LASZLO MOHOLY NAGY
" His genius ventured into all realms of science and art to unriddle the phenomena of space and light. In painting, sculpture and architecture, in theater and industrial dsign, in photography and film, advertising and typography, he incessantly strove to interpret space in its relation to time, that is, motion in space." - Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy - experiment in totality, 1950
Born on July 20, 1895, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy grew up in in the city of Bachsbarsad, Hungary and studied law in Hungary's capital of Budapest. A born poet, his experiences in the Russian battlefields of World War I, revealed to him the inadequacies of poetic expression. He began to explore and analyze the reality around him in a series of representational sketches. Moholy-Nagy had discovered his life’s calling (1914).
However, an extreme disgust with the prevalent Communist system of the time caused him to reject not only the social order, but also its symbolic connotations in art. He plunged into an exploration of the most fundamental visual forms – colors, shapes – and the interrelationships tying them together.
These explorations evolved naturally form investigations into the nature of form to color, transparency – from painting to collages; from severe simplification of form in two dimensional space to the creation of visual depth through color transparencies. He had found his ouvre. His life’s work would be dedicated to the exploration of light, space, depth and motion, and he would explore any medium of expression to unravel these mysteries.
“Constructivism is neither proletarian nor capitalistic. Constructivism is primordial, without class or ancestor. It expresses the pure form of nature – the direct color, the spatial rhythm, the equilibrium of form.
The new world of the masses needs constructivism because it needs fundamentals that are without deceit. Only the basic natural element, accessible to all senses, is revolutionary.
In Constructivism, form and substance are one. Not substance and tendency, which are always being identified. Substance is essential, but tendency is intentional. Pure substance (Constructivism) is not confined to picture frame and pedestal. It expands into industry and architecture, into objects and relationships. Constructivism is the socialism of vision.” – Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Excepts from an article in MA, May 1922.
He began dabbling in photography around the same time (1922) – exploring the same elements of form, light, and color gradation in addition to shadows and textures. Influence and inspired by the bold humor of the ‘Dadaists’ of the time, he turned to political collage and photomontage for a time. However, he lacked the peculiar obsession of the revolutionary artist and his dabbles remained such.
He discovered the photogram, and that veered his work back into his preoccupation with space and light. It became his goal to eliminate color/ sublimate it to a point where the visual impact rested on the most essential medium – direct light.
This preoccupation with the existence of objective visual values, independent of the artist’s inspiration led him to orchestrate a series of paintings – dictated to the foreman of a sign factor over phone, using a color chart and an order blank of graph paper to specify the location of form elements and their exact hue.
THE BAUHAUS EXPERIENCE:
Invited to teach at the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany by Walter Gropius in 1923 and inspired by the pedagogical goals of the institute he joined the staff as master of the advanced foundation course and the Metal workshop. His was the appointment of youth and the infusion of the constructivist ideals in contrast to the convictions of german expressionism that the other well appreciated teachers of the institute were devoted to (Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger, Schlemmer).
“we might as well call the scope of his contribution Leonardian, so versatile and colorful it has been. He was successful at once as a thinker and as an inventor, as a writer and as a teacher…..constantly developing new ideas, he managed to keep himself in a state of unbiased curiosity form which a fresh point of view could originate. With a shrewd sense of observation he investigated everything that came his way” – Walter Gropius, Obituary Note in 4th edition of The New Vision
The Bauhaus published 14 volumes of the ‘Bauhaus Books’ in the composition and typography of which, Moholy-Nagy was intricately involved. While significant for their pictorial, theoretical and typographical form, the Bauhaus books were, and are to date the only – coordinated effort to relate the teaching of all visual disciplines to one integrating principle.
Another significant development that arose from his position as the head of the metal workshop was the development of a line of lighting fixtures which, still today, constitute the basic design of most modern lamps. Bauhaus, where the process of development was valued higher than the finished product – was slowly destroyed by the growth of technological cells within it. This process of pedagogical divergence was climaxed by Walter Gropius’s resignation of his position. Moholy-Nagy followed suit.
While Moholy-Nagy went on explore other mediums of design as tools to continue his personal exploration of space, time, light, shadows and form, his years at Bauhaus had infused in him a passion for instruction. He went on to escape from the third reich in Germany, to Holland, Britain and finally emigrated to the United States (1937) at the behest of the Association of Arts and Industries, Chicago (and Walter Gropius) to start again a new institute of instruction, following the principles of the Bauhaus, called ‘The New Bauhaus’. The school closed down a year after opening, as the financial backers withdrew support (influenced mostly by the stock market crash of 1938).
With supreme confidence in the scope of the pedagogy that the school had prescribed to, Moholy-Nagy sought to restart the school – this time as the Institute of Design. While the curriculum differed in some degree from the original, it was in its totality the same. Moholy-Nagy worked hard over the succeeding years to keep the school afloat, meeting investors, prospective students and advertising the merits of the program constantly – eventually to the detriment of his own health.
INFLUENCE AND LEARNING:
The most enduring aspect of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s legacy is his pedagogy as prescribed in the ideals of the Institute of Design’s curriculum. While essentially similar to the curriculum at Bauhaus – in its emphasis on exploration of avenues and media, process over finished product, he added to its artistic component more technological arts such as photography, film, kinetic and light sculpture, music and poetry. To Walter Gropius’s two elements of art and technology – he added science. This thus served to provide his students a more diverse and exhaustive exploration.
While students at Bauhaus explored different media in the foundation year, and then went on to further explore media of interest in the later years, this ‘open’ system of learning ensured them the capacity to think beyond their areas of ‘experience’, offering solutions that were relevant and referential to other avenues of development. This focus on ‘process’ and ‘exploration’ over a finished product ensures discoveries and developments beyond the original conservative scope of a design solution.
It is very easy to see parallels between the Bauhausian method of thinking and systems thinking, where the intention is not restricted to set parameters/values of a perceived solution, but the ability to perceive and anticipate further avenues affected from the solution, and arising from the solution.
“To be a designer means not only to sensitively manipulate techniques and analyse production processes, but also to accept the concomitant social obligations…. Thus quality of design is dependent not alone on function, science and technological process but also on social consciousness.” – Moholy-Nagy as quoted in Moholy-Nagy’s design pedagogy in Chicago, by Alain Findelli
In Moholy-Nagy’s incessant investigation of the relationships of ‘space making’ elements, in his constant exploration of different media to achieve his purposes, one sees the drive to achieve not a simple solution, but different alternative solutions to the same communication. A pedagogue who emphasized the importance process to his students, by holding up his life’s work as example.
Moholy-Nagy, Experiment in totality by sibyl moholy-nagy, Harper and Brothers, 1950
Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Biographical Writings by Louis Kaplan, Duke University press, 1995
Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Color in Transparency, Steidl Bauhaus-Archiv, 2006
Technical Detours by Oliver A.I. Botar, Kromar Printing Ltd, 2006