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Always leave a white patch in the picture – László Moholy-Nagy 125

20 • 07 • 20Punkt

“My father was 38 when I was born, so the clear memories I have are of the respectable-looking, always elegant, tastefully dressed middle-aged man. There was a distinctive white stripe in his thick black crown of hair, and he smiled so broadly you could see all his teeth. His left thumb was crooked and thickened owing to an injury he sustained as an artillery officer during World War One. As a consequence, his left hand cannot be seen in any photo with him it,” recalled his daughter, Hattula Moholy-Nagy.

“He always encouraged us to draw or paint. (...) One of our favourite pastimes on a Sunday afternoon was to draw and paint, with the radio on. My father, always the teacher, would often watch us. I remember two things he taught me. One was to leave a white patch in any picture as something that would enhance the composition. The other was how to wash brushes with soap and water.” [1]

László Moholy-Nagy, one of the most influential Hungarian artists of all times was born on this day 125 years ago, on 20 July, 1895. He was a visual artist, photographer, typographer, designer, thinker and educator, whose experimental thinking and work as a progressive artist influenced all that we now consider the art of the 20th century. We salute Moholy-Nagy’s photographic output with the following selection of works. The photographs, photograms and photo sculptures that follow here – donated by his daughter, Hattula, to the Hungarian Museum of Photography in 1995 – highlight Moholy-Nagy’s approach to photography and the visual arts.

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László Moholy-Nagy: László Moholy-Nagy, ca. 1920/1995, gelatin silver print

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László Moholy-Nagy: Scandinavia, ca. 1930/1995, gelatin silver print

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László Moholy-Nagy: From the Pont Transbordeur (positive), ca. 1920/1995, gelatin silver print

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László Moholy-Nagy: Entrance to the Russian pavilion of the Art Deco exhibition, Paris, 1925/1995, gelatin silver print

“He lived at a time when artists were particularly trustful of social progress on the basis of technological development, as well as in a new type of man, who could control it all, and whose outlook was to be shaped by a recognition of the new possibilities of the technical arts.” [2] Light was the organizing principle of his greatly diverse work, defining not only his photographs but his entire output in applied and fine arts as well: the paintings, the sculptures, the collages, the films, his typography, and his set designs for the stage. For him, the camera was not a device with which to render a perfect image of reality, but a creative, productive tool. He created his own photographic genres and style; his photograms and photo sculptures liberated photography from the constraints of imitating reality.

He made the first photograms in 1922, though his first wife, Lucia Schultz, who introduced Moholy-Nagy to photography, should be considered co-creator of these impressions of light and objects on photosensitive paper, made without a camera. While he did not invent the photogram, Moholy-Nagy’s variety of the form was unlike the rayograph of Man Ray or Christian Schad’s schadograph, in that “he did not simply want to offer a different image of physical reality but sought instead the possibilities of completely free modelling by the means of light.” [3]

 

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László Moholy-Nagy: Lucia Moholy among the trees of the Meisterhäuser, Dessau, ca. 1920/1995, gelatin silver print

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László Moholy-Nagy: Photogram, n.d./1973, gelatin silver print

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László Moholy-Nagy: Lucia, ca. 1930/1995, gelatin silver print

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László Moholy-Nagy: Finland, ca. 1930/1995

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László Moholy-Nagy: Hamburg, ca. 1930/1995, gelatin silver print

He called his photomontages photo sculptures, probably inspired by the Dutch De Stijl group. “It has a constructive structure, with only a few graphic elements – lines, circles – connecting the cut-out motifs; it is by large more generous and elegant than the Dadaists’ cramped, glued compositions. Its wry, occasionally grotesque intellectual humour, however, would be inconceivable without the Dada precedent.” [4] In his photos, the shadows of grids and net-like structures are cast on the portraits and still lifes, and he often photographed buildings and people from a high or low viewpoint, in the manner of Rodchenko and the Russian avant-garde. Moholy-Nagy liked to create images by turning some image into its negative, juxtaposing positive and negative images, using off-focus shots and surprising framing.

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László Moholy-Nagy: Greta Palucca in the Bauhaus building at Dessau, 1925–28/1995

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László Moholy-Nagy: The Shooting Gallery, n.d./1973, gelatin silver print

He called his photomontages photo sculptures, probably inspired by the Dutch De Stijl group. “It has a constructive structure, with only a few graphic elements – lines, circles – connecting the cut-out motifs; it is by large more generous and elegant than the Dadaists’ cramped, glued compositions. Its wry, occasionally grotesque intellectual humour, however, would be inconceivable without the Dada precedent.” [4] In his photos, the shadows of grids and net-like structures are cast on the portraits and still lifes, and he often photographed buildings and people from a high or low viewpoint, in the manner of Rodchenko and the Russian avant-garde. Moholy-Nagy liked to create images by turning some image into its negative, juxtaposing positive and negative images, using off-focus shots and surprising framing.

While active in Hungary, he was greatly influenced by the activist circle of Lajos Kassák (and he would maintain contact with Kassák while he lived in emigration), and drew inspiration from the Dada and Constructivism during his Berlin years. The Bauhaus proved to be a life-altering experience. In 1923, Walter Gropius, the director, invited him to teach at the school, first in Weimar, and then in Dessau. At age 28, he was the youngest professor of the Bauhaus. In 1937 he moved to Chicago, where he established the “New Bauhaus,” and later founded the Institute of Design. As an artist, theoretician and educator, he continued to experiment and innovate until his death. He considered art a non-hierarchic activity that encompassed the whole of life, something everyone could access and do, and he held a fundamental belief in its pedagogical function. He synthesised the theory of his art and teaching in the volume, Vision in Motion, which was published posthumously, after his death on 24 November, 1946.

His creations are among the most expensive-selling artworks: in 2012, his 1925 Photogram fetched 1,482,500 dollars at Sotheby’s auction. In 2016, the enamel work, Telephone Picture, sold for six million dollars at Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art sale. His 1922 photogram was the most expensive item at Sotheby’s 2020 spring auction; it was featured on the front page of the March issue of Broom, a New York magazine.

 

 

 

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László Moholy-Nagy: From the Berlin Radio Tower, n.d./1973

Jegyzetek

[1] László Moholy-Nagy: 100 Fotó. Magyar Fotográfiai Múzeum, Pelikán Kiadó, Budapest, 1995, 7.

[2] Excerpt from László Beke’s essay. Photo: László Moholy-Nagy. Corvina Kiadó, 1980, 5–6.

[3] Op. cit. 8.

[4] Op. cit. 10.

Translator: Árpád Mihály