Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Posthumous chatter between hedgehog and fox

Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World

Tate Modern, London until 4 June 2006

‘This exhibition offers audiences a unique opportunity to experience a posthumous dialogue between two pioneers of twentieth-century art,’ Vicente Todoli, the director of Tate Modern, writes in the catalogue foreword, the unattractive cover of which glues together parts of a László Moholy-Nagy painting from 1927 with one by Josef Albers in 1943, a crude juxtaposition that reflects the expedient nature of this pairing. The resulting design of this catalogue does not bear comparison with the superb Bauhaus books displayed in the second room, just one of Moholy-Nagy’s legacies.

Even if such a hypothetical dialogue could exist between the two – Moholy dead already in 1946, while Albers, seven years older, lived on happily for another 30 years – its usefulness seems problematic. Some communication must have taken place during their shared teaching at the Bauhaus: Moholy took over the preliminary course after Johannes Itten in 1923, with Albers assisting. Judging by the recollection of one student, Hannes Beckman, this might have been minimal. On day one, Albers arrived with a pile of newspapers, and asked them to make something out of them, ‘respecting the material’, preferably without tools or glue. He then walked out, leaving the flabbergasted students to get on with it. The quotation by Albers reproduced on the wall of Room 2 seems to confirm this approach: ‘School should allow a lot to be learned which is to say that it should teach little.’ Then there’s Albers’ prickly response to a PhD student in 1966, quoted in the catalogue: ‘When you relate me to Moholy, that’s impossible because I hate that man because he was never original.’

Apart from the short period when they taught together until Moholy left the Bauhaus in 1928, their paths never crossed. Albers went on to take over the previously shared course, and remained until the final closure in 1933. From student to deputy director under Mies van der Rohe, his was the longest tenure, and an indication of his single-mindedness compared with Moholy’s restless spirit. A look at the parallel chronologies that complete the catalogue would seem to confirm this, and suggest that Isaiah Berlin’s well known analogy of the Fox and the Hedgehog might be useful. In an essay published in New York in 1957, he suggests two types of intellectual and artistic personality: one unitary, relating to a single vision or organising principle, the other pursuing more diverse ideas and experiences: ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ While the statements of both Albers and Moholy, especially during the Bauhaus period, suggest a shared belief in the power of Art to transform both individual and society, the careers and work produced are more divergent. The carefully posed photo of Moholy, in what were car mechanic’s overalls, but with a white shirt and tie, suggest a foxy stylishness compared with Albers’ more down-to-earth appearance.

It was probably the contrast between the two that made the course successful. The first rooms give a sense of this: furniture, painting, photography, graphic design and collage all included. Albers’ sandblasted and coloured glass pictures find an echo in the glass-clad buildings being built close to Tate Modern. After this early experimentation with other media, Albers would return to painting, culminating in the ‘Homage to the Square’ series and the book Interaction of Color (1963). From the outset, Moholy was involved in a wide field of activity, more involved with politics and engaged with the world of commerce and production. There is some truth in Albers’ remark at Moholy’s lack of ‘originality’, for the influence of the Soviet Constructivists is evident in these first rooms, but why hold this against him? The obsession with the individual and original has been a dubious legacy of the Bauhaus.

Whatever the source, Moholy’s more dynamic work here overshadows Albers’– literally so with the recreated Light Prop. The photograms must surely be original, and the politico-surreal photomontages are unique comments on colonialism – Birthmark (Salome) (ca. 1926) in particular. The later rooms show a gradual dissipation of Moholy’s radicalism after his arrival in England, as he struggles to make a living with more conventional work. From anti-colonialism to brochures for Imperial Airways in red, white and blue, complete with diadem. The posters for London Underground, which show the workings of doors and escalators in best Constructivist manner, are stiff and symmetrical – perhaps a result of Frank Pick’s distrust of ‘continental trickery’. The attempt at window-dressing proved unpopular, and the set designs for fellow Hungarians Alex and Vincent Korda’s epic film Things to Come were deemed too abstract to be used.

When he moved to the USA the following year, one of these set designs was used for the cover of the prospectus for the New Bauhaus, which Moholy established in 1937 in Chicago. Here was a more receptive environment, which came to see design as an essential component of consumerism. The wartime economy saw the school surviving as a centre for camouflage training and art therapy courses for wounded servicemen developed by Moholy. It had been while recovering from his wounds from the Russian Front in 1917 that he had decided to become an artist. The circle complete, he began writing Vision in Motion, a summation of his teaching philosophy, published after his premature death in 1946.