye itself has reached the limit of its activity” — a philosophical basis for “action painting.” But Fiedler’s conclusion is true also of other mechanical activities which create visible things. It is true of photography, in so far as it is handled, as Moholy wished, not traditionally but experimentally. He called for: “Elimination of perspectival representation,” “Cameras with lenses and systems of mirrors which can take the object from all sides at once,” “Cameras constructed on optical laws different from those of our eyes.” He calls for “scientifically objective optical principles,” the oneness of art, science, technique, the machine. The astonishing extent of his own technical and scientific knowledge is revealed in the wealth of technological Utopias buried in the footnotes of his Bauhaus book, Painting, Photography, Film — many of these having meanwhile, as befits true Utopias, advanced out of the category of possibility into the category of reality. The artist Moholy’s feeling for the camera was in its time radical enough, as Feininger’s uneasiness shows. Within photography, however, Moholy moved with surprising tolerance and universality, very differently from our present-day photographers who specialize in either subjective or objective photography, reportage or “photographics.” Moholy admitted all this, provided that the photographic means were applied in purity in the service of a “new vision.” His Bauhaus book exhibits with equal pleasure the zeppelin and the Parisian grisette, a head-louse and a racing cyclist, Palucca and a factory chimney, the interior of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, seen from above, and a bathing girl in the sand (also from above), the spiral nebula in the Hounds and an X-rayed frog, the camouflage of the zebra in Africa and a pond-fishing experimental station in Bavaria, the eye of a marabou and the “refined effect of lighting, materials, factures, roundnesses, and curves” of a Gloria Swanson from Hollywood. Photographs were taken of the reflections in a convex mirror (the shot on page 103 is not by Muche but by Fritz Schleifer, Hamburg, a former pupil at the Bauhaus). Trick photography is not forgotten, nor photo-collage, the favorite of present-day Pop artists — or “A face emerges out of nothing,” embracing phases of the portrait extending from Franz Lenbach to Francis Bacon.

One special photographic effect is, however, much emphasized: cameraless photography, the photogram. Christian Schad and Man Ray had, indeed, conscripted the photogram into the service of artistic experimentation a short time before — but it was Moholy who investigated it not only practically but theoretically, even philosophically. What fascinated him was the mysterious, a perspectival picture-space which could be obtained with the photogram. The cry was now no longer merely “light instead of pigment” but “space through light” and “space-time continuum”: “The photogram enables us to grasp new possibilities of spatial relationships” Moholy was to write later in his book Vision in Motion — for what appears in the photogram is no more than the effect of the various (measurable) exposures and of the distance of the source of light from the objects, which means that “the photogram literally is the space-time-continuum.”

Photography 2

The Cubists and Futurists too talked much of the fourth dimension, it was the fashion. But Moholy as a pure thinker tried everything, including probing into the scientific side of this system of thought. We can hardly doubt that he knew the work Raum und Zeit by the mathematician Hermann Minkowski — who had become famous in about 1909 — perhaps through his friend El Lissitzky, who was astonishingly well-read and who explicitly mentions Minkowski’s world and Riemann’s theory of the four-dimensional continuum in the Europa Almanach in 1925. Kepes, Moholy’s colleague and successor, inquires at length into Minkowski in his own publications. In Vision and Motion Moholy jokingly compares the “delicate quality” of the space-time-continuum with a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A very short space of time through a very short time of space.”

Besides light, space, time, that special quality of the play of light with objects — the factor of color — was, of course, infinitely important to Moholy throughout his life. The photogram could not give him color and so his longing for color soon led him back to painting. But in his last years he was working on color photography and he wrote: “The greatest promise for the future will lie in mastering the color photogram.”

Once we establish the fact that Moholy’s later discoveries are anticipated and pinpointed in the Bauhaus book Painting, Photography, Film, the importance of this incurable becomes clear. Should the work still appear strange to present-day readers, the only possible advice is that they should immerse themselves in the story of Moholy’s later life. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy has told it in an affecting and at the same time exemplarily objective manner (Moholy-Nagy, Experiment in Totality, New York 1950). We are moved to learn how Moholy, the great artistic educator, educated himself. The man who in his youth complained that Malevich used the word “emotion” wrote shortly before his death: “It is the duty of the artist of today to penetrate the still unrecognized defects of our biological function, to investigate the new fields of the industrial society and to translate the new discoveries into the stream of our emotions.” He said to his wife Sibyl: “A few years ago I could not have written that. I saw in emotionalism nothing but a carefully cultivated frontier between the individual and the group. Today I know better. Perhaps because I was a teacher for so long, I now see in emotionalism the great linking bond, rays of warmth which are reflected, answer and sustain us.” As Mondrian in his last paintings abandoned the straight-edge and restored to the free stroke of the hand its right to speak, so a few days before his death Moholy with a free and eager hand engraved lines and signs in the finest of his plexiglass sculptures — thus creating a link between the spheres of noology and biology.


4 thoughts on “László Moholy-Nagy and his vision

  1. Pingback: Jan Tschichold and the new typography | The Charnel-House

  2. Pingback: Mies van der Rohe | The Charnel-House

  3. Pingback: a serendipitous moment via moholy-nagy chicago design archive and designer steve liska . – DesignApplause

Leave a Reply