PRINT November 2015


LÁSZLÓ MOHOLY-NAGY made us look, and look again. The Bauhaus pioneer was one of the most ardent advocates of new ways of seeing, embracing an art that could—like city lights, X-rays, telephony—radically reconfigure our sensory experience of the world. But this aesthetic upheaval, this New Vision, as Moholy-Nagy called it, came from an unlikely place: the battlefield. Following a landmark exhibition of the artist’s paintings at California’s Santa Barbara Museum of Art, curated by scholar JOYCE TSAI, and in advance of a major retrospective opening in June 2016 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Tsai reflects here on Moholy-Nagy’s formative years as a soldier during World War I—an experience that would irrevocably shape his lifelong engagement with visual technologies to come.

László Moholy-Nagy, soldier looking through periscope, ca. 1915–19, colored pencil and pencil on paper, 5 3/8 × 3 1/2".  © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

In 1922 I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings in porcelain enamel. I had the factory’s color chart before me and I sketched my paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper, divided into squares. He took down the dictated shapes in the correct position. (It was like playing chess by correspondence.)1

IN 1944, László Moholy-Nagy wrote these few brief remarks about the origin of his Konstruktionen in Emaille (Constructions in Enamel), 1923, commonly known as Telephone Pictures. The account appeared in a posthumous edition of his highly influential book The New Vision (1928), which circulated widely in postwar studio art curricula, and outlines a heretical act. When the works were first shown in 1924, critics derided them as evidence of Moholy-Nagy’s indolence and audacity for putting up what they described as flimsy tin shingles at his exhibition. His supporters saw the work as a calculated affront to the values held dear by the prevailing artistic establishment. After all, to order art from a sign factory shifts the site of production from the studio to the factory floor, unlocking the potential to manufacture limitless multiples. And in so doing, it opens the floodgates—art might become available not just to the rich but to the masses.

Such ideas were radical then, but they became all the more influential nearly half a century later, in the 1960s and ’70s, at a time when many artists and critics sought to undermine the romantic attachment to authorial subjectivity exemplified by Abstract Expressionism in the decades just before, and in an era when artists embraced direct collaborations with industry and technology for opening new avenues of artistic production. Yet decades before Donald Judd delegated the fabrication of his custom boxes to Bernstein Brothers, and before a motley crew of artists would work with engineers at Bell Labs under the aegis of Experiments in Art and Technology, Moholy-Nagy, it would seem, was the first to dial in and order his work factory-direct.

Though we now know that it is unlikely that he actually placed that call, the phoned-in, remote fabrication of art that the Telephone Pictures represent has long been deployed as part of numerous art-world gambits, as a Conceptual readymade to be launched as a salvo against stuffy conventions, or to bolster related practices in movements as diverse as Fluxus and telepresence art. But the project also evinces a set of values that are perhaps less evident today, values that derive from experiences of Moholy-Nagy’s that initially had little to do with his artistic career. While the reception of this project has often centered on the sheer novelty of factory production and telephonic transmission, Moholy-Nagy’s central concern at its genesis in the early ’20s had more to do with articulating the conditions under which particular visual structures might be transmitted and replicated, precisely in order to achieve, as scholar Brigid Doherty has argued, something like “‘structural objectivity’ in painting.”2 For Moholy-Nagy and other interwar abstract artists (especially those active at the Bauhaus and engaged with Constructivism), the stakes for such an enterprise were none other than to translate subjective experience into objectively verifiable and universally legible forms. This goal might appear absurdly idealistic and unachievable today, but for these artists, many of whom served on the front lines of World War I, military training had already demonstrated how such a project might be pursued.

IN 1915, at age twenty, Moholy-Nagy enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian military and was deployed to an artillery unit a year later in Galicia, on the border of present-day Ukraine and Poland. In his free time on the front, he drew hundreds of life studies on military-issued postcards of his compatriots at work or rest.

One of these features a soldier reading in a chair in his stiff uniform, sketched in a three-quarter view, head cast downward, his aquiline nose and prominent brow rendered with a single curved line and patches of shadow. A few economical marks of the pencil indicate a newspaper Moholy-Nagy’s sitter is reading, which is held by hands conjured forth by little more than providentially placed squiggles. The drawing is quick and evocative, the bend of the waist and the angled body captured with a few dark strokes of pencil. Moholy-Nagy suggested depth and volume by varying the shading pressure of the graphite just enough to separate thigh, knee, and crossed leg. He was particularly pleased with this portrait; he sent it to a longtime friend, Iván Hevesy, who was studying art history in Budapest at the time. To Hevesy, he confessed his ambition to become an artist, offering the sketch as evidence of his burgeoning talent. The postcards were exercises in discovering the capacity of his own hand: his ability to reproduce what he saw not only quickly but in a way that he hoped would evolve into his own signature style, linked to his own expressive vision.

Among the hundreds of postcard sketches Moholy-Nagy produced, several attend closely to the surveillance technology used in the trenches. They reveal aspects of the day-to-day operations of his unit in some detail. One such drawing shows an officer with his face obscured by a binocular periscope, the giant rabbit-eared contraption peering above an embankment. The instrument and the face fuse, mirroring the twin periscope’s own stereoscopic vision, which allowed its user to gauge depth. Another sketch shows a man, ears hidden beneath a headset, listening intently at his post. The headset is linked to a microphone that captures the sounds of shots fired and the low rumble of exploding shells far beyond the parapet. These instruments were crucial for the functioning of Moholy-Nagy’s unit, tools that extended the reach of perceptual faculties past the safety of the unit’s entrenchment.

Moholy-Nagy served his artillery unit as a reconnaissance officer, in a capacity that utilized some of the technologies he portrayed in the drawings made during his free time. Tasked with locating viable routes for his unit or enemy positions to attack, he rode on horseback and with field glasses in hand. He would map the coordinates of these positions and take down the elevations and azimuth angles obtained by looking through the scopes of clinometers and theodolites. As we know from artillery-training manuals, the reconnaissance officer would also make sketches in the field—schematic landscapes that laid out the terrain and identified strategic landmarks. Unlike Moholy-Nagy’s postcard drawings, the maps and field views were not meant to be expressive but instead translated what was observed into visual data via a highly standardized vocabulary of notation in order to mitigate misinterpretation.3 With the exception of a single map in his family papers, none of Moholy-Nagy’s drawings for the military survive. This is hardly surprising: Such maps and reconnaissance sketches were made to be submitted to superiors as part of the ephemeral visual data required in the course of battle preparations.

Artillery’s efficacy in battle was predicated on the ability to launch indirect attacks, firing from hidden or covered positions. This clandestine movement was made possible by calculating projected trajectories using the intelligence gathered from a number of sources. Hand-drawn views and maps, aerial photographs, meteorological reports, observations from listening posts, field measurements, and the whispered reports of spies, defectors, and prisoners, all had to be combined into a plan that could be transmitted without error across a field of action. Mislaid trajectories or ill-timed attacks could result in friendly fire, wasted shells, or a failed offensive. Because the tactical power of artillery fire intensified in coordination with other units, the manuals paid close attention to technologies of transmission.4 They provided lessons on Morse code and instructions on how to establish and link telegraphic and telephonic lines. Soldiers were taught conventions that governed standard queries and responses in the appropriate employment of these field lines. And the manuals also demonstrated the use of flags and lamps to serve as optical signals when network connections could not be established.5

Moholy-Nagy fought and was wounded in one of the most catastrophic battles in the war for Austro-Hungary. Rendered medically unfit for the front in 1917, he served as an instructional sergeant in the reserves for the remainder of the conflict. His desire to become an artist was initially intertwined with his growing disillusionment with war. His earliest ambitious paintings and drawings were executed under the sway of Expressionism: He made landscapes of pockmarked battlefields caught behind barbed wire and moody portraits drawn with a highly gestural style, riven with pathos. Moholy-Nagy’s initial understanding of what it meant to be an artist hewed has closely aligned with his desire to express his own vision in a virtuosic style. These values were precisely the opposite of the demands made on his military drawings. The officer’s eye had to see and his hand transcribe in an anonymous mode, translating subjective sensorial experience into verifiable and transmissible data to be relayed through a standardized vocabulary of graphic marks and lettering. Put differently, the work of the soldier’s hand had to be objectively valid and universally legible.

MOHOLY-NAGY’S Expressionist phase was brief, but the consequences of his military training lasted far longer. A decade after the start of World War I, he introduced his Constructions in Enamel to the public at his solo show in 1924, explaining that this project exemplified “works created with a will to precise and impersonal technique.”6 The idiosyncrasies of the artist, his volition signaled by the gestural mark of his hand, give way to the slick, impassive surface of enamel, as if any remnant of subjectivity were fired away in the production kiln. What is left is a structure in which colored elements correspond to a chart, their positions secured within a gridded coordinate system. In the values it expounds and the process it suggested, this project appears to mirror key aspects of Moholy-Nagy’s experience as a soldier.

Moholy-Nagy made no mention of his own status as a veteran in his 1924 text, nor does he bring up the specter of war, which is understandable. The war was cataclysmic and he had no desire to redeem it. However, it was also an arena that produced the conditions for a new subject—a subject everywhere shaped by modern somatic and technical demands.

World War I necessitated the modernization not only of its soldiers but also of its labor force. Total war demanded industrial centers with workers whose productivity was exponentially advanced by their ability to keep pace with the machines to which they were assigned. The weapons produced were distributed to the front by rail. Their deployment relied on intelligence secured and disseminated via new means of transmission. On the battlefield, these weapons needed soldiers with the physical stamina to carry them into battle but also with the expertise to operate and maintain their complex parts. World War I forced both modern worker and soldier to perform under duress—their survival depended on the speed with which they could internalize new habits of both technologized seeing and being. There was no turning back, no escape from the conditions catalyzed and cemented by the exigencies of war. However, what we witness in Moholy-Nagy’s mature art is an attempt to redirect the skills acquired and forces invested in the preparation for destruction toward what he would describe as productive ends.

In one of the most iconic portraits of the artist, he stands at Bauhaus Dessau with his hair slicked back, wearing rimless glasses and clad in an engineer’s jumpsuit. The photo was taken just a few years after he exhibited the Constructions in Enamel, during a time when he made some of his most influential theoretical claims about the need to integrate new technology in art, to embrace the objective truth afforded by new technologies of perception, and for human beings to adapt to the tempo of modern life. These assertions have sometimes been dismissed as naively techno-utopian at best, techno-determinist at worst. In view of his military training, it might be difficult to see these appeals as anything less than the imposition of martial values on civilian life, swapping the soldier’s uniform for that of the engineer.

However, it is crucial to view Moholy-Nagy’s enterprise as one that sought to redefine our relationship to technology in fundamental ways. So much of his art and theory aimed to restore human agency to the technological world and did so by disrupting the ends to which existing technologies were deployed. As he wrote in The New Vision, his concern was “not in working against technical advances, but in exploiting them for the benefit of all. Man can be freed through techniques, if he finally realizes their function: i.e., a balanced life through full use of our liberated energies.”7 Seen in this light, we might consider Constructions in Enamel as a way for Moholy-Nagy to apply the technical abilities he honed on the battlefield toward entirely new ambitions, while transforming our comportment to modes of machine production. The positions mapped out in this new project are not those of locations to be shelled, but those of an emergent structure—the factory machine activated not to manufacture advertising or street signs but to generate pictures that, as he put it in his own account in 1944, would allow him to “study the subtle differences in the color relations caused by the enlargement and reduction.” At stake in such a project was the exploration of “mathematically harmonious shapes, executed precisely,” in order to achieve “the perfect balance between feeling and intellect.”8 The military requirement for impersonality, against which Moholy-Nagy might once have bristled as a young Expressionist painter, became the precondition for imagining an aesthetic form that might possess a universal validity, and with it, the fervent possibility of new forms of community.

Joyce Tsai is assistant professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University of Florida. She curated the exhibition “The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come” at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California in 2015.


1. László Moholy-Nagy, “Abstract of an Artist” (1944), in The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947), 79–80.

2. Brigid Doherty, “László Moholy-Nagy, Constructions in Enamel: 1923,” in Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 133.

3. Gottfried Gilbert, Der Artillerist: Unterrichtsbuch für Rekruten, Kanoniere, Unteroffiziere und deren Lehrer (Berlin: Offene Worte, 1923), 191–98.

4. B. J. C. McKercher and Michael A. Hennessy, eds., The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996), 11–12.

5. An example of a training manual specific to the Howitzer model likely used by Moholy-Nagy’s unit can be found in Artillerieunterricht: 10 cm Feldhaubitze M. 99 (Vienna: K. K. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1909).

6. László Moholy-Nagy, “Emaille im Februar 1924,” Der Sturm 15, no. 1 (February 1924), cited in Doherty, “László Moholy-Nagy, Constructions in Enamel,” 130.

7. Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision (1928), trans. Daphne M. Hoffman, in The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist, 16.

8. Moholy-Nagy, “Abstract of an Artist,” 80.