Thursday, July 23, 2015

From Painter to Designer

“The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant
of the use of the camera as well as the pen.”
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

An early advocate of the integration of art and technology the Hungarian born artist/designer/teacher Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s prophecy has become the reality of the 21st Century.

A famed teacher at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, who was to later introduce the ideals of Berlin’s influential school to Chicago, Moholy-Nagy abandoned painting in favor of photography and design.
As he has said “The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.”

Moholy-Nagy discovered his ability to draw whilst serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I with the postcards he sent to his family. Upon his discharge he completed his law degree and took up painting.

As his daughter and executor of his estate, Hattula, told the Chicago Reader "His works back then were figurative, expressionistic, inspired by Rembrandt and van Gogh. He experimented too, making collages of paper strips of juxtaposed colors. He held the old-world view of the supremacy of painting, even though he was part of the avant-garde…Berlin was the Big Apple of eastern and central Europe in those years, and Moholy-Nagy's time there was decisive for his career. Russian constructivism, with its elimination of the personal, had a huge influence, as did its belief in improving society through art."

It was during his five years at the Bauhaus that Moholy-Nagy expanded his repertoire of art production. As his daughter recounts “"He painted on canvas, aluminum, and new kinds of plastics; continued to work with paper collages; produced prints and sculptures of wood, glass, and metal. He made several short films, one of which recorded the movements and light effects produced by a kinetic sculpture he designed. He discovered the photogram again, which is an image created without a camera. He manipulated light and shadow so ordinary items could be transformed into abstract compositions of luminous ambiguous forms."

The rise of Nazism saw Moholy-Nagy move to England via Holland and in 1936 his paintings were removed from German galleries after being designated as "degenerate art".

In 1937 he was lured to America by a group of Chicago businessmen to recreate a Bauhaus type school to train industrial designers. I was a short term effort and folded after a year. Undaunted Moholy-Nagy resurrected the idea and created the School of Design a year later which after five years became the Institute of Design and was subsequently incorporated into the Illinois Institute of Technology becoming the first United States institution to offer a PhD in design.

Starting out as a painter, Moholy-Nagy wrote at the end of WWI "It is my gift to project my vitality, my building power, through light, colour, form. I can give life as a painter." His subsequent career embraced a much broader view of the painters craft and he is remembered fondly by his daughter as "this open-minded, learned man--a secular humanist who imagined a better world through design."

An exhibition The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come is currently on show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art until the 27th of September.

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