Seeing the light
Although he died of leukaemia in 1946 aged only 51, Lßszl¾ Moholy-Nagy was one of the most significant artists of the 20th century.
His prodigious output, encompassing media including painting, sculpture, photography, film and typography, transcended traditional artistic boundaries. He was an impassioned teacher and theoretician, expounding his philosophy of a 'new vision' appropriate to the evolving machine age in seminal works such as Von Material zu Architektur (1929) and Vision in Motion (1947).
In addition, observing Walter Gropius' Bauhaus dictum of Art and Technology - A New Unity, Moholy was concerned to apply his artistic precepts to practical ends, especially to modes of mass communication such as graphic design and advertising.
A peripatetic lifestyle saw him move from his native Hungary to Vienna in 1919, and thereafter to Berlin, the Bauhaus at both Weimar and Dessau, Amsterdam, London, and finally Chicago in 1937, where he founded the influential Institute of Design on Bauhaus lines. This life was mirrored in his art, which was characterised by experimentation and an irrepressible dynamism.
Both these qualities are apparent in this Construction (Perg 1) (1932).
By the time of this latter work, Moholy had become increasingly equivocal about painting, and had turned instead to photography as the best means of fulfilling his self-appointed role of Lichtner or user of light. This is most evident in a remarkable series of photograms that can seem more like fugitive apparitions than material constructs. No wonder Moholy referred to them as 'breaths of light'.
Compare these with the materiality of his photoplastics (photomontages), such as the often reproduced Leda and the Swan (1925). Although a typical bird's eye view of a Rothenburg Street (undated) is displayed, photography per se is given shorter shrift, and Dusk on the Playing Fields of Eton (1936), with two pupils in full Eton attire, seems more noteworthy for the disjunction between artist and subject matter than for any intrinsic merit.
This Eton photograph is the only exhibit from Moholy's brief English sojourn (1935-37), that saw him work as an exhibition designer for Simpson's in Piccadilly, create a special issue of The Architectural Review on the seaside in July 1936, and make a film about the new architecture of London Zoo.
It is all the more surprising, then, that this is the first major show in the UK devoted to Moholy since 1980. As the V&A prepares for its 2006 blockbuster on Modernism, a full-blown retrospective of the artist even the otherwise enlightened patron Frank Pick dismissed as 'a gentleman with a modernistic tendency who produces pastiches of photographs of a surrealist type', would be apt. In the meantime, savour this exhibition.
Robert Elwall is the curator of the RIBA photographs collection