By the early 1920s, László Moholy-Nagy began to find his own voice and became one of the most eloquent inventors of new art for a modern age. Digesting the artistic ideas of the post-war decade, he absorbed the penchant for the machine emerging in Berlin with the artists who rejected Expressionism in favor of mechanical drawing. A prolific author who had always wanted to be a writer, Moholy-Nagy opined about everything he learned, circulating the explosion of experimental ideas that were replacing old clichés and repudiating the way of life that had contributed to a ruinous war. Attracted to the dynamic Russian Suprematism of Malevich and the Constructivism of El Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy settled into abstract geometry almost at once.
The early paintings Moholy-Nagy did under the spell of Constructivism are staid compared to the dynamism of the Futurist driven Russian works. The paint was laboriously laid on the surface in opaque coats, and it is clear that he is a potential artist who is doing an apprenticeship. But Moholy-Nagy could fluently articulate his burgeoning ideas. In 1922 he wrote a short but important article, “Production-Reproduction,” for De Stijl, in which he examined current instruments of “reproduction,” the phonograph, film, photography to determine if they could be used for “productive purposes as well.” In other words, how could passive objects become activated? That same year he wrote an even briefer essay, “Dynamic-Constructive System of Forces” for Der Sturm. “Vital constructivity,” he wrote, “is the embodiment of life and the principle of all human and cosmic development..today this means the activation of space by means of dynamic-constructive systems of forces..we must therefore replace the static principle of classical art with the dynamic principle of universal life.”
In other words, Moholy-Nagy in conjunction with his Russian colleagues, reject all that was stilled and static and insisted on the dynamic principle of universal life.” Clearly, the artist was in a dialogue with his colleagues in the European avant-garde, writing against the Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian’s use of the horizontal and the vertical to express those very same principles of universal life. In the early twenties, Moholy-Nagy was at the intellectual center of an international debate on the source of art, a discussion that would lead him to a school of architecture and design. Because he was articulate, it was more for his writing than his still-developing art that the director Walter Gropius hired Moholy-Nagy to teach at the Bauhaus in 1923.
The Bauhaus was in trouble. Initially established in the town of Weimar, at the city’s invitation, the art school failed to endear itself to the population which was suspicious of the inordinate number of Jews, women students, and left-leaning art teachers. The good citizens of Weimar were upset that the Bauhaus has absorbed the faculty of the older institution of fine arts but had demonstrated clearly that it had no respect for tradition. It was America that saved the Bauhaus with loans to Germany in 1925, and German towns in industrial centers, wanting to partner with skilled designers and workers, were eager to collaborate with the Bauhaus and its talented designers.
Unable to find favor among the narrow-minded town of Weimar, Gropius moved the Bauhaus to Dessau, a town involved in industrial design, which would be much more congenial to a school of modern art. Here in Dessau the Hungarian wanderer, Moholy-Nagy, found a home, an institute that encouraged his polymath mind and allowed him to dart from painting to photography to sculpture to graphics to book design. The shift to Dessau and the hiring of Moholy-Nagy to replace Johannes Itten and his suddenly old fashioned ideas for the Foundation course, allowed the Bauhaus to shift from being an art school to a design school. Starting with his credo uttered in his De Stilj article, “Creative activities are useful only if they produce new, so far unknown relations,“ Moholy-Nagy worked hard to make connections with industry with an eye to modernizing design. Stressing the new, the Bauhaus taught all art forms to the students with the goal of updating even the conventional and traditional arts and crafts. In no other institution, would Moholy-Nagy been able to advance his multiple obsessions. The question is what, if anything, links his diverse activities?
Moholy-Nagy’s fascination with the play of light and shadow in three dimensions and his intellectual play with perspectives in two dimensions are threaded throughout the art of Moholy-Nagy for the next two decades. Along with photographer Man Ray and painter Christian Schad, Moholy-Nagy rediscovered “photograms,” a term he coined. The history of photography began with the exposure of objects on light sensitive paper, an old form of camera-less “light-writing.” By returning to the very origins of photography, he explored the layering of dark and light while exploiting the reversal between negative and positive. The photograms are designs composed of layering and overlapping, creating stratified space where no space existed. The abstraction of the early photograms was related to the severe and restrained geometric paintings where the lack of the artist’s “hand” is significant.
At this point it is important to pause, because Moholy-Nagy was an artist who worked his way through a variety of mediums, experimenting restlessly, as though he was seeking and searching for something. The paintings of Moholy-Nagy can be used as a starting point, for it is here that we witness his desire for transparency and his use of layering colors to achieve an overlapping that can be seen through. Because a photogram is revealed through the action of light, placing one object on top of another object is relatively simple, but it is difficult to mix a pigment thick enough to carry its color and yet thin enough to see through it to the color below. Influenced by Kazimir Malevich and Suprematism, the work of Moholy-Nagy was abstract, but, unlike Malevich, who tended to allow his geometric shapes to exist separately, he was concerned with lacing colors, placing hues one on top of another in a subtle weaving. There are examples in his paintings where the artist abandoned the overlapping and simply changed the overlap into an intersection, using an entirely different color to mark the switch. The artist was so determined to avoid texture and ensure the absence of painterly qualities, that he experimented with the certainty of lined graph paper.
According to a debated legend, Moholy-Nagy famously conveyed instructions to a fabricator as to how to paint a design via a telephone conversation. The worker on the other end of the call, was employed at a sign factory, and he marked the squares as instructed on a sheet of graph paper, applied the colors as he was told, and then produced the requested designs in a series of paintings which were later named “The Telephone Pictures.” Although the gesture of distancing by the artist has become associated with proto-Minimalism, he never repeated the experiment and his second wife has disputed the provocative story.
When one looks at the entire span of his oeuvre, it is possible to deduce the quest of László Moholy-Nagy—a desire to make art with light and shadows. The challenge for the artist was perhaps that he was working in an old technology—oil paint—a substantive material—looking for a result that he could achieve only rarely, transparency. The geometric strata in his paintings are frozen and the designs, even when diagonals are used, were static. As new materials and new inspirations come his way at the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy began to work towards the theme that would dominate his work for the next two decades—the play of light and shadow. In other words, disembodied movement, a concept that would free design from its material imprisonment and mobilize form and shape as shadows on the move. In his 1925 book on Painting, Photography and Film, Moholy-Nagy wrote on light and shadows:
The development of new technical means has resulted in the emergence of new fields of creativity; and thus it is that contemporary technical products, optical apparatus: the spotlight, the reflector, the electric sign, have created new forms and fields not only of representation but also of colour composition. Pigment has hitherto been the major means of col- our composition, has been recognised as such and used both for easel paint- ing and in its capacity of ‘building material’ in architecture. The medieval stained-glass window alone marks a different notion, but one that was not consistently carried through. These windows produced a certain am- ount of radiant spatial reflection in addition to the colours of the planes. The moving, coloured figures (continuous light displays), however, which are today deliberately screened with a reflector or projector open up new expressional possibilities and therefore new laws.”