Why Nobody Knows Moholy-Nagy’s Name

László Moholy-Nagy, Self-Portrait, 1925 ©Moholy-Nagy Foundation.



Now that dinner parties are back, try this experiment. When you are introduced to someone new, ask them questions, anything you can think of that might touch on their professional expertise in some way. Then wait for them to parry, explaining that actually, their research is confined to the mating habits of the iguana, or the only cases they handle are corporate takeovers.

Hyperspecialization is boring. It seals us into tiny airtight boxes.

Because there is so bloody much information out there and it is impossible to master more than a sliver of it, we have lost the knack of cheerful inquiry. And as much as we talk about cross-pollination, fusion, and multimodal, multidisciplinary anything, very few people play in more than one sandbox at a time.

Is careerism to blame? Those whose minds reach far and wide are often either brilliant trust-fund babies or comfortably retired. In a world glutted with data, the rest of us know it makes sense to pick a small corner and sift just that single pile. Fame does not trust those it cannot categorize.

Case in point: László Moholy-Nagy. The name was vaguely familiar to me, tinted with faint pleasure, as though he were someone I met at a cocktail party and found fascinating. Watching The New Bauhaus, a documentary that dazzled the festival circuit—and lands on AppleTV, GooglePlay, and Vimeo on July 20—I learned that this radical Hungarian artist had a profound influence on American modern art.

Why do we not pay him more attention? Because he did too much.

Product designs with a pure, clean geometry. Avant-garde (in the true sense of the word, not pretentious but far ahead of its time) photography. Fresh typography. Pioneering mixed media art. Theatrical set design. As one commentator in director Alysa Nahmias’s doc says, “He really put into question what is art.”

Yet by working in so many genres and media, he diluted his own fame. We hear Ray and Charles Eames and think: chair. We hear Jackson Pollock and think: splatter. We rarely even hear Moholy-Nagy’s name, because there was no single definitive contribution. Just shaping all of modern art.

The first person to glimpse Moholy-Nagy’s gifts was architect Walter Gropius, whose discerning eye also lit on Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. In the early Twenties, he invited all of them to teach at the Bauhaus, a school he founded in Germany. The goal was to unite art and design for the social betterment of all citizens. And Moholy-Nagy was chosen to teach the introductory course.

Design affects every aspect of life, he told his students. Be bold. Have the courage to be utopian. Unlearn, start fresh, play with new materials. Take a sledgehammer to the false walls between the arts and the various kinds of design. It is all one.

Moholy-Nagy had never gone to art school, and he had never taught. He had an almost childlike interest in anything new, especially the machines that were transforming industry. For his famous “telephone paintings,” he sketched geometric compositions on graph paper and then called in the coordinates to a sign painting company, which then produced enameled metal “paintings” in multiple sizes.

The other faculty members recoiled from Moholy-Nagy’s machine aesthetic; this was not Art! But Gropius liked his freshness, his refusal to fasten down on a particular genre, his earnestness about improving life in a modern, tech-infused age. The way we interact with the world, he said, flows from how we see it.

In the Thirties, as Nazism gathered insidious momentum, leftwing artists became as suspect as Jews. Moholy-Nagy left Germany for Amsterdam, then England. In 1937, he moved to Chicago.

The Association of Arts & Industries wanted a school that would create and curate such distinctive product designs, demand would pull the U.S. economy out of the last tug of Depression. They invited Gropius to lead this school, and he said, “I can’t, but you should call László Moholy-Nagy.”

They telegrammed him instead: “Plan design school on Bauhaus lines to open in fall. Marshall Field offers family Mansion Prairie Avenue. Stables to be converted into workshops. Doctor Gropious suggests your name as director. Are you interested?”

Moholy-Nagy flew to Chicago to test the waters. “This is a wild place,” he wrote his wife, “but maybe it’s worth a try.” She brought their children, and he dove into his new project. The New Bauhaus would educate the whole person, mind and spirit, to see the world afresh.

He made a plan. Gropius told him it was too ambitious. “Too late,” Moholy-Nagy replied, “it’s already been published.”

“Now a new Bauhaus is founded on American soil,” he wrote. “America is the bearer of a new civilization whose task is simultaneously to cultivate and to industrialize a continent. It is the ideal ground on which to work out an educational principle which strives for the closest connection between art, science, and technology.”

His premise was that everyone is talented; their minds simply need to be washed clean. John Cage came and lectured about new music. The students made sculptures out of wood to cultivate the sense of touch; they investigated forms and materials. What can paper support? What happens if we burn or bend or melt this? Together, they were laying the groundwork for new design ethos.

In 1938, the association members showed up eager to the first exhibition of student work. They left muttering. They had expected to see cool package designs and miniature skyscrapers. All of the work was experimentation, exploration; none of it was product. They had wanted a job training center, a talent pipeline, not a philosophical revolution.

Shredding their five-year contract, they pulled their financial backing. Moholy-Nagy sued. The association countered by accusing him of “Hitlerizing” the school. (The only grounds for the accusation seem to be his thick Hungarian accent.)

Cast loose, Moholy-Nagy now had to raise money to keep his school afloat—which meant he had to make the argument that the school would benefit industry. “Shaping a modern sensibility” would not prompt the wealthy to write a check. But Moholy-Nagy believed wholeheartedly in the ability of technology to improve people’s lives, and he continued to explore its intersection with all the visual arts, designing the things people lived with. He saw culture becoming more and more visual. Images were part of the new literacy, he argued. Photography’s essence was its sensitivity to light; film was light in motion.

When World War II broke out, enrollment dropped, and materials were scarce. Moholy-Nagy redid the curriculum, teaching about principles of camouflage, design for propaganda, therapeutic design for returning vets, and ways to foil the bombers by making big buildings or all of Lake Michigan invisible from the air.

When at one point he was accused of being a dilettante, he roared with delight, loving the insult, “because a dilettante does things because he enjoys them.”

What made his mind so free? “When I was a child I thought that I was a king’s son who had been exchanged for another,” he once remarked, “but who later would come into his own.” His father left when he was about five years old, and an uncle raised him. There was little he felt he should conform to.

Including the prescribed route to fame.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.