Magazine article The Spectator

Pioneering Vision

Magazine article The Spectator

Pioneering Vision

Article excerpt

Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World Tate Modern, until 4 June Sponsored by BMW (UK) Ltd

Here are more than 300 works in yet another mammoth exhibition at Tate Modern. Perhaps the sheer size of it puts people off, though many of those I have spoken to on my travels through the art world hardly knew the show was on.

Perhaps the Bauhaus tag puts people off, with its inescapable connotations of didacticism, though this doesn't seem to have deterred the public from visiting the V&A's Modernism blockbuster, which also celebrates the Bauhaus aesthetic. Likewise the Utopian thrust of such teaching is perhaps felt to be irrelevant -- the belief in progress and the possibility of a better world. To contemporary cynics such idealism must seem ludicrous, and yet it contains the seed of all art -- the credo of possibility and change. Albers and Moholy-Nagy, both wrought in the Modernist forge of Weimar Germany, were great believers in the redemptive power of art. This exhibition is a rather extended tribute to their pioneering vision.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) was German, László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) Hungarian, and neither has a name to sell an exhibition to the general public.

(Indeed, many people have trouble even pronouncing the Hungarian's. ) Yet both were inspiring teachers, and it was while teaching at the Bauhaus between 1923 and 1928 that their careers overlapped. The Bauhaus was the most famous of 20th-century art and design schools, a cradle of Modernism founded in Weimar by the architect Walter Gropius in 1919, which then moved to Dessau in 1925 because of political pressure. Albers was the longestserving member of the Bauhaus (a student for three years and then a teacher for ten, beginning his association in 1920), whose initial interest was in stained glass. And it is with the glass and copper assemblages of Albers that this exhibition begins.

Moholy-Nagy had studied law before enrolling as a soldier in the Austro- Hungarian army in the first world war. He began to write poetry and make drawings, and after the war determined to be an artist, taking a particular interest in photography and light. Room 1 contains not only Albers's early glass collages, but also a couple of Moholy-Nagy's more austere paintings and a group of his abstract photograms. These were made by arranging objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing them to various intensities of illlumination. Room 2 showcases their Bauhaus involvement, with Albers's nest of coloured-glass-topped tables and geometric painted glass designs like electrical circuitry. An impressive wall of severely rectilinear paintings by Moholy-Nagy, with impersonal titles such as 'Composition QIV' or 'KVII' (this from the Tate's own collection), deals exclusively with parallel lines and circles in a restricted palette. For context, there is documentary material on the Bauhaus, and at this point you can short-circuit the chronological development of the exhibition and move through into Room 9 to compare the teaching both artists undertook when they fled Europe for America.

Otherwise, continue to Room 3.

Moholy-Nagy's appointment at the Bauhaus as replacement for the colour theorist Johannes Itten was symptomatic of the change from a craft-based to an industrially-inspired aesthetic. MoholyNagy became the most influential teacher there, stressing the importance of photography and turning the graphic workshop into a typography studio. Room 3 contains excellent examples of his photographs and collages, and a rather lovely oil painting of a black circle with abutting coloured beams. …

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