László Moholy-Nagy – Experiments in Light and Space

His artistic production, from art to photography of his Berlin period of the Twenties of the 20th century and his affiliation with the school of Bauhaus in Weimar in the same years, make Laszlo Moholy-Nagy one of the most influential and important actors of the artistic European scene of those years, who has left a mark until today.

László Weisz, born on July 20, 1895 in Bácsborsód, Hungary, at the age of 20, in 1915, enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army as an artillery officer. During his wartime service we know that he was used to make coloured sketches mainly on postcards to send to friends and to his family about his traumatic experience of war, often depicting wounded and fallen soldiers and barbed wire landscapes.

László Moholy-Nagy – Self-portrait, 1919-1920 pencil on paper, 31,8 x 24 cm, © Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest

During his period on the Russian Front in 1917, he was wounded and he spent his convalescence in Budapest, after of which he went on reserve status and dedicated his time on the publishing of poems, short stories and book reviews in the magazine Jelenkor, founded by Ivàn Hevesy. The year after he decided to quit his law studies, started before war to become an artist. He attended evening classes in life drawing at a free art school in Budapest and studied by his own history of art. He started as well to produce his early watercolours that he exhibited for the first time with other artists at the National Salon in Budapest. Thanks to this event he came into contact with Hungarian avant-garde artists and in the March 1919 he was included in an exhibition at the Mücsarnok always in Budapest. Then he moved to Szeged in the August of the same year where he founded his studio in community with the activist sculptor Sandor Gergely. At the end of the year, he moved to Vienna for just six weeks, where he met the Ma artists group, centred on Lajos Kassak. In this intense fragment of time Moholy-Nagy absorbed the influence of Cubism and Expressionism.

László Moholy-Nagy – Konstruktionen. Kestenermappe 6 (Constructions. Kestner Portfolio 6), 1923. Lithograph, 60 x 44 cm, © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

At the beginning of 1920 he moved to Berlin where he received economic help from the German and American Quakers. He also made contact with German Dadaists and Der Sturm Gallery, which gave him the support as an artist that he needed. In the April of the same year he met also his first wife Lucia Schulz, who was a student of art history and philosophy in Prague with a keen interest in photography, which will be relevant a few years later, when Moholy-Nagy decided to experiment with photography.

László Moholy-Nagy – Construction, 1924. Oil on canvas. Permanent loan of Commerzbank AG, Städelmuseum, Frankfurt
From: Design is Fine
László Moholy-Nagy – P27, 1927, Collage, gouache, watercolor, and ink and sprayed ink on paper, 49.8 x 65.1 cm, © Hattula Moholy-Nagy / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It was in this new geographic and cultural setting that Moholy-Nagy started to work on his own form of Constructivism. In the meantime, he began writing his first film scenario, and most of his works are published in the magazine Ma, founded by the group to which he was affiliated in Vienna.

In 1922 in his exhibition at the Der Sturm Gallery, he met Walter Gropius, whom the next year invited him to become a professor of the Staatliche Bauhaus in Weiman. He took over the foundation course from Johannes Itten and the metal workshop from Paul Klee, bringing a new Constructivist direction to the Bauhaus.

His early studies on light led him to experiment with photography, not only with a means to reproduce reality, but as a creative visual technique. He experimented with exposures without the use of a camera: the only subject being light, shade and texture.

“I became interested in painting with light not only on the surface of canvas but directly onto space.”

László Moholy-Nagy – Eton. Eleves watching cricket from the pavilion on Agar’s Plough, 1930. Gelatine silver print 15,7 x 20,7 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010
Rothenburg, 1920-1939; printed 1973. Gelatin Silver Photograph, 17.6 × 23.6 cm (image) 17.9 × 23.8 cm (sheet), © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1975
László Moholy-Nagy – Photogram, 1926, Hattula Moholy-Nagy / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: © Museum Associates / LACMA

He studied photo reproduction and experimented with photographic negative and positive effects. In 1923 he published a brief essay entitled “A new instrument for the vision”, in which he described 8 ways of photographic vision, defining clearly the difference between an active and a passive use of the photographic space. His way of producing and reproducing photographs is openly new, not anymore related to the “aesthetic-philosophical concepts used to interpret painting”. He introduces collages as a new technique to express something more. For example in his work “Gelosia” made in 1928, photography is used as a conceptual space for a new perceptive and philosophical research. Photography is just the medium to say something deeper. He plays on what we see and what we imagine, refusing a clear and unique interpretation.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy - Jealousy photomontage2
László Moholy-Nagy – Gelosia 1924-27 Photoplastic, gelatin silver print 30 x 24.6 cm Victoria & Albert Museum Collection, London © Hattula Moholy-Nagy / VEGAP 2011
From: ArtBlart.com
László Moholy-Nagy – Self-Portrait in Profile, 1926. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
From: cms.bauhaus100.de
László Moholy-Nagy – Huhn bleibt Huhn, 1925. Gelatin silver print with applied color, 11 × 16.4 cm, © Estate of László Moholy-Nagy / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

And after this he expands his photographic universe by introducing a new element: motion. In his short films and his “Photoplastik” he experiments the colour of light on different materials such as metal sheets and wood. His experiments have been called by the critique “light plays” and nowadays they are recognized as one of the most original creations of that period.

László Moholy-Nagy – Light-Space Modulator, 1922-1930, replica 1970. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
From: cms.bauhaus100.de

As a professor at the Bauhaus he made his students’ design complicated configurations to demonstrate specific themes, such as suspended equilibrium seen as the possibility of balancing something that rests on only one point. Other tasks were to develop three-dimensional elements, opaque and translucent. With Paul Klee he devised an exercise to study the dynamism between platonic shapes, describing them as it follows:

“The circle. What is it? It depends on the formation of a centre. This point radiates to all sides and swings as a pendulum. Gravity is canceled and centrifugal force takes over.”

“The triangle. What is it? A point it came into existence because of its relationship with a line which gravitates towards the point. In the event of reciprocity it can change its shape and can become a sector.”

“The square. What is it? It was originated as a line and its stress relationship with a point. This stress relationship was reciprocal developing in both directions until vertical and horizontal boundaries were formed and a three-dimensional structure developed.”

László Moholy-Nagy – Construction AL6, 1933-34, © IVAM, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Generalitat Valenciana
From: Tate

His research for better legibility, balanced simplicity and better design was intense. Unfortunately, Nazism destroyed everything, but the achievements and the theories expressed in the first Bauhaus period remained.

In 1937, thanks to Walter Gropius, to Moholy-Nagy was offered the directorship of the new Bauhaus in Chicago, to carry on the original Bauhaus ideas.

In time, his utopian vision, his achievements and his teaching found new importance: his concepts have been totally absorbed by contemporary society. Today there is no part of art, design, architecture in which his influence is not apparent.

During the last year of his life he continued to produce photograms, photographs, colour photographs, oil paintings, drawings, watercolours, and sculptures of Plexiglas and metal. Light, Space and Three-dimensionality constantly occupied his mind until his premature death of leukemia on November 24th 1946.

László Moholy-Nagy – Photograph (Self-Portrait with Hand). 1925-1928, printed 1940/49. Galerie Berinson, Berlin. © 2016 Hattula Moholy-Nagy / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


– Graham Clarke, La Fotografia, Una Storia culturale e visuale, Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, Mondandori, Trento, 2012, 284 pp.
– Joyce Tsai, James Merle Thomas, Friederike Waentig, Larry J. Feinberg, Eik KahngThe Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2015, 160 pp.
Moholy-Nagy Foundation
The Charnel House
Guggenheim Foundation

Opening Image:
László Moholy-Nagy – Olly and Dolly Sisters (Das Tänzerpaar), 1925. Gelatin silver print, 15.5 x 11.6 cm, ©  Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Art Sinsabaugh Archive

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