Moholy-Nagy, László (1895–1946)

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Avant-garde painter, experimental sculptor and photographer, teacher, and philosopher of design education.

László Moholy-Nagy was born in Bácsborsod, Hungary, on 20 July 1895. Self-taught in the arts after abandoning the study of law in Budapest in 1913, Moholy-Nagy took up painting. After his military service in World War I, he held the first exhibit of his work in Budapest in 1918. Moholy-Nagy left Budapest for Vienna in 1919 and settled in Berlin in 1920. There he participated in the avant-garde artistic group Gestaltung (Form-giving), met constructivists such as El Lissitzky of Russia, and attended the Constructivist Congress in Dusseldorf. He met and married the photographer Lucia Schulz in 1921 and, in 1922, held his first solo exhibit in Berlin's Sturm Gallery.

Quick to adapt to new circumstances and absorb new artistic influences, Moholy-Nagy settled on a constructivist approach to art that emphasized the transformative potential of human engagement with machines and new modes of perception in a mechanized world. Recognized for his prodigious talent and natural teaching abilities by the visiting Walter Gropius (1883–1969) in 1923, Moholy-Nagy took a place as a Bauhaus "Master" the same year. At the Bauhaus in Weimar Moholy-Nagy inherited the celebrated "introductory course" from the recently departed Johannes Itten and directed the instructional workshop for metalwork. Moholy-Nagy cooperated closely with Walter Gropius as he reformed Bauhaus pedagogy to reflect his growing interest in forging a "new unity" between art and technology. Moholy-Nagy rejected Itten's emphasis on fostering the individual "artist-creator" in favor of a philosophy that emphasized the individual designer's contribution to reform in an industrial society. Of inestimable value to the experimental philosophical spirit and aesthetic adventurism of the Bauhaus was Moholy-Nagy's passionate interest in the way the fine arts and design interfaced with the latest, most advanced forms of industrial technology, modern communications, and manufacturing capabilities. Under his direction of the metals workshop, Bauhaus students engaged explicitly for the first time in industrial design rather than the crafts, developing prototypes of lamps and other metal objects for manufacture by industry. His creative projects for an array of utopian imaginary devices such as the "kinetic-constructive system" opened his students' minds further to the role that artists and designers could play in giving form to the material world amid burgeoning industrial growth and technological development. An innovator in sculpture as well as photography, Moholy-Nagy, with Gropius, also oversaw the design, layout, and typography for a series of fourteen influential Bauhausbücher (Bauhaus books) published by the school.

Moholy-Nagy resigned from the Bauhaus and separated from Lucia at the same time that Gropius stepped down as Bauhaus director in 1928. He opened a graphic design practice in Berlin and contributed stage set designs to the Kroll Opera House while continuing experiments in photography, film, and sculpture. His innovative construction of a "light-space modulator" broke new ground in the realm of kinetic sculpture when it was exhibited in Paris in 1930. In this year he also met Sibyl Pietzsch, whom he married and with whom he had two daughters.

After emigrating to England with his family in 1934 and working there until 1937 as an industrial designer and graphic artist, Moholy-Nagy relocated to the United States to accept a position Gropius helped arrange for him at the school of the Association of Arts and Industries in Chicago. Moholy-Nagy renamed the school "The New Bauhaus" but was able to operate the school for only one year before financial difficulties caused it to be shut down. He opened his own school, the Institute of Design, the following year, and worked as a consultant and designer for numerous firms. The Chicago gallery owner Katharine Kuh exhibited his newest experiments with "light sculptures" in 1939.

The Institute of Design's efforts to expand the lessons of Gropius's Bauhaus faltered with Moholy-Nagy's early death in 1946. Nonetheless, working in proximity to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Illinois Institute of Technology, Moholy-Nagy's school helped establish Chicago as a leading center for modern design and as an heir to the Bauhaus tradition in the mid-twentieth century. Moholy-Nagy's school and practice added a significant avant-garde layer to the city's proud tradition of architectural and design excellence. Moholy-Nagy's pedagogical ideas were summarized and disseminated in his posthumously published work, Vision in Motion, in 1947. The publication, like his teaching and practice, emphasized the development of the modern senses of all who lived in industrial society, so that a deeper design understanding and broader general appreciation of design would improve modern life as a whole.

See alsoBauhaus; Constructivism; Painting, Avant-Garde.


Hahn, Peter, and Lloyd C. Engelbrecht, eds. 50 Jahre New Bauhaus: Bauhausnachfolge in Chicago. Translated by Lydia Buschan, Christian Wolsdorff, and Eva Heinemeyer. Berlin, 1987.

Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl. Moholy-Nagy, Experiment in Totality. Cambridge, Mass., 1950.

Schmitz, Norbert M. "László Moholy-Nagy." In Bauhaus, edited by Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend, 292–307. Translated by Translate-A-Book, Oxford, U.K. Cologne, Germany, 2000.

Wick, Rainer K. Teaching at the Bauhaus. Translated by Stephen Mason and Simon Lebe. Stuttgart, Germany, 2000.

John V. Maciuika