The Art of Light in Budapest

Moholy-Nagy László (1895 – 1946). The Art of Light
9 June 2011. – 25 Sept 2011.
Exhibition Review By Judit Bernát

Moholy-Nagy László: Nuclear II (1946). Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art, Milwaukee. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011

Nowadays there is one hot thing to see in Budapest, and it is not the Danube or the Buda castle, but the Moholy-Nagy László exhibition at LUMU. And I am not saying this because I was born and live in Budapest and am used to the monuments of the city. Okay, maybe, but it only effects 30% of my reasoning.

Who is Moholy? Why is it a worthy exposition? I am going to tell you all, but if you are in Budapest – now or in the next month – or even close to, I am begging you to come, come and see for yourself.
Moholy-Nagy László is the outstanding figure of twentieth-century avant-garde. In his versatile activities the light was the central ordering principle which determined his paintings, sculptures, collages, photographs, films and typographical works. Clearly this explains the title of the exhibition: The Art of Light.

Moholy said that art is hierarchy-free, accessible to all people, can be cultivated by everyone, and believed deeply in the role of art education. He even opened the School of Design in Chicago, in 1944 this became the Institute of Design and it was the first institution in the United States to offer a PhD in design. The Bauhaus has a major impact on all Moholy’s life and work. It is no surprise because the Bauhaus was more than a school: it implemented a unit of art, life and science. After 1937 when he settled in Chicago, he founded the “New Bauhaus” and remained an experimental, innovative artist and theorist until his death in 1946.

Back then photography and film not only meant new in technical terms but also in nature, it fundamentally challenged the traditional principles of art, including the individuality of works of art and the significance of the artist’s personal involvement. Moholy said that “photography freed painting from the role of representation” – and he couldn’t have said it better. He did not see the perfect tool in photography for mapping reality either, he was convinced that the camera and film recorders are to be explored, and hold new opportunities for modern people, and will finally free the arts from the pressure of the representation and the imitation of reality. His whole artistic work was wrapped around this image of ​​the arts and its mediums and so is this exhibition with a complete representation of the wide range of his works. At LUMU they say it also redeems an old debt, because there were no shows like this about Moholy-Nagy in Hungary since 1975, not even in 1995, the artist’s 100th birthday anniversary.

On entering the exhibition hall early photomontages with diverse titles from ‘Kinetic constructive system’ (1922) to ‘Jealousy’ (1924-27) and a larger painting called ‘Nuclear’ from 1944 can be seen. The painting is carefully measured, with precise brushwork and color choice. If you get a chance to stay real close to it then you see that there is a whole movement and space in it. When I saw it I had positive feelings about the whole exhibition even though I haven’t seen it all yet.


Moholy-Nagy László Jealousy (1924-27) Photoplastic. Victoria&Albert Museum, London. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011
Moholy-Nagy László Jealousy (1924-27) Photoplastic. Victoria&Albert Museum, London. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011


I went to the next room where my face was immediately melted by what I call The Master constructivist Abstract painting, official title: ‘K VII’.


Moholy-Nagy László: K VII (1922). Tate, London. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011
Moholy-Nagy László: K VII (1922). Oil on canvas. Tate, London. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011

I have seen a lot, still not enough though, of this kind of paintings. This was different. And not just because of the awesome title. First time in my life the idea of making a reproduction came to my mind. Not because I could do it but because then I could get closer to this painting. And he made it in 1922!  He was 27 year old, and it was 1922! Well, I was pretty much ashamed of myself (not as a “painter”, more as a human being), and started to feel insignificant in the presence of the painting. There is this red line, thin red line in the middle of it, the painting needs that thin red line; it is the paintings oxygen for its perfect pastel colors.

So as the painting is released from the pressure of representation, the color will be the subject of it – thought Moholy, and said that it is “clear and direct without mimesis”. I think that is beautiful and true, and I certainly say this with all my bias, with all my critical attitude against figurative postmodern art. I cannot be objective in art, it is impossible.
Moholy’s ultimate goal in art was to create a constantly throbbing, moving image playing with shadows and reflections. He wanted to go past the imitative photography so he moved to creative photography, such as the photogram (camera-free photography), photoplastics (photomontage and drawings), and creative photography using camera, all with great emphasis on photographing structures, textures, surfaces and non-conventional photography.

Moholy is famous for what he called photogram, it is also known as the rayogram (named after another experimenting gentleman, Man Ray). It refers to the above mentioned ‘camera-free photography’, where the light is the new medium of the artwork and is used autonomously. In this kind of photography the most important asset is not the camera but the light-sensitive emulsion. It conveys richer and more significant information about the nature of the photographic process unlike ‘camera photographs’, that are without consciousness, created by mechanical means. The photogram is a non-reproducible artwork, much like a painting.

Moholy-Nagy László: Untitled (1929). Photogram. Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011
Moholy-Nagy László: Untitled (1929). Photogram. Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011


Other parts of the exhibition feature the artist’s films in restored form and are presented like this now for the first time. The Moholy-Nagy exhibition features about 200 works of art and documents from more than twenty museums (Tate, Whitney, Tokyo Metropolitan etc) and from private collections around the world and it is open for the audience until the end of September 2011.

In the end I think this little story from Ellen Frank tells all about Moholy’s artworks or their influence on humans. They visited Finland, Sweden and Norway together. Frank writes in a letter: “In 1930, for the first time he sold two of his large enamel paintings for a serious price to an American copper magnate. He loved Moholy’s style: when he could not sleep at night, he turned on the light in his bedroom and looked at the two paintings on the wall opposite. Then immediately clean and good feelings flew inside him and could sleep again.”


Moholy-Nagy László: Untitled (ca. 1938). Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011
Moholy-Nagy László: Untitled (ca. 1938). Photogram. Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur. ©Hattula Moholy-Nagy/VEGAP 2011



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