MOHOLY-NAGY, LÁSZLÓ (1895–1946), painter, sculptor, graphic designer, photographer, filmmaker, educator. Born in Bàcs-Borsod, Hungary, Moholy-Nagy studied law at the University of Budapest, a field in which he received his degree after his military service in World War i. Afterwards, he became active in Budapest artistic circles, starting an artists' group and founding a literary magazine. He fled the city's political unrest in 1919 for Vienna. After traveling to Berlin the following year, Moholy-Nagy made the acquaintance of such Dada practitioners as Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hoech, and Raoul Hausmann. As early as 1919, he was influenced by the ideas of the Russian artists Kasimir Malevich and El *Lissitsky and brought their work to the attention of the European, and especially German, art worlds. While in Berlin in 1921, both Moholy-Nagy and Man *Ray produced Dada-influenced Rayographs and photograms by placing objects, including gears and machine components, on light sensitive paper, thereby creating complex compositions in which the objects' silhouettes created bright spots on a dark surface. Moholy-Nagy elicited a variety of different gradations of light-suffused abstract shapes by arraying transparent or translucent objects, like glass, veils, and nets, on the photographic paper. Moholy-Nagy believed, as did many other artists of the opening decades of the 20th century, that an art of universal geometric shapes and forms possessed the capability to order and revolutionize society.
In the 1920s, Moholy-Nagy wrote for several influential art periodicals and edited with Ludwig Kassák a book of poetry and essays on art. The artist met El Lissitsky in 1921 and emerged as an important figure in the promulgation of Constructivism, a non-objective art movement based on geometrical forms associated with the work of Lissitsky, Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, and Aleksandr Rodchenko, among others. Moholy-Nagy had his first show in 1922 at Der Sturm gallery, Berlin, and took part in the Congress of Constructivists and Dadaists. In 1923, he joined the famous Bauhaus school and for five years conducted the preliminary course together with Joseph Albers. During this period, Moholy-Nagy involved himself in book and stage design. He later became Walter Gropius' assistant. While teaching at the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy made the acquaintance of a number of seminal figures in the German art community, including Herbert Bayer, Marcel Breuer, Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. In 1924–25, Gropius and Moholy-Nagy edited and designed a 14-volume set of books. The eighth volume, Moholy-Nagy's Malerei, Fotographie, Film (Painting, Photography, and Film) of 1925 posited that the camera functioned as an instrument whose powers enhanced that of the human eye. The book included photographs and photograms by Moholy-Nagy and others, scientific imagery, and novel photographic techniques, including multiple exposures and photomontages. In 1928, Moholy-Nagy resigned from his position at the Bauhaus and settled in Berlin, where he remained active in numerous artistic fields, notably film, theater, and photography. In 1929, he published Von Materialzu Architektur (translated as The New Vision: From Material to Architecture), which further codified his conception of the idea and practice of art-making within the context of Constructivist principles. In 1934 he went to Amsterdam, but with the rise of the Nazi threat he traveled the following year to England. Between 1935 and 1937, Moholy-Nagy worked in London as a designer and filmmaker. He finally settled in Chicago in 1937, where he founded the New Bauhaus. However, the Chicago school shut its doors within one year because of financial problems and amidst objections to Moholy-Nagy's utopian and collectivist ideals. In 1939, Moholy-Nagy and other former faculty re-organized the institution as the Chicago School of Design, renamed the Institute of Design in 1944. The artist's work continued to blossom in technique with his interest in the properties of Plexiglass, a durable resin available starting in 1937, which he molded, painted, and incised. In 1941, Moholy-Nagy became a member of the American Abstract Artists group. He attained American citizenship in 1944. Despite his international reputation in Europe, his first solo show was organized in the United States by the Modern Art Society of Cincinnati only in 1946, a year after his death from leukemia.
Moholy-Nagy's work is owned by private collectors and by numerous museums, including the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum of Design, Berlin; the Guggenheim Museum; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Kunstmuseum, Basel; the Museum of Modern Art; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, d.c.; and the Tate Gallery.
S. Barron, Exiles & Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler (1997); V.D. Coke, Photography: A Facet of Modernism: Photographs from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1986); D. Mrázková, Masters of Photography: A Thematic History, tr. Š. Pellar (1987); K. Passuth, Moholy-Nagy (1985).
[Nancy Buchwald (2nd ed.)]
The Hungarian painter, designer, and teacher László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was one of the leading figures in the Bauhaus and was highly instrumental in bringing its ideas to the United States.
László Moholy-Nagy was born on July 20, 1895, in Bacsbarsod. He studied law before becoming interested in painting. In 1919 he discovered the work of the Russian constructivists El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich, whose lifelong influence can be seen in Moholy-Nagy's paintings with the characteristic severe patterns of rectangles and other geometric shapes scattered sparsely over a plain background.
In 1921 Moholy-Nagy moved to Berlin. His paintings were now completely nonobjective, and he began to study the function and effect of light, which became one of his main continuing interests. Combined with this was his enthusiasm for the potential uses of the new plastic materials. Like Marcel Duchamp, he began to question the traditional involvement of the artist's hand in his own work. In 1922 Moholy-Nagy came up with a brilliant and audacious idea: he had five paintings made for him by a factory. He telephoned the factory and described what he wanted, using the factory's color chart and graph paper. As Duchamp did with his ready-mades, Moholy-Nagy claimed the five paintings as his because he had thought of them rather than actually made them by his own hand.
Moholy-Nagy's interests in a new relationship between the artist and his art, his investigations into the use of light, and his use of new materials made him a very suitable member of the Bauhaus, where he went to teach in 1923. The Bauhaus had been founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius to provide a new sort of artistic training, where the artist no longer had to choose between art and design but was instead given an all-round education which would allow him to use his knowledge of art and materials to make a more functional art, often involved in industrial design.
Moholy-Nagy taught the introductory course at the Bauhaus and helped turn it away from its preoccupation with mysticism and intuitive philosophy and toward a more practical and tightly controlled emphasis on materials and their potential and function. He was peculiarly adept at fusing theory and practice and was thus highly successful at both teaching and writing. In 1928 he left the Bauhaus and executed stage designs in Berlin, using his Bauhaus-evolved ideas of space and light. During a short stay in London he produced a number of documentary films.
In 1937 Moholy-Nagy went to Chicago, where he directed the New Bauhaus for a year and then set up his own School of Design, which he ran on Bauhaus principles until his death in Chicago on Nov. 24, 1946. An extraordinarily idealistic man, he passionately believed in his own concepts of design and teaching and worked feverishly to accomplish his aims. It is in large part owing to him that the Bauhaus ideas so thoroughly infused American design.
Moholy-Nagy's own writings are very epigrammatic and perhaps provide a more exciting picture of the potential of his ideas than do his artistic productions. His The New Vision (1928) and Vision in Motion (1947) give a fine sense of his liveliness of mind and wide-ranging interests. An extremely touching and very informative book is the biography by his wife, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Moholy-Nagy: Experiment in Totality (1950; 2d ed. 1969).
Kaplan, Louis, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: biographical writings, Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. □
Jane Turner (1996)