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Martin-Gropius-Bau Presents Laszlo Moholy-Nagy The Art of Light

Martin-Gropius-Bau presents László Moholy-Nagy The Art of Light, open through January 16th, 2011.

László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) is one of the most important exponents of Modernism. Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau has mounted an exhibition of his art as represented by over 200 works: paintings, photographs (black-and-white and colour), photograms, collages, films and graphics. The show will focus on the years in which Moholy-Nagy was developing his theory of art as an art of light. This covers the period from 1922 to the end of his life and beyond, in view of the influence he exerted after his death.

For Moholy-Nagy was always a theoretician and practitioner in equal measure, always wanting to be a holistic artist. He approaches his work – painting, photography, commercial and industrial design, film, sculpture, scenography – from a wide variety of aspects and practises it as a radical, extreme experiment, by refusing to place his hugely differing works in any sort of aesthetic hierarchy. He also attaches enormous importance to education, which is why, at the request of Walter Gropius, he workes in this field for the Bauhaus in Weimar (1923-1925) and Dessau (1925-1928). In Chicago, where he settles in 1937, he again assumes teaching duties and founds the “New Bauhaus”, which sought to realise the programmes of the German Bauhaus in the United States.

Shortly afterwards he founds the Institute of Design in Chicago, where he is to remain active until his death in 1946. The institute is later incorporated in the Illinois Institute of Technology, which offers study courses to this day.

From Weimar to Chicago Moholy-Nagy retains his faith in his pedagogical ideal, which for him means not only teaching, but the moral education of human beings. He believes in education as a mean of developing all the abilities lying dormant in the students and as a means of paving the way to a “new, total human being”.

All of Moholy-Nagy’s theoretical contributions arose out of his artistic and pedagogical work. In his numerous writings he gradually presents his ideas, thus developing a complete artistic and pedagogical aesthetic. In his 1925 landmark essay Painting, Photography, Film he develops an aesthetic theory of light – light as a matrix of art and art as light. He applies his aesthetic theory of light not only to painting, photography and film, but also to theatrical and commercial design.

From that point on light becomes the foundation of Moholy-Nagy’s practical and theoretical work. For him art of whatever kind only acquires meaning when it reflects light. Painting is also reinterpreted on the basis of this criterion. Moholy-Nagy describes his development as a painter as a shift away from “painting from transparency” to a painting that was free of any representational constraints and created the possibility of painting “not with colours, but with light”. This theory reaches its full potential in photography and film. Etymologically, the word “photography” means “writing with light”. The artistic essence of film consists in the portrayal of “inter-related movements as revealed by light projections”. Although he was not in charge of the photography classes in the Bauhaus, it was there that he wrote Painting,

Photography, Film, drawing upon his photographic experience. He invented the “photogram”, a purely light-based form of graphic representation, thus demonstrating an ability to create photographic images without a camera at the same time as the “Rayogram” was invented by Man Ray in Paris. He sees photography as a completely autonomous medium whose potential was still to be discovered. He criticizes “pictoriality”, propagating an innovative, creative and productive photography. He regards seriality as one of the main features of the practice of photography and opposes the “aura” of the one-off work in contrast to the infinite multifariousness of the photographic clich‡, thus anticipating one of Walter Benjamin’s theses.

For Moholy-Nagy the ability of a work of art to create something new (a basic feature of Modernism) is a key criterion. He postulates for painting, photography and film a moral and aesthetic imperative – the New. Art had to confront new times and an industrial civilization. In the systematic implementation of this thesis 1926 turns out to be the year in which his pictorial output was greater than his works in other fields, but 1927 witnesses a positive flood of photographic, scenographic, kinetic and film productions. Painting iss something he never abandoned. He decides to drop the representational painting inherited from the past and to devote himself to non-representational or “pure” painting instead. The emergence of photography gives painting the perfect opportunity to free itself from all figurative or representative imperatives. Artists do not have to decide in favour of one medium or another, but should use all media to capture and master an optical creation.

Image: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Carnival
Composition with two masks
ca. 1934
Photograph, Dye Transfer
23 x 16,8 cm
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
˜ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

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