It need hardly be said again that Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was one of Modernism’s primary figures, whose art, writing, and life remain for many a continuing inspiration. He was a polyartist, a true polyartist, who made consequential contributions to the traditions of several nonadjacent arts—painting, book design, artistic machinery, and photography—amidst lesser achievements in film, theater design, commercial design, and sculpture. He proceeded through modern arts with admirable abandon, producing first-rate work in arts he was not trained to do. What is special about him is the incomparable range of his achievements.

Given the breadth of his creative experience, complemented by his artistic intelligence, it is scarcely surprising that his Vision in Motion (Chicago, 1946) remains one of the most fertile critical treatments of modernism in the arts. Even after a dozen readings, it reveals new insights to me. Its concluding chapter, on “Literature,” remains, no less than two generations later, the best introductory survey to the extreme avant-garde traditions (literary intermedia) as we currently know them. Since he died nearly 40 years ago, the time would seem right for a critical biography updating the memoir Experiment in Totality (1948), done by his widow Sibyl.

One practical problem is that few scholars have sufficient knowledge, critical intelligence, and conceptual language to deal with his polyartistic achievement. A second problem is that Moholy-Nagy was born in Hungary; and since Hungarian cannot be learned (apparently)—it can only be inherited—the project had to wait for a Hungarian scholar familiar with artistic modernism, Krisztina Passuth.

Opening at random her new Moholy-Nagy, I came across this exercise in Marxist double-talk and feared for the rest:

The Gabo-Pevsner manifesto of 1920 was born in the afterglow of revolution [sic lower ease]. But Moholy-Nagy had to live with the knowledge of a defeated revolution [in Hungary], one in which. moreover, he played no role at all [sic sic sic]. He adopted the ideas of Constructivism without the necessary basis of a social-political background. [So?] Although he was regarded as a representative of Constructivism, he himself did not look for any contact with the Soviet Union and, unlike other Hungarian emigres [in Western Europe], he never visited there. The new ideas he professed are indeed lacking in roots.

The party-line reasoning is depressingly familiar.

Fortunately, most of Passuth’s Moholy-Nagy is better than this, though often incomplete. Fluently Englished (by several hands), her book has the fullest description of Moholy’s childhood that I have yet read, though avoiding the questions of whether his parents with Jewish names were indeed Jewish and of this orphan’s actual relation to his two “brothers.” She refers to the short stories written in Hungarian, but alas does not quote from them. Given the breadth of Moholy-Nagy’s activity, it is scarcely surprising that Passuth’s appreciation of it is uneven. She speaks well of him as the editor of the Bauhaus books, the first great series on artistic modernism, but then says little about his influential innovations in book design for that series! Passuth reprints several Moholy manifestos (reminders that few artists ever wrote so well, and truly, about their own work); yet as several of these had already appeared in books about Moholy before (including mine), it would have been wiser to reprint other writings of his that had not.

The supreme achievement of Passuth’s Moholy-Nagy is its collection of reproductions—the largest I have ever seen—of paintings, sculptures, book designs, stage designs, costume designs, and even the Parker 51 pen, which remains perhaps the most-collected work by any major modern artist. Nonetheless, the principal fault of the book is a reluctance to follow Moholy’s example in design. Whereas the illustrations in his Vision in Motion appear adjacent to references to them in the text, her pictures are gathered together in separate folios, connected only to the text through numbered references. Since flipping the book’s large pages can be so cumbersome, most of us are likely to “read” the text and pictures separately.

Sometimes Passuth’s commentary rises to meet the originality and adventure of Moholy’s best innovations:

It is clear that as early as 1920 Moholy-Nagy was already captivated by the industrial civilization of Berlin. Paintings and photographs conveyed this only indirectly, but film could express all the tense animation. Since he was unable to make a film in 1921-22 in Berlin, he chose a roundabout route by creating a new genre with his Dynamic of the Metropolis, Sketch of a Manuscript for a Film. This genre, which he called “typophoto” and which we might call a scenario, was the unique result of Moholy-Nagy’s dual bent for literature and painting. . . . Real photographs alternated with parts of the text, and the page make-up with its columns showed the influence of El Lissitzky and Hans Arp’s Kunstismen. The idea of the film—in written form only—most resembles the earlier film experiments of Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter. Their rectangular frames of film arranged vertically show a series of almost unvarying abstract forms. Their works primarily belong to the field of fine arts. On the other hand, by lengthening and condensing individual moments, and by introducing unexpected cuts and changes, Moholy-Nagy created a film on paper—if this is possible at all—in pictures and text.

As a combination of appreciation for the visual and the verbal, along with a sense of historical context, this is just perfect.

One reason why this Moholy-Nagy is not definitive is that Passuth only partially confronts the two toughest questions about his career—collaboration and plagiarism. Since Moholy’s education was only in law, he was necessarily dependent upon the contributions of others. Aside from suggesting that his first wife Lucia Moholy did the darkroom work for his best photography, Passuth avoids the knotty problem of identifying consequential collaborators and reapportioning credit. As for plagiarism, the thought appears not to have occurred to Passuth, even though it was a charge frequently made by his contemporaries. I tended to regard the charge skeptically, thinking it alloyed with envy, until I saw in Eberhard Roters’ recent Berlin, 1910-1933 (Rozzoli, 1982) a 1929 Moholy backdrop stage design that scandalously resembles Paul Citroen’s classic photomontage of The Metropolis (1922). What compounds this scandal is the fact that Citroen had been Moholy’s student at the Bauhaus only a few years before!

But as a comprehensive treatment of Moholy-Nagy’s work, Passuth’s book surpasses several others on Moholy that have appeared recently, including Eleanor M. Hight’s informative catalogue for a film and photographic exhibition currently traveling through America, Andreas Haus’s Moholy-Nagy: Photographs & Photograms (Pantheon, 1980), and Irene-Charlotte Lusk’s Montagen ins Blaue (Anabas, 1980) on the photocollages. Partial interpretations, simply by limiting their scope, reduce Moholy to a journeyman, laboring among others similar in kind, rather than an extraordinarily creative figure. Because Moholy’s achievement transcends the pigeonholes of American scholarship (and, worse yet, of our narrow-minded scholarship-support), perhaps it is not so surprising that the best book on him should come from behind the Iron Curtain. In truth, reading Moholy-Nagy gave me chills, reminding me of my first discovery of his heroic example and reconfirming my earlier estimate of his continuing importance.


[Moholy-Nagy, by Krisztina Passuth (New York: Thames & Hudson) $40.00]