László Moholy-Nagy and his vision

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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.

Painting

Otto Stelzer
Janet Seligman
(March 1969)
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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.

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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.

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Moholy-Nagy

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

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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.

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Amidst the ruins of the Soviet avant-garde

Isa Willinger on her film
Away from All Suns!

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Originally published at the architecture website uncube. Several weeks ago I posted another interview with the director.

Architecture was once considered fundamental to the rethinking of society and the shape it took. This is the premise of Away from All Suns! a new feature-length documentary by filmmaker Isabella Willinger, a documentary filmmaker based in Munich and Berlin, whose work focuses on gender, social upheavals and human rights. Her film examines the relics of Constructivist architecture scattered throughout Moscow and attempts to tease out what’s left of their revolutionary past. Upon their construction, these buildings embodied the emancipatory change promised and, at least for a time, instituted by the Bolshevik Revolution. Over three-quarters of a century later, suspended in a fragile purgatory between decay and demolition, structures like the Narkomfin Building (1928-30) and the Communal Student House of the Textile Institute (1929) still stun in their radical and emphatic newness.

These buildings seem to rise “from a time more modern than my own,” Willinger says at the beginning of the film. And yet they are just one part of the story. The film’s narrative juggles a cast of unconnected characters, each of whom occupies — in one sense or another — three revolutionary residences. As becomes apparent over the course of the film, their paths are intrinsically bound up with the misfortunes of their storied addresses; like the buildings themselves, they are imperiled by increasingly conservative, reactionary forces that, buoyed by a galvanized corporate sector, threaten their existence, if not that of democratic Russian society. Even so, they persist against great odds, with mixed feelings of nostalgia, hope, and helplessness.

Willinger recently premiered Away from All Suns! at the Istanbul Architecture Film Festival, where it was awarded the top prize. Ahead of its European DVD release, she talks to Sammy Medina for uncube about her film, the Soviet avant-garde, and the bleak future of Russian architecture.

Archival newsreel footage of a Soviet parade with a wooden model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) carried through the streets

Newsreel footage of a parade with a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s
Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) in the streets

Interview

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Sammy Medina:
 
When did you first visit the modernist ruins in Moscow?

Isa Willinger: I first visited them in the summer of 2010. I was actually researching a completely different film topic in Moscow then and was not planning on making a film about them at all. On my walks through the city, I felt an affinity to the Constructivist buildings that I would come by randomly and began to photograph them. Moscow as an urban space and also as a cultural space has something very inaccessible about itself, something even unwelcoming and closed. In retrospect, I think the buildings were the only thing in Moscow’s cityscape I could visually and culturally connect with.

Sammy Medina: What was it about them that impressed you?

Isa Willinger: To me the buildings seemed like gigantic signs in the city. I have no background in architecture, so initially I wasn’t aware of the spatial and urban concepts behind them. In the course of making the film, this obviously changed, but I have never lost the sense of my initial impression. I’ve always continued to see and treat them as signs, rather than architecture. Continue reading

The Architecture for the Palace of the Soviets/Архитектура Дворца Советов (1939) – Free PDF Download

The Archetype of Stalinist Architecture - The Palace of the Soviets

Continuing our theme of the decline of architecture, literature, and the visual arts under Stalin, it is perhaps appropriate to post here a document that was printed in order to educate the public on the proposed architectural design of  the building.  The Architecture of the Palace of the Soviets (Архитектура Дворца Советов) was intended to accomplish this task.  In it, numerous architects, some of them having formerly belonged to the now-vanquished Soviet avant-garde, sing the praises of this bizarre, wedding-cake blend of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical stylization (the columns and lavishly-decorated façades).  Some, like Vladimir Paperny, have suggested that Stalin himself might have had a hand in its design, personally stepping in to oversee the realization of Iofan, Fomin, and Shchuko’s abominable vision.  Considering the sheer monstrosity of the final structure, it is not too unlikely that this might have been the case.  Either way, below you can download a free .pdf file copy of the 1939 text, which sadly includes a declaration from the once-great architectural modernist Nikolai Miliutin written in in support of the final proposal:

Архитектура Дворца Советов (1939)

And the following is a Stalinist propaganda film made a year before this text, in 1938, called New Moscow (Новая Москва), which features both the interior and exterior of the proposed building: