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László Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus Master Houses Dessau, 1920s © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy
17 Jun 2019

10 Questions with Curator Daniel Hug on Moholy-Nagy

On the end of an unrelated archival film reel, the British Film Institute recently discovered a lost optical sound film by Lászlo Moholy-Nagy. The film has been newly scanned in 4K quality, and will premiere at the BFI on 18 June 2019. ‘Tönendes ABC (ABC in Sound)’ (1933) will be screened alongside ‘Lobsters’ (1936) and ‘the New Architecture at the London Zoo’ (1937). Daniel Hug, Moholy-Nagy’s grandson and the curator of ‘Lászlo Moholy-Nagy’ at Hauser & Wirth London, will give an introduction to the evening. Below, Hug sheds light on the expansive influence of this pioneering multidisciplinary artist, and the roots of his filmmaking.

Do you remember when you first encountered a film work by your grandfather, László Moholy-Nagy?
The first film I really remember that made an impression on me was ‘Grossstadt Zigeuner’ from 1932, Moholy’s film documenting the Roma and Sinti People in Berlin. I don’t remember where I first saw it, but it is shown permanently at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

What inspired Moholy-Nagy to begin experimenting with film?
Film in the 20s must have been the coolest thing—it was social media for today’s generation. Talkies were introduced in the late 1920s, so what looks antiquated and colorless today was perceived as incredibly new and radical to Moholy’s generation. Cinema had an enormous impact, and continued to do so until the rise of television.

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Still from ‘Groß-Stadt Zigeuner (Big City Gypsies)’ (1932, 9 min) by László Moholy-Nagy © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

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Still from ‘Groß-Stadt Zigeuner (Big City Gypsies)’ (1932, 9 min) by László Moholy-Nagy © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

Is there one work you feel represents the exhibition ‘László Moholy-Nagy’ at Hauser & Wirth London?
I think it would be the ‘Lichtrequist für eine Elektrische Bühne (Light Prop for an Electric Stage)’, which Harvard’s Busch Reisinger Museum was kind enough to lend to us for the purposes of this exhibition. Although it’s a replica made specifically for exhibitions abroad, it is rare to see and embodies all of Moholy-Nagy’s interests. The compositional elements made of steel, aluminium, and glass relate to the compositional forms in his paintings. The fact that he initially designed this as a means of generating a light play for theater, as a mechanical sculpture, makes this immensely exciting. He also made his film ‘Ein Lichtspeiel – Schwarz-Weiss-Grau (Lightplay – Black-White-Grey)’, which we are projecting next to the light machine.

Which film directors did Moholy-Nagy admire?
Unfortunately, we don’t know. We do know that he loved going to the cinema—he particularly loved Westerns. Throughout his life there was a presence and connection to the film industry, and he created a photoplastic (collage) using an image of Charlie Chaplin. Moholy also dated the German actress Ellen Frank and my grandmother Sybil started out in Berlin as an actress.

His life as an artist merged with the world of the stage and film. While living in London, Moholy was hired to create special effects for Alexander Korda’s ‘Things to Come’. Although none of his sets ended up being used, we have lots of documentation. He corresponded with fellow Hungarian Bela Lugosi while living in Chicago, and the Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson owned a painting by Moholy-Nagy.

Clip from ‘Ein Lichtspeiel - Schwarz-Weiss-Grau (Lightplay - Black-White-Grey)’ (1930, 6 min) by László Moholy-Nagy © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

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Still from ‘Berliner Stilleben’ (1926, 9 min) by László Moholy-Nagy © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

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Still from ‘Berliner Stilleben’ (1926, 9 min) by László Moholy-Nagy © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

How did central forms in Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre inform his film works?
Moholy employed many of the same working methods in his films as in his photography, from using bird’s-eye perspective to capturing movement from still and moving perspectives. He combined positive and negative images, and captured light and shadow. This in turn influenced his painting, and vice versa.

What do we know about his studio space?
We know Moholy had use of an atelier at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In Berlin he had an office and later in Chicago, Moholy used the facilities of his school. His practice was never contained in a singular space. My mother remembers in the 1940s, he worked in the living room at home late at night, on his paintings.

Are there any contemporary artists working today that you feel are in debt to László’s work?
Many, and some even without realizing it. Much of what was new and radical then has become standard and accepted today. Moholy, at first as a Dadaist, then as a Constructivist, experimented and used all media. His photographic output happened at a time when photography was not even recognized as an art form.

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Still from ‘Lobsters’ (1936) by László Moholy-Nagy © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

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Still from ‘Lobsters’ (1936) by László Moholy-Nagy © The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

What has the process of in-depth research on László Moholy-Nagy been like?
Due to the variety of media and different periods of Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre at first can seem all over the place. Through years of research and getting more involved, I have noticed distinct aspects stylistic and conceptual, which Moholy has grappled with from the beginning to end. There is a linear development in his work.

What do you hope for the audience to come away with after the inaugural screening of  Moholy-Nagy’s film ‘ABC’?
I hope people will be as excited as I am to experience this recently unearthed film.

How did the film arrive at the BFI?
It was recently found by accident, spliced on the end of a film by Oskar Fischinger. We are lucky that the right person happened to stumble on this, and knew enough to recognize the importance of this film.

The lost film ‘Tönendes ABC (ABC in Sound)’ (1933) will be screened alongside ‘Lobsters’ (1936) and ‘the New Architecture at the London Zoo’ (1937) at the British Film Institute on 18 June 2019.

‘László Moholy-Nagy’ is on display at Hauser & Wirth London, 22 May – 7 September 2019.

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