Moholy-Nagy 1 (Giedion on M-N in 1936)

In 1936 the first (double) issue of the journal Telehor1 was published — as it turned out, the only issue of the journal ever to appear. It was dedicated to the work of László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and included a ‘Foreword’ by Moholy-Nagy’s longtime close friend,2 Sigfried Giedion (1888-1968).

In the course of his ‘Foreword’, Giedion refers to “that long-term development, for which a few hundred people dispersed throughout the modern world are today preparing the foundations”. When he met the just-turned 33 year-old McLuhan in St Louis in the summer of 1943 (the same summer in which McLuhan met Wyndham Lewis) Giedion seems to have recognized him as one of these “few hundred people”. He immediately recommended him to the University of Chicago — in the immediate proximity to the Institute of Design where Moholy-Nagy was already at work. Since Giedion knew everybody who was anybody in the European avant garde — including James Joyce — this was a high compliment to the obscure English professor.

Here is Giedion’s contribution with comments added here in footnotes:

Sigfried Giedion, Zürich

The Position in 1935
More than a third of the present century lies behind us. A retrospective glance shows us that at approximately the same period in the preceding century all the problems which were destined to determine the evolution of art up to and beyond its close had already manifested themselves.

Not withstanding that the conditions of today differ entirely from those of a hundred years ago, it is still possible to predict the general trend of future development. Such a prediction is based, not on mere guess-work, but on a critical estimation of the prognostic significance of the aims which have informed the technique of painters during the last three decades.

A long phase is ahead of us
Although the various movements in art that are of prime importance for us to-day may differ in origin, they are nevertheless inspired by a common aim: to bridge the fatal rift between reality and sensibility which the 19th century had tolerated, and indeed encouraged. The urge behind all of [these new movements in art] is the attempt to give an emotive content to the new sense of reality born of modern science and industry, and thereby restore the basic unity of all human experience. Neither temporary confusion nor momentary retrogression must blind us to the fact that we are witnessing the opening phase of what is bound to be a prolonged period in the evolution of art.

All these new tendencies in art have one thing in common: they seek to penetrate beyond its purely formal aspects, each in its own way is striving to create emotive symbols proper to our new conception of life and thus hopes to regain the power of contributing to the task of reshaping the modern world we live in. In other words they are all bent on restoring that essential reciprocity between art and life.3 The methods by which this transformation of our visual perception could be attained were discovered in the decade 1909-1923 (the war-years being naturally considered as inoperative, although developments were not entirely suspended during that interregnum). In most intellectual centres new movements began to emerge, all of which recognised in their several ways that the old conceptions of the three-dimensionality of space (perspective) and the naturalistic reproduction of objects that had held undisputed sway since the renaissance were inadequate for our new projection of the visible world. This advance will in all probability prove as decisive for the future as did the revolution in art which bears that name [namely, futurism]4 for the epoch immediately preceding our own.

Berlin in 1920
Like most other large capitals, Berlin was a focus of artistic activity about the year 1920. For those imbued with the desire to enlarge the field of our optical perceptions, most of the new movements in art were then coming to the fore there, although as a rule in relative obscurity; and many young artists who were unknown and without influence were beginning to reach maturity.

There were working in Berlin at that time, among others, the Dadaists Kurt Schwitters, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hanna Hoch; the Swedish film-experimentalist, Viking Eggeling, who laid the foundations of the abstract film; the Russian Constructivists [El] Lissitzki and [Naum] Gabo, and the Russian sculptor [Alexander] Archipenko; the Hungarians [László] Moholy-Nagy and [László] Peri; the Dutch architects [J.J.P.] Oud, [Cornelis] van Eesteren, and [Theo] Doesburg; the Italian painter [Enrico] Prampolini; the Danish architect Lon Bergholm; and the editors of the American paper »Broom«. One of the most important studios in which these people were continually meeting, was that of Moholy-Nagy.

The emotive values latent in modern industry and in the realities of modern life in general were lost on the townsman in much the same way as the peasant of previous ages was irresponsive to the emotional appeal of the landscape. A steel bridge, an airplane-hangar, or the mechanical equipment of a modern factory is as a rule far more stirring to the imagination of those who do not see such things every day of their lives. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the pioneers of the new vision hailed from agricultural countries with little industry of their own. Thus the  Constructivists came from Russia or Hungary. That great innovator Picasso spent his youth remote from the big towns, and it was only after he moved to Paris that he was able to vitalize his consciousness of our age with the qualities he derived from the Moorish tradition of Spain. He it was who bridged the gulf between the last great cultural epoch that had found expression In abstract forms and modern civilisation.

Coming from the outskirts of civilisation, the Russian and Hungarian Constructivists similarly brought fresh energy to the problem of interpreting the realities of to-day.

L. Moholy-Nagy
The Hungarians occupy an intermediate position between the volcanic energy and Slav fantasy of a Russian like Lissitzki and the purified tonal and plane harmonies of a Dutchman like Mondriaan. Among them was László Moholy-Nagy. This young painter had begun his career as a contributor to the activist paper published in Budapest called »Ma«, whose aims were resumed in »das Buch neuer Kunstler« (Vienna, 1922), which he wrote in collaboration with Kassak. In »Ma« a small group of young Hungarians had succeeded in giving a far more precise and coherent expression to their consciousness of our age than the Berlin artistic circles of that day, which were still fettered by expressionism. »Ma« was, in fact, working on parallel lines to »I’esprit nouveau«, in which Corbusier and Ozenfant had been revealing the interdependence of painting, sculpture and the technique of modern industry. After being wounded in the war, Moholy-Nagy came to Berlin in 1920. The paintings and sculpture he exhibited there so much impressed Walter Gropius that he appointed Moholy-Nagy to the staff of the Bauhaus in the spring of 1923. This appointment proved of cardinal importance for Moholy-Nagy’s evolution, since it offered the fullest scope to his gifts as a teacher.

The Bauhaus in 1923
The lasting value of what the Bauhaus achieved was due to its success in
evolving a new systematic method of art training based on recent discoveries in painting. All the most advanced artists in Germany were either attached to the Bauhaus or in close and regular contact with it.

After [Johannes] Itten left the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy was put in charge of the beginners’ course there, where he had the responsibility of preparing young students for the training they were about to embark on; and (on the strength of his metal sculpture) [he was put in charge] of the metallurgical workshop as well. It was only natural that Moholy-Nagy’s preoccupation with various problems connected with light should have led him to make practical experiments with various types of lamps. The manifold activities of the Bauhaus were coordinated by the comprehensive discipline of architecture; and architecture, no less than these more specialized branches of design, obviously called for direct contact with industry, thus the short step from a purely educational investigation of the new concept of optics to active collaboration in the technical improvement of lamp-manufacture was only a logical sequence of events.

The beginners’ course at the Bauhaus
Moholy-Nagy’s book »Vom Material zur Architektur«, which contains his lectures on the basic theories of the Bauhaus teaching during the period 1923-1928

(Bauhaus-Bücher no. 14, Munich, 1929; also published by Harcourt, Brace and Co, New York, under the title of »The New Vision«) explains the method he adopted. It was due to Moholy’s influence that all new movements based on fresh advances In technique were thoroughly investigated and embodied in the curriculum, in order to open the student’s eyes — for instance — to the entirely new effects in material that are implied in Picasso’s collages and only waiting to be discerned. The close concatenation between the artistic evolution of our age and the occult forces of the Zeitgeist which permeate our daily lives has rarely been so impressively demonstrated as in this book.

Problems of light and colour
From his earliest articles in »Ma«, Moholy-Nagy’s contribution has been characterized by a persistent endeavour to fathom the creative potentialities of light and colour. All the same he has always been eager to apply his discoveries to the practical problems of life. There is hardlv any field of artistic creation that Moholy-Nagy has not investigated. In many of them his influence has proved authoritative, his exhibitions, typographical work, publicity lay-outs, light-displays and stage-sets (»the tales of Hoffmann«, 1929; »Madame Butterfly«, 1931; and Piscator’s »Kaufmann von Berlin«, 1931) amply substantiate this claim.

Photography, film
Moholy-Nagy has exercised a decisive influence on photography, where he has systematised its potentialities and in some directions actually extended its scope. From the first he recognised that light in itself must be regarded as a medium of form. It is from this angle that his whole preoccupation with photography and the film should be judged. Moholy-Nagy saw that photography offered the possibility of expanding the existing limits of natural reproduction, and that in spite of its imperfections the camera was a means of increasing the range and precision of visual perception (i.e. in the arresting of movement, bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views, etc). I well remember how, during a holiday we spent together at Belle-Ile-en-Mer in 1925, Moholy-Nagy consistently ignored the usual perspectives and took all his snapshots upwards or downwards. A few years later the surprising artistic effects of foreshortening and of converging vertical lines had become part of the stock-in-trade of every up-to-date photographer. In »Malerei, Fotografie, Film« (Bauhaus-Bücher no. 8, Munich, 1925) Moholy-Nagy developed many stimulating suggestions, and defined the whole province of creative work in light-sensitive media, from ordinary [photography] to camera-less photography (which enables the concrete shapes of objects to be disintegrated into graduations of light and shade), and reflectional light-displays to photo-montage and film (»Dynamik der Großstadt« 1921; »Marseilles Vieux Port« 1929; »Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiß-Grau« 1931; »Großstadtzigeuner« 1932; »Kongreß für neues Bauen«, Athens 1933).

Moholy-Nagy’s painting is the vital thread linking all his manifold activities. There is no break in its development proceeding in a consistent line from his first publications up to the present day. Nor is this all, for today he is feeling the need to resort more and more to this spontaneous fixation of
artistic vision.

These pictures with their clear, optimistic attitude are the harbingers of that long-term development, for which a few hundred people dispersed throughout the modern world are today preparing the foundations.

The vital significance of modern art
The selection of any one single artist for separate study cannot hope to indicate the creative strength of our age, since this resides paramountly in its manifold manifestations, which despite their diversity share the same fundamental consciousness of modern civilization. Nevertheless, the editor of this review was right in choosing Moholy-Nagy as an outstanding example, since his work serves as an admirable reminder to the public that the basic laws of abstract — i.e. non-representational — art have their root in the bed-rock of contemporary realities.

  1. This was the name of a 1919 television construction made by the Hungarian Dénes Mihály (1894-1953), which could transmit still pictures over a distance of some kilometers. He later founded a company with this name, Telehor A.G., to produce television sets. It is not known if McLuhan heard of Telehor (the 1919  television construction and/or the 1936 journal) from Giedion. In any case he would have enjoyed the combination in the word Telehor of tele-vision and tele-hear (hören = to hear in German).
  2. The two had vacationed together in 1925 as described in Giedion’s article.
  3. Giedion’s use of the phrase “formal aspects” here does not mean ‘essential aspects’. Instead it must be associated with his designations of “sensibility”, “emotive” and even “art”.  All have to do with the isolation of the subject (“art”, “formal aspects”) from the object (“reality”, “life”). It was to the transcendence of this isolation or alienation which Giedion saw all contemporary arts directed: “they are all bent on restoring that essential reciprocity between art and life”.
  4. One of the figures associated (in disputed fashion) with the futurists was Guillaume Apollinaire — whose 1913 Alcools was recommended to McLuhan by Giedion shortly after their meeting in 1943. See Giedion on simultaneity.