Possibly, the photographer to Vladimir Mayakovsky, Moscow, before 1929
Christian Zervos, Paris, not later than 1929
Acquired by the present owner from Stefan Lennert, London, 1982
Princeton University, The Art Museum, In Celebration: Works of Art from the Collection of Princeton and Friends of the Art Museum, February - June 1997
This unique image by Moholy-Nagy comes from the first generation of photograms he produced in the 1920s. Made without a camera, by placing objects directly on or over the sheet of photographic paper, this photogram embodies an animated composition rendered with Moholy-Nagy's characteristic nuance and clarity. The photogram is further enhanced by extensive notations written by Moholy-Nagy on the reverse, which give detailed information about the practical conception of the composition, as well as some clues about this object's provenance. Moholy-Nagy's notations on the reverse of this photogram, in translation, are as follows:
'to Mr Zervos Moholy-Nagy
1 the metal case of a roll film
1 child's rattle
What is important here:
a new dimension given through light which can only be captured through this photographic means and through no other means'
Moholy's list of the 'material' that went into the making of this photogram belies the complexity of the photographer's technique and the transformative effect of the photogram process as he practiced it. Through Moholy-Nagy's manipulations, the objects transcend their quotidian associations and become instead pure abstracted elements within a precise and deliberate composition.
The brown tonality and glossy surface of this print are characteristic of the 'printing-out' paper Moholy-Nagy favored early on in his experiments with the photogram. This type of photographic paper, with a silver-chloride emulsion, required sunlight, as opposed to artificial light, for exposure. A darkroom was not required, and the paper offered the significant benefit, from Moholy-Nagy's perspective, of visibly changing in reaction to light during the exposure, so that he could see the photogram image emerge on the paper and better guide the process. Around 1923, Moholy-Nagy fundamentally shifted his approach to the photogram by making them instead in the darkroom with conventional 'developing-out' photographic paper.
As evidenced by the first part of the inscription on the back of the present photogram, 'à Mr. Zervos, Paris,' it was sent by Moholy-Nagy to Christian Zervos, publisher and editor of the seminal arts journal, Cahiers d'Art, and later the creator of the catalogue raisonné on Pablo Picasso. Zervos was almost certainly in possession of this photogram by 1929, when he published two other Moholy-Nagy photograms in Cahiers d'Art (cf. Heyne, Neussüs, et al., fgm 162 and fgm 293). The photogram offered here is believed to have been sent for Zervos's consideration at the same time as the published works. Significantly, as with this photogram, both of the published photograms have similar procedural inscriptions by Moholy-Nagy on the reverse. For the present image, he has utilized a spool for roll film which appears below and to the left of center; a child's rattle – the large object with the figure-8 handle and circular, drum-like top; and a muzzle, the obscure shape in the lower right portion of the image.
When this photogram was purchased by its present owner in 1982, it was understood that, along with Christian Zervos, the great Russian poet and editor Vladimir Mayakovsky had been in possession of the piece at some point, although the exact chain of provenance is unclear. One of the Moholy-Nagy photograms published by Zervos in Cahiers d'Art in 1929 had an explicit Mayakovsky provenance. On the reverse of the published photogram (fgm 293), now in the collection of the Getty Museum, Moholy-Nagy has inscribed 'es gëhort Majakovski' ('it belongs to Mayakovsky'). Moholy-Nagy's strong connections to the Russian avant-garde are well known, and he encountered Mayakovsky during the poet's many visits to Berlin in the 1920s. A 1924 photograph by Moholy-Nagy of Mayakovsky at the railway station in Berlin was used as the cover illustration for a memorial publication dedicated to the writer after his death in 1930. Mayakovsky authority Dr. Bengt Jangfeldt considers it possible that these photograms were to be used in Lef, Mayakovsky's arts and literature journal in which he propagated western leftist art by John Heartfield and George Grosz, among others, as well as that of the Russian Alexander Rodchenko.
The last portion of Moholy-Nagy's inscription, under the heading 'Wichtig ist dabei' ('what is important'), conveys his enthusiasm for the photogram technique, and emphasizes his belief in its viability as a wholly new medium for expression. For Moholy-Nagy, the photogram was the essence of photographic image-making: 'The photogram, or cameraless record of forms produced by light, which embodies the unique nature of the photographic process, is the real key to photography' (A New Instrument of Vision, 1933). Moholy-Nagy reasoned that the value of the photogram to the medium of photography was such that 'Anybody who has once mastered the meaning of writing with light in producing photographs without a camera (photograms) will obviously be able to work with a camera' (Photography is Manipulation of Light, 1928). The photogram became a core concept for his ever-evolving curriculum for photography.
The photogram offered here perfectly characterizes Moholy-Nagy's approach to this deceptively simple photographic technique. The film roll was clearly placed directly on the photographic paper for the exposure, and is rendered here with crisp white edges. A portion of the rattle rested directly on the paper as well, at the base of the handle – which intersects artfully with the film roll – and at its circular head. These areas of contact show greater sharpness, while the portions of the shape not touching the paper are slightly more diffuse in appearance. The muzzle was very likely suspended over the paper during exposure (or was perhaps only present for a portion of the exposure's duration) and appears here as a highly abstracted and enigmatic shape. The rattle and muzzle appear together in another photogram by Moholy-Nagy: fgm 246. The rattle and muzzle appear individually in fgm 247 and fgm 288, respectively.
This photogram was not known to the compilers of Moholy-Nagy, The Photograms: Catalogue Raisonné (Ostfildern, 2009) prior to the Catalogue's publication. It has since been shown, in reproduction, to Renate Heyne, an editor of the volume, and has been issued the number fgm 422. It will appear in a future edition of, or addendum to, the Catalogue Raisonné.
Sothebys thanks Renate Heyne, Bengt Jangfeldt, David King, Virginia Heckert, and Steve Yates for their assistance in researching this photogram.
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