The profound influence of the Bauhaus School, which included training in crafts and fine arts, is inestimable. Over a 14-year period, its innovative methods, utilitarian philosophy and utopian social vision transformed art, architecture and design for the modern age.
Established in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, the school boasted a teaching faculty of world-class practitioners that included Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers. In comparison with these esteemed artists, however, the significance of Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, another key member of the school’s teaching ensemble, is somewhat less known.
“Moholy-Nagy in Motion” at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, in Kanagawa Prefecture, is Japan’s first retrospective of the artist’s work, chronologically presenting more than 300 creations from his wide-ranging career as it reanalyzes his legacy for the 21st century.
Born Laszlo Weisz in 1895 in Bacsborsod, Hungary, Moholy-Nagy trained as a lawer, but began to pursue an artistic career after serving in the Germany-allied Austro-Hungarian army during World War I.
Capturing those formative years, “Moholy-Nagy in Motion” displays drawings of daily life as a soldier. While other similarly figurative paintings and drawings highlight Moholy-Nagy’s early, Expressionistic tendencies, an acute shift in his creative output emerges as the exhibition follows the Hungarian’s move to Germany.
The painting, “Architecture 1 or Construction on a Blue Ground” (1922), showcases a precarious equilibrium of intertwining geometric lines of red, yellow, green and black on a curve of white against a navy-blue background. As a work of complete abstraction, Moholy-Nagy proffers Russian Constructivism as a strong influence in this statement of the Hungarian’s impending artistic path.
Shifting effortlessly between numerous mediums, the artist’s preoccupation with abstract geometric forms evolves. Among diagrammatic abstract drawings, collage works, typographical design and observational photography are the artist’s experiments with photograms — creating images by placing objects on photosensitive paper and exposing it to light — one example of Moholy-Nagy’s expansion of artistic vocabulary with technology.
The remarkable “Construction in Enamel 2” (1923) — which, due to the unforeseen circumstances surrounding the recent Great Eastern Japan Earthquake is unfortunately now absent from this exhibition, along with a handful of other works — also evidences the Hungarian’s ground-breaking use of new media. The painting, which was created by a workshop technician who received instructions dictated to him by Moholy-Nagy via the then relatively new invention of the telephone, preempts by a considerable number of years the iconic “mass-produced” artworks of the 1960s.
The mid- to late-’20s highlight a furthering fusion of art and technology, including Moholy-Nagy’s “Bauhaus photography,” his witty “photoplastic” (photomontage) art, and printing publications employing “new typography.” This plethora of individual works, however, finds greater coherence after viewing the kinetic sculpture “Light Space Modulator (Light Prop for an Electric Stage)” (1922-30) and the corresponding film “Light Play: Black-White-Gray” (1930).
Entering a dimmed room, the futuristic, motorized “Light Space Modulator” (1923-1930) is an unfathomable harmony of rotating metallic geometric shapes that pirouettes as a glass corkscrew form twists from its base and a wooden ball rolls from side to side due to the motion of the construction. Projected beams of red, white and blue cast exaggerated shadows that form diagrammatic-like wall drawings.
While “Light Play: Black-White-Gray” is a film that takes the “Light Space Modulator” as its subject, the work does not simply document the sculpture. Through filmic techniques, such as overlaying, close-ups and negative film, Moholy-Nagy produced an abstracted, dynamic work radically removed from its original source. Essentially, these pivotal pieces embody the artist’s decade-long experimentation with light, form and movement through processes of production and creation.
“Moholy-Nagy in Motion” closes with the artist’s migration to first England and finally America. Although the display of intriguing stage art, advertising design and paintings portray the artist’s tireless creativity and consistency of artistic vision, artworks of that period generally lack the vitality of his earlier years.
Though Moholy-Nagy died of leukemia in 1946, he was acutely aware of the legacy he would leave behind from an early stage of his career. As Tomoyo Sanbonmatsu, associate curator of The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, points out, “He always thought about his contribution to art and to society (including) his activities at the Bauhaus.”
As a versatile, multiple-media artist, however, Moholy-Nagy’s significance extends beyond that of innovative arts educator and his role as a pioneer of media-art; he epitomized the future modern artist.
“Moholy-Nagy in Motion” at The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, runs till July 10; admission ¥1,100; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp.
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