Technical detours – The early Moholy-Nagy reconsidered (1916-1923)

- 25 April 2008- 24 August 2008


The discovery of a ghostly image on the back of Architektur 1, The Salgo Trust for Education’s early International Constructivist painting by László Moholy-Nagy, provided the impulse for this exhibition. Removal of the whitewash layer revealed an intriguing monument of Moholy-Nagy’s early painterly oeuvre, a hybrid example of his Ackerfeld (Farm-field) and mechano-Dada series. This painting is emblematic of the stylistic and conceptual search he was engaged in after his arrival in Berlin as a penniless emigrant from Hungary early in 1920. The two-sided object in its entirety may be regarded as an embodiment of the struggle the artist was undergoing to develop an autonomous mode of working. By early 1922, Moholy-Nagy arrived at the signature abstract painterly style he would continue to develop for some years.

That same summer, in a series of articles, he formulated the ideas that established his life-long aesthetic and pedagogical project: a utopian belief in a just society rooted in Hungarian Activism; an approach to teaching deriving from the German Jugendbewegung (Youth Movement) and Lebensreformbewegung (Life Reform Movement) that regarded humans as part of the organic whole of “Life” and saw art as a means by which to realize our potential; a Bogdanovian “Tectological” understanding of the universe as an interplay of energies rather than of matter; and a conception of our ability not only to educate our sensorium, but to actually expand our sensory capacities.

This conceptual synthesis was the culmination of a process that began early in 1918, when, on the pages of the journal Jelenkor, the young soldier, law student and poet László Nagy reinvented himself as the artist “László Moholy-Nagy.” Moholy-Nagy’s experiences as a budding poet in the Jelenkor circle and then, as an aspiring avant-garde artist in the ambient of Lajos Kassák, his journal Ma (Today) and his movement of Hungarian Activists, laid the groundwork for the development of his career as an artist and theorist.

In his 1926 article “Directness of the Intellect – Detours of Technology” (bauhaus, no. 1, 1926), Moholy-Nagy wrote that “‘detours of technology’ means, that in reality all paths for the achievement of a goal are longer and more complicated than they should be when seen by the mind.” While he has often been seen as a techno-centric engineer-artist, this statement is an indication of the fact that, on closer examination, Moholy-Nagy almost always privileged ideas and the senses over technology, both in his writings and in his art. This combination of intellectualism and sensuality rooted in his upbringing and his education are powerfully in evidence in his early poetry, and it is the poetic nature of his later work that is often overlooked. During the early years of his artistic career, from 1916 to 1923, Moholy-Nagy took a number of “technical detours” in his work. He lacked the kind of coherent vision in his art and thinking that could have avoided these byways. But during these years, he was alsoexraordinarily open to new ideas and new ways of thinking about living, and the sheer wealth of these new ideas is precisely what makes this period of his career so fascinating. By the summer of 1922, he had combined these ideas in an original manner and was well on his way to formulating a particular synthesis of pedagogy and aesthetics, the balance of “nature” and “technology,” as he put in an article he wrote for the Kolozsvár journal Korunk in 1933.

Inspired by this two-sided painting looking back to the artist’s unsettled early years and forward to his successful career, this exhibition concerns Moholy-Nagy’s artistic development up to the time he was hired to the Bauhaus early in 1923. We sincerely hope that our reconsideration of his early years will result in fresh understandings of him as an important Hungarian artist, art educator, and theorist.

Oliver A. I. Botar, Guest Curator

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