Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, László Moholy-Nagy Experiment in Totality, New York 1950, pp. 11-12
László Moholy-Nagy’s photogram series is a renouncement of classical drawing techniques and an embrace of modern technology. It is an attempt to learn to see the world with modern eyes. Divorced from the material substances of traditional painting and married to the principles of modernity, the present work offers intriguing substitutes for both pigment and paintbrush. The result is a series of exquisite images created solely from light, of which Untitled (Dessau) is particularly arresting example epitomising Moholy-Nagy’s revolutionary contribution to twentieth-century art.
The present work is believed to be a portrait of Moholy-Nagy's first wife Lucia Moholy. It is a diptych silhouette: a bisected composition in which illustrious softness merges shades of grey with abrupt flashes of bright white. The shades of grey materialise from the grips of darkness and disappear again creating a haunting and fleeting image: the distorted features of a hand and face. Confronting the viewer with a captivating flooding of light, the figure’s hand and profile become removed from the world of everyday experience, unrecognisable and uncanny. The human head, the very seat of consciousness, and the hand, the very tool of creation, are an apparition of light amidst the cosmic darkness.
Moholy-Nagy was a prominent teacher and author at the Bauhaus who devoted his career to the relationship of light to material, space, and time, with the aim of extending the boundaries of natural perception. After being asked to join the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius, he became the prodigy of Johannes Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop and co-taught the preliminary course together with Josef Albers. Moholy-Nagy played a crucial role in bringing the school closer to its original aim of integrating design and industrialisation. It was during his time in Weimar that Moholy-Nagy developed the photogram as a medium of artistic expression by controlling artificial sources of light and darkroom photographic paper. A photogram is a picture created using the same materials as photograph, such as light sensitive paper, but one made without the use of a camera. The process enabled the artist to lift the objects free from the photographic paper, revealing the item from a plethora of different angels. The resulting effect is a poetic projection of the object, a translucent and abstract depiction of the human form. Moholy-Nagy believed that photography was able to evoke a new way of seeing the world, which is hidden to the plain human eye.
Moholy-Nagy’s esteem for photographic creations is evident in his writings: “We must at all costs work toward reinstating the profound responsibility of the photographer, who, with the given photographic means, can create a work that cannot be created in the same way with any other means” (cited in: László Mohly-Nagy, 'Wohin geht die fotografische Entwicklung?', Agfa-Photobläter, No. 9, March 1932, p. 272). Moholy-Nagy’s photograms from the Bauhaus Dessau years, which indeed includes Untitled (Dessau), is the zenith of his artistic oeuvre. During the Dessau years, the photogram became Moholy-Nagy’s dominant medium of artistic expression, triumphing over all other art forms that had preoccupied him during his Bauhaus years.
In 1928, Moholy-Nagy left the Bauhaus where Marianne Brandt took over his role as Head if the Metal Workshop. He established his own design studio in Berlin, where he worked closely with Kurt Schwitters, Theo van Doesburg and Laszlar El Lissitzky. His work as a graphic designer in these years were strongly influenced by his connections to the De Stijl movement, which in turn sought inspiration from the Bauhaus. After the National Socialists seized power in 1934, Moholy-Nagy had to flee the country and settled in the US. Here, he founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago, suggesting that the Bauhaus continued to influence Moholy-Nagy for the rest of his life.
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