László Moholy-Nagy, one of the most famous artists associated with the Bauhaus, was never much liked by his colleagues at the famed German art school that lent the 1920s European movement its name. He’d never received a proper art education, and the courses he taught were freeform and, for the time, unfashionably technology-obsessed. Although he developed a loyal following among students, staff members and colleagues were less appreciative of his methods. He ultimately quit his post in 1928, in a dramatic controversy that transcended the German art world.
Moholy-Nagy’s five-year term at the Bauhaus is a relatively small part of his career, however. Arguably, his efforts to reboot the Bauhaus in the U.S., where he fled as the Nazis gained power in Europe, are even more important than his teaching in Germany, a new documentary argues. In 1937, with help from Container Corporation of America chairman Walter Paepcke, Moholy-Nagy created a new art-and-design school in Chicago. Call it Bauhaus 2.0 or, as he did, the New Bauhaus.
There have been numerous attempts to label Moholy-Nagy a forward-thinking luminary. In 2016, when the Guggenheim Museum organized a Moholy-Nagy retrospective, the institution’s curators tried, only somewhat persuasively, to present him as a pioneering figure in the history of art and technology, thanks to his embrace of the then-new mediums of photography and film. Others have tried to position him as a master designer or a trailblazing intellectual.
But, as Alysa Nahmias’s The New Bauhaus convincingly suggests, Moholy-Nagy may actually be most important as an educator. This film gives the artist’s experimental pedagogical practice center stage and shows that, without him, design history—and perhaps art history, too—would not look the same.
In The New Bauhaus, several interviewees ask: If Moholy-Nagy is so important, why doesn’t he have the same stature as someone like Picasso? One answer could be that his ambitions were so grand; it was nearly impossible to achieve his goals. With his abstract paintings, his camera-less photography, and his non-narrative films, Moholy-Nagy sought to initiate a shift in the way people thought. As Joyce Tsai, chief curator of the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, puts it, “You make abstract art not because it looks pretty. You make abstract art because you want to change the world.”
A similar line of thinking guided Moholy-Nagy’s teaching at the New Bauhaus. As in Germany nearly a decade earlier, friends were skeptical of his plans for the school. When he discussed his idea of making the New Bauhaus an institution with a mission of a total merger of art, science, and design. On a weekend in Cape Cod in the late ’30s, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, both key figures at the original Bauhaus, told him he needed to rein in his ambitions. But it was too late: he’d already printed a diagram explaining the New Bauhaus’s program—a ringed circular model with “BASIC DESIGN WORKSHOP” on its outside and things like “TOWN PLANNING” at its core—in brochures about the school.
“The basic idea of the New Bauhaus education is that everyone is talented,” Moholy-Nagy once said. (His words are read aloud in the film by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.) Students were encouraged to try just about anything. But not everyone was pleased with this liberated environment. Some students were confused about why they’d have to study biology and listen to lectures by the then-little-known composer John Cage.
And there was dissent among the funders, too, who found themselves befuddled by what Moholy-Nagy had to offer. Design historian Victoria Matranga says in the film, “The businessmen wanted a vocational school. . . . Moholy had a different view of what education should be.” In the end, the school shuttered in 1938, only a year after its founding. Moholy-Nagy soon filed a suit against its benefactors, who had claimed that he had been “Hitlerizing” the students. (The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.)
Although the New Bauhaus failed, Moholy-Nagy’s next educational venture did not. In 1939, again with financing from Paepcke, he launched the School of Design in Chicago. Like the New Bauhaus, this wasn’t your typical art school. Learning how to use a table saw was more important than devouring theory, workshops took place not in a dedicated school building but atop a bread factory, and the admissions process was hardly rigorous. “How did they vet the students?” asks Art Institute of Chicago curator Elizabeth Siegel. “I think they didn’t vet students at all.” Many students have fond memories of the school, however. “I can’t tell you how exciting a place it was,” says architect and educator Beatrice Takeuchi.
Where the New Bauhaus and the School of Design differ is in what the latter’s students went on to achieve. The graphic designer Nathan Lerner, one of the School of Design’s first students, later created the famed bear-shaped honey bottle that can still be found on supermarket shelves. Robert Brownjohn, who attended the school in the 1940s, ultimately did the opening credits sequence for the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger. As exercises in school, many had to create hand sculptures that could be picked up with ease, with grooves to guide fingers along their surfaces; these objects, Siegel suggests, contributed to the development of ergonomic furniture.
The School of Design also initiated a mini-revolution in photography—which is no surprise, given Moholy-Nagy and his wife Lucia’s longstanding interest in the medium. Harry Callahan was hired to teach at the school, and he then brought on Aaron Siskind as well. Suddenly, a whole crop of young photographers using modernist techniques with a twist began to rise. Aperture, still the foremost photography magazine in the U.S., devoted an entire cover story to the strange, fascinating activity taking place at the school, which in 1944 was rechristened the Institute of Design. “Going to ID changed my life,” the late photographer Barbara Crane recalls.
Moholy-Nagy left the Institute of Design in 1945, and his career was cut short one year later when he died of leukemia. He was only 51, and his achievements were primarily obvious in the unclassifiable art he left behind. Yet as The New Bauhaus argues, the less visible aspects of Moholy-Nagy’s influence—the people he touched and the artists he fostered—are what make him important. He would have likely agreed with this documentary’s stance. As he once said, “I do not believe in art so much as mankind. Man reveals himself. Much of it is art.”
The New Bauhaus will be rentable through video on demand services starting on July 20.