László Moholy-Nagy

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.

Further Reading on László Moholy-Nagy

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).

Additional Biography Sources

Kaplan, Louis, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: biographical writings, Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

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