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An Artist of Many Inventions : Moholy-Nagy Pushes the Limits of Photography


One hallmark of the 1980s was the astounding degree to which some artists managed to endow photography with a cultural stature hitherto reserved for painting. Sigmar Polke in Germany, Cindy Sherman in New York and John Baldessari in Los Angeles are three of the most important of those whose work with camera-based imagery set a standard for the period.

In unique and surprising ways, each artist sidestepped the narrow preciousness of traditional "art photography." Simultaneously, they supplanted the cloud of visual numbness created by the ubiquity of photographs in the modern world.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) stands as one principal ancestor of this latter-day achievement. The great Hungarian-born artist, who brought many of the teachings of the European avant-garde to the United States with his 1937 emigration from Germany to Chicago, used the materials of photography in much the same way he used those of painting. At the J. Paul Getty Museum, a small exhibition of 37 photographs, one gouache with collage and three printed books, almost all from the Getty's expansive collection, shows an artist of searching intelligence and skill who never really thought of himself as a photographer.


"Vision in Motion: The Photographs of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy" is a concise centennial celebration of the artist's birth, organized by Getty Assistant Curator Katherine Ware. It includes examples of the three kinds of images Moholy-Nagy made, selected from the 82 examples in the museum's collection: photographs, made with a traditional camera but with untraditional points of view; photograms, made without a camera by placing objects directly on photo-sensitive paper; and photomontages, made by collaging together snippets of disparate photographs and, usually, photographing the result.

Everything in the show was made in the concentrated and artistically rambunctious period between 1923, shortly after Moholy-Nagy first picked up a camera and began to experiment, and 1930. The visual and conceptual sophistication of almost all of it is remarkable.

Moholy-Nagy's photographs recall those of the great Russian artist Alexander Rodchenko, whose scenes are abstracted into dynamic, visually disorienting compositions. Whether a portrait of his friend and colleague, artist Oskar Schlemmer, or a mundane close-up of water rushing into a Paris gutter, the angled, aerial view he typically employed endows the image with a subtle aura of omnipotence.

Likewise, the photograms walk a precarious line between the figurative and the abstract. Sometimes you can identify the objects the artist placed on the photo-sensitive paper, as in one work in which a diagonal cascade of matchsticks is punctuated by cylindrical napkin rings. Elsewhere, the cloudy, glowing shapes composed from light and shadow do not disclose their material origins.

Moholy-Nagy's photograms hark back to early 19th-Century experiments by pioneers such as William Henry Fox Talbot, who placed leaves and bits of lace on sensitized paper to capture their shadows. But the Hungarian artist's pictures seem less interested in recording the likeness of worldly objects, in an effort to mimic nature, than in inventing new forms. As with the slightly earlier photograms of Christian Schad and Man Ray, they identify a photograph as a painting made with light, appropriate to the Industrial Age.

The most adventurous, captivating and abundant works in the exhibition are the photomontages, a method then being used by his friend Raoul Hausmann and the great Hannah Hoch, among others. Although Moholy-Nagy's photographs, photograms and photomontages all developed simultaneously during the 1920s, his photomontages really pump up the abstraction, dynamism and industrial edginess that characterize the other two methods.

Social and political commentaries are embedded in the photomontages. "Militarism/Propaganda Poster" sets the mechanical monsters of advancing army tanks against the tender flesh and blood of human beings. In "Rape of the Sabine," a classical story of male subjugation of women is retold in modern guise, as a group of burly strongmen attempts to topple the looming figure of a flapper, symbol of the liberated "New Woman" of the 1920s.

It would be a mistake, however, to read them as literal narratives. Most of Moholy-Nagy's photomontages create a clean, blank, slightly ominous field, on which the complexity of modern life is being built anew. A work like "The Benevolent Gentleman" employs flattened, geometric forms and dramatic lines of force to create a theatrical landscape or scaffolding for the players, who attempt to navigate the web. As much as anything, its coolly athletic, circus-like feeling is a poetic meditation on the comedy and pathos of modern urban experience.

The centennial show also clears up some confusion about the difficult pronunciation of Moholy-Nagy's name. An edited transcript of a 1994 colloquium printed in the small catalogue explains that, although usually pronounced by English-speaking scholars as "Moholy-Nawdge," the Americanized version that followed his 1937 arrival in Chicago has typically been "Moholy-Nagie." The original Hungarian is actually "Mo-hoy-Neug."

The artist's daughter, archeologist Hattula Moholy-Nagy, does the explaining, so it's probably definitive.

* J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, through Oct. 8. Closed Mondays. Parking reservations required: (310) 458-2003.

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