László Moholy-Nagy

László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) was a Hungarian painter and photographer of Jewish descent. He was born László Weisz, but changed the German surname to the Magyar one of Nagy. Having grown up in the town of Mohol, he added Moholy to his new name (from Mohol).

Moholy-Nagy’s law studies in Budapest were interrupted by the First World War. As a serving soldier he was seriously wounded. During his convalescence he became first involved with the journal Jelenkor (‘The Present Age’), edited by Hevesy, and subsequently with the ‘Activist’ circle that gathered around the journal Ma (‘Today’), which was edited by the charismatic Lajos Kassák, a key figure of the Hungarian avant garde. In these circles of left-minded artists and intellectuals the revolutionary potential of art was generally accepted. Moholy-Nagy’s own style ranged widely during that period. He painted landscapes with abstract elements and used bright colours to depict technological subjects in a Cubist style. Politically, he was a supporter of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, declared early in 1919. He applied to the Communist Party, but was rejected due to his bourgeois background. After the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet in August he left for Vienna, and from there he travelled on to Berlin. There his ideas began to crystallize. He painted abstract works influenced by Dada and Russian Constructivism. He used letters as compositional devices and created photomontages which resembled those of Kurt Schwitters. The Constructivists were his major influences at this time. He shared the Constructivist concept of art as a social force which would teach workers to live in harmony with new technology.

Three years later Walter Gropius invited him to take over from Johannes Itten the crucial preliminary course (Vorkurs) taught at the ‘Staatliches Bauhaus’ in Dessau, known simply as Bauhaus (literally: ‘house of construction’ = School of Building). The appointment was an appropriate one: Moholy-Nagy shared the school’s aims of versatile design and the integration of technology and industry into the arts. A modernist and restless experimentalist from the outset, he was innovative in the fields of typography, sculpture, painting, printmaking, and industrial design. One of his main focuses was photography. He insisted that photography could create a new way of seeing the outside world that the human eye could not. The artist’s understanding of vision had to be refined. With the advent of the camera, artists had to learn to see again and renounce the classical training which encouraged them to reproduce old formulas. They had to move on and experiment with vision and light. For this, he coined the term the ‘New Vision’. His own experiments with (artificial) light effects gave rise to so-called Light Art, a form of visual art in which light is the main medium of expression. Whether he was painting, or creating ‘photograms’ (photographs made without the use of a camera in which light-sensitive paper is exposed directly to light), or crafting sculptures made of plexiglass, he was above all keen to find out how these basic elements interact. Theoretically, he summarized the ideas behind his work in the book The New Vision, from Material to Architecture. The wide-ranging and playful nature of his teaching had a profound influence upon many of his students.

Moholy-Nagy resigned from the Bauhaus in 1928 and worked in film and stage design in Berlin. Political tension and the rise to power of the National Socialists led Moholy-Nagy and his wife to emigrate. They moved temporarily to the Netherlands in 1934, before settling in London a year later. There he became part of the Hampstead circle of émigré artists. Gropius and Moholy-Nagy planned to establish an English version of the Bauhaus in London, but were unable to secure backing. Moholy-Nagy was disappointed to be turned down for a teaching job at the Royal College of Art. He kept himself alive by taking on various design jobs including a shop display for men’s underwear. The continental avant garde did not find many faithful followers in Britain.

In 1937, at the invitation of industrialist and philanthropist Walter Paepcke, Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago to direct the New Bauhaus on the same principles as the original institute had been run. Lack of financial backing forced the school to close after only a single academic year. However, with the continuous support of Paepcke, Moholy-Nagy opened the School of Design in 1939. In 1944, this became the Institute of Design which, five years later, was integrated into the Illinois Institute of Technology, the first American educational institution to offer a PhD in design. By that time, Moholy-Nagy had passed away. He had died in Chicago in 1946. His influence on post-war art education in the United States has been enormous.