The wife of the designer, László Moholy-Nagy, Lucia, photographed the engineer-artist at the Bauhaus in the garments of a worker, marking his identification, not with artists, but with engineers. In the new Soviet Union, art was “dead,” the artist ceased to exist and had become a monteur, reinventing the world. With its pragmatic and practical program, it is at the Bauhaus that Moholy-Nagy’s paintings become light-weight and transparent, creating, like the photograms, layered designs through thinned down paint which allowed denser elements to interact as if on a different plane. Wielding rulers and sharp pointed pencils like swords, the artist incised his lines and scored with a compass, leaving grooves to half the flow of smoothly applied paint. He functioned, as his second wife, Sybil, explained it, “like a gem-cutter.”
This control of a bevy of instruments can be seen in contrast to the organic and spontaneous paintings of the emerging Surrealists, and Moholy-Nagy applied the idea of implied shifting grids to his graphic designs. Inspired by mechanical drawing, these machine paintings were part of another hands-free enterprise, the photomontage, which is constructed out of found materials, photographs cut out from, incised from, separated from mass media publications. Dada artists, particularly Raoul Haussmann, were undoubtedly the source of inspiration, but their works were crude and clumsy compared to Moholy-Nagy’s aerated montages that used the edges and corners of the support, leaving large areas of breathing blank paper as negative or positive space.
The carefully poised found photographs co-existed with the exertions of the straight line and cutting pencil and exquisitely deployed razor, which situated attenuated images against blankness and agitated space into indecisive perspectives with ruled pencil lines. Renaissance perspective was being deconstructed. As though he was attempting to de-construct a new anti-perspective, Moholy-Nagy used his photomontages to refute the fiction of Renaissance perspective and its imposition of control upon an unruly world. The artist allowed for multiple dimensions, slipping past each other, while the ambivalent shapes, conceived by ruler and scoring pencil, shift and slide, as if seeking the once-firm ground, passing in front of one another in a subtle limpid quality. Using found images, the artist re-photographed them, altered the size, and deployed his people, throwing them into a space without a foundation.
Unlike the photomontages of the early Dada artists, those of Moholy-Nagy were not dense and crowded. Instead the artist used the blank ground of the support to set his figures into motion, weaving the frozen humans in and out among the array of drawn lines. In what seems to be a direct refutation of the Renaissance grid, Moholy-Nagy rarely used anything but diagonal lines in his photomontages, which defy time and motion. The resulting fotoplastiks, as he called them, were intellectually playful, as if he were inserting people into his invented perspectives to see how they could function in off-kilter worlds. Fundamentally, Moholy-Nagy was not a painter, he was an artist of line who painted his drawings, but the limitations of the two dimensions could not be borne and he began to shift to transparent sculpture.
Not content with the limitations of the obdurate picture plane, Moholy-Nagy experimented with the new clear plastics, which were still in their industrial infancy and in an experimental stage. He used different plastics which had varying archival lives, sometimes as an alternative smooth surface to the textured canvas or toothed paper and sometimes as a transparent support or holder of his painted lines. His Plexiglas works, fragile and precious, allowed him to combine the ambiguousness of transparency and the presence of shape with the transformation of material stripes of paint into dematerialized shadows. Casting away from the surface of the glass, the textures as shadows shaded into colorless shapes slanting outwards from their point of origin. Dependent upon the presence of light, the Plexiglas creations functioned at times like traditional paintings, suitable for a frame, but these surfaces were dual, having a recto and a verso, raising questions of preferred point of view or the intended reading of the composition.
Controlled and yet ambivalent, perhaps predicting an uncertain future, Moholy-Nagy’s plastic creations shared a light touch with a breathing space full of possibilities. In contrast to these fragile experiments, his inventive and kinetic Light-Space Modulator is surprisingly sturdy and large. The apparatus is a machine which is not elegant and not graceful but is concerned with his life-long fascination for light and the shadows it casts. Planes and shapes have been dislodged from painting and were re-placed into a mechanical being. This life sized, that is human sized, animated object hums when the electricity is turned on and when rotating, clanks and creeks and slams its parts together—ethereal it is not, even though it projects magical shapes when light is projected upon it. Designed as a “Prop for an Electric Stage,” this rather beautiful construction is a photogram in three dimensions as if negative shapes have leaped into being as positives, loudly asserting their materialized presence. Designed in 1922, the Prop was not shown publically until it was seen in Paris in 1930.
The photographic practice of Moholy-Nagy as a New Vision photographer, yet another aspect of his practice, will be discussed in another chapter, and it would be a mistake to read the oeuvre of this artist as a formalist experimenter in design, for Moholy-Nagy was a dedicated communist whose “new vision” was a political one and his leftist leanings meant that he was marked as an enemy in Nazi Germany. If one reads his essay The New Vision of 1928, one is surprised to encounter a social document that is a critique of society with suggestions for how one can shift productivity from being in the service of capitalism to being for the good of humanity. Hitler regarded social critique the same way he viewed new visions, with antipathy.
In 1932, the Nazis, newly powerful in Germany, closed the Dessau Bauhaus, driving the remaining faculty and students to the Alamo of Berlin, where the school would finally die in 1933. The artists would scatter, closing a chapter in modern design. Moving quickly, one step ahead of the Nazis, from Holland to England and finally to America, László Moholy-Nagy finally found a permanent home where he could reestablish the Bauhaus in Chicago. Many of the Bauhaus faculty would seek haven in the United States, where they would import Bauhaus ideals and ideas, and the concept of modern design to the New World. In the Windy City, located in the middle or the heart of his adopted country, Moholy-Nagy would meet his untimely death from leukemia in 1946.