László Moholy-Nagy: The New Bauhaus and America


Dr Harry Charrington, University of Bath

17 May 2011

László Moholy-Nagy, was a figure whose presence, if not his intentions and achievements, still pervade discussions of twentieth-century artistic practice. This lecture tries to give some substance to that presence, and examines an artistic practice and output that, culminating in the New Bauhaus, entwined the artistic and the pragmatic, and attempted to reconnect art with the possibilities of the world through observation and the use of new, revelatory techniques and processes.

Moholy’s death from leukaemia in 1946, aged 51, just as the New Bauhaus was beginning, ended a journey that began when László Nagy was born into ‘a terrible great quietness’ in 1895 on a farm in southern Hungary, near the village of Moholy. He studied law in Budapest, served in the Austro-Hungarian army, and was wounded on the Russian front, before he settled in Berlin in 1920 and married Lucia, a photographer.

The couple believed that photography and film would transform social and cultural values: “It is not the person ignorant of writing but the one ignorant of photography who will be the illiterate of the future”. As well as photographs that emphasized the “sensorily perceptible result” of the “surface aspect”, they developed photograms, ‘photoplastics’ and photomontages, leading ultimately to the Licht-raum-modulator of 1922-30. Equal to this appeal to the retina, was an emphasis on the importance (even, invention of) graphic design. Moholy was close to the Dadaists and Constructivists, attracted by the latter’s appeal to “the direct colour, the spatial rhythm, the equilibrium of form”, culminating in his 1922 Telephone Paintings.

In 1923 he joined the Bauhaus, working with Josef Albers. Here, Moholy placed technology in the field of social ecology, stressing the teleological and evolutionary nature of design. In his teaching Moholy explored the individual’s sensory experience and the “biological integration” of man as the basis of art, and encouraged contemplation of, and experimentation with, new media and materials for their own sake, “opening eyes” in a way akin to Goethe’s statement, “There is a delicate empiricism which makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory”.

In 1928 he resigned because of the doctrinaire approach of Hannes Meyer and returned to Berlin for the next six years. During this period he was close to a number of modern architects and sculptors, including Alexander Calder, and members of CIAM. Like many of them, he moved to London (via Amsterdam) in 1935, where intermittent work included Alexander Korda’s Things to Come. Dismissed by traditionalists, and many modernists who sought more ‘normative aesthetics’, Herbert Read in particular comprehended Moholy’s pedagogic vision, one that would be extended and fully realised in Moholy’s collaborator Gyórgy Kepes’ – who had followed him from Berlin to London, and would do so to Chicago – 1944 Language of Vision.

Moholy was appointed head of the New Bauhaus in Chicago by the American Association of Arts & Industries in 1937. With no institution behind the New Bauhaus it was highly vulnerable. It opened in September 1937 and closed in June 1938, reopening as the School of Design in February 1939, producing its first graduates in May 1942, and finally stabilising as the Institute of Design under the presidency of Walter Papecke. At Moholy’s death, when Serge Chermayeff took over, it had 600 full and part-time students, being absorbed into IIT – Mies van der Rohe’s school – in 1951.

Hidak Bridges by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Moholy made two major shifts from the Dessau Bauhaus. Firstly, the artistic parts of courses were extended into technological arts, including graphics, photography and film. Secondly, he added physical, life, human and social sciences to the curriculum, hiring artists and philosophers to teach them. Moholy had met John Dewey, author of Art as Experience (1934), in New York in 1938. Dewey held a dynamic view of the relation of the individual and the environment, helping to link the New Bauhaus to the empirical traditions of America.

Unlike in Gropius’ dualism of art and technology, Moholy saw design being revealed through technology, and taught how these techniques could be evolved within the human field, quoting Freud on art as the only “field of omnipotence” within the “play” of civilization. The first year course offered a 3-stage process – observation, perception, description –exploration, measurement and analysis – manipulation and experiment – all leading to design itself. Students then chose a 3-year specialism, again divided into a tripartite structure – problem of design (theory and philosophy) – design of the problem (method) – execution of design (communication and technology).

Creative potential was to be nurtured from within, not imposed from without: “The biological base of space experience is everyone’s endowment […] The definition of course must be tested by the means by which space is grasped, that is, by sensory experience”. This was a risky and liberating synthesis, on the student’s terms, and formed out of the world, with the New Bauhaus’ closure it severed the relation of architecture and design to art schools, even if its practices carry on to this day as discrete ‘exercises’ within them.

Dr Harry Charrington