PRINT January 1986



Krisztina Passuth, Moholy-Nagy trans. from Hungarian by Eva Grusz, Judy Szöllosy, and Laszlo Baránzky Jób, and from the German by Mátyás Esterházy; trans. revised by Kenneth McRobbie and Ilona Jánosi (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1985), 448 pages, 208 black and white and 44 color illustrations.

Na zdorovye (To your health) to Thames and Hudson for publishing a series of major monographs on early-20th century Eastern European avant-garde artists: El Lissitzky, Kasimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, and now László Moholy-Nagy. At a time when publishing dollars are allotted cautiously, this commendable program focuses attention on a dynamic chapter of art history whose efficacy is by and large relegated to the archives of academia.

Today, when the Eastern European vanguard (especially literary) is spearheading a return to moral, political, and cultural involvement, Moholy-Nagy’s artistic “synthesis” and philosophy of the “whole man” loom as a poignant historical precedent. In her text, Krisztina Passuth, formerly of the Hungarian National Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts, evidences traditional Hungarian intellectualism and socialism by hastening to view Moholy-Nagy’s artistic development as a product of a prolonged historical moment. His dedication to a “synthetic” art, in service to society and conducive to a program of external and internal liberation, is seen as a direct outgrowth of the purist morality advocated by the Prague group of the Eight, founded in 1907, and in 1916 the Budapest journal MA (Today). The author follows this ethos throughout Moholy-Nagy’s life, championing his pedagogic hegemony at the Bauhaus, where he espoused a cultural and ethical revolution based on belief in a collective artistic individuality.

However, Passuth does a disservice to Moholy-Nagy’s artistic “synthetism” by her incessant discussion of “internationalism”: the political correlative of synthetism espoused by the Hungarian Activist movement. Chastising other 20th-century movements of the period, such as Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism, for their inability to consciously commit to social and political change, Passuth offers scant evidence for the political ramifications of the work of Moholy-Nagy, whether in Budapest, Berlin, London, or Chicago.

Supplementing the biographical essay is a selection of manifestos, letters, reminiscences, criticism, and essays. The attempt here is to reveal the “integrated vision” of a “synthetic man” in lieu of providing the more famous documents that illuminate Moholy-Nagy’s artistic development.

Sandwiched between the essay and the documents is a rich portfolio of paintings, drawings, sculpture, film scenarios, stage and costume designs, advertising and book design, and exhibition models, culminating in revolutionary developments in photography and light modulation. The visual record offered in this monograph does more to transfix Moholy-Nagy’s power of innovation and thought than does the truncated explication and sterile translations. The lessons of the 20th-century Eastern European avant-garde are potentially threefold: they contribute to the ongoing discourse on art as political instrument, they address the relevance of contextual exegesis, and they reveal the growing interdependence of design and fine art. A more complete elucidation of these issues would probably have produced a more substantial and fruitful study of this modern pioneer.

Sarah Bodine