Hattula Moholy-Nagy didn’t really get to know her father–Hungarian-born designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the man who brought the Bauhaus movement to Chicago–until she was almost 40. He’d died in 1946, when she was barely a teenager.
“What I remember was that he was a very busy man running his School of Design and didn’t have much time for the family,” she recalls. “But he was not a distant parent. On Sunday mornings he’d walk me and my younger sister to North Pond in the park, which was near our apartment on Lakeview Avenue. He drew pictures of the adventures of a green checkered piglet. He’d often bring colleagues and students home for dinner. Some of them baby-sat us in return. Then he got leukemia and was gone.”
Hattula’s mother, Sibyl, who was always the rock-solid center of the family, moved her daughters to San Francisco, then New York, where she found a job teaching architecture history at the Pratt Institute. She told them stories about their father, but Hattula says few of them registered.
Unlike her parents, Hattula wasn’t artistically inclined. She was interested in archaeology, which she credits to early trips to the Field Museum. “I always wanted to know how things came to be the way I experienced them,” she says. But when she went to the University of Michigan she was discouraged from entering the male-dominated field and majored instead in history.
In 1956, when she came to the University of Chicago to pursue a master’s in anthropology, she remembers visiting the buildings on Ontario and State and Rush where her father’s school had been and the family’s apartment on Astor Street. But the memory of her father was fading fast. “I was preoccupied with academic work,” she says. And besides, her mother was the keeper of the Moholy legacy, giving lectures and overseeing the publication of his work.
Then in 1971 Sibyl passed away, and Hattula’s sister, Claudia, died unexpectedly. “I’d been living in Switzerland, married with kids,” says Hattula. “All of a sudden I became the executor of the estate, which included hundreds of paintings and photographs and countless correspondences. I realized that I’d better learn enough about my father to be an authority. And that’s what I’ve been doing, more or less, for the past 30 years.”
She didn’t put her own life on hold. She came back to the U.S. with her two sons after a divorce, got a doctorate in Mesoamerican archaeology from U. of M., spent long periods excavating a Mayan site in Guatemala, and wrote scholarly monographs about artifacts from the excavation.
But she also spent a lot of time researching her father’s life. “Many, many people helped me,” she says. “Not only family members, but former faculty and students at the Institute of Design [the school’s name since 1944], librarians, art historians, curators, art dealers, and those people who came to me for information–who actually knew more than I did.” She frequently traveled to Europe to retrace his steps, making at least seven trips to Hungary. “I taught myself to read Hungarian,” she says, “since much has been published there about Moholy, and my cousin, who also is establishing our family’s genealogy, is too busy to furnish translations.”
Slowly she pieced together her father’s past. “He was the product of a chaotic time,” she says, “an artist whose utopian ideas to better society owed much to the two horrific wars he endured.”
He’d been born in 1895 in a small village in the south of the waning Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second of three sons who survived infancy. Both parents’ families were landed gentry. Moholy’s father left when the children were young, and his mother took them to live with her family. An uncle became his guardian–the first in a succession of “male mentors and female handmaidens who shepherded my father’s career.”
Moholy served in the army in World War I, revealing a gift for drawing in the hundreds of colorful sketches on postcards he sent his family and friends. After the war he studied law, then turned to painting. “His works back then were figurative, expressionistic, inspired by Rembrandt and van Gogh,” says Hattula. “He experimented too, making collages of paper strips of juxtaposed colors.” He also took up a camera, and for a brief period in the late 20s photography monopolized him. Yet Moholy considered himself a painter first. “He held the old-world view of the supremacy of painting,” Hattula says, “even though he was part of the avant-garde.”
He was also involved in the socialist republic movement that was quashed in 1918, which only reinforced his rebelliousness. He exiled himself to Vienna, discovered he disliked the city, and moved to Berlin in 1920. “Berlin was the Big Apple of eastern and central Europe in those years, and Moholy’s time there was decisive for his career,” says Hattula, citing a change in his art from vaguely representational to dadaist to totally abstract. “Russian constructivism, with its elimination of the personal, had a huge influence, as did its belief in improving society through art.” She says one reason Moholy accepted an invitation from Walter Gropius to teach at the Bauhaus was the opportunity to find “a new unity of art, science, and technology in the service of humanity.”
Hattula is still surprised at her father’s versatility and prodigious energy during his Bauhaus years, which are well documented in his voluminous papers and by historians. “He painted on canvas, aluminum, and new kinds of plastics; continued to work with paper collages; produced prints and sculptures of wood, glass, and metal,” she says. “He made several short films, one of which recorded the movements and light effects produced by a kinetic sculpture he designed. He discovered the photogram again, which is an image created without a camera. He manipulated light and shadow so ordinary items could be transformed into abstract compositions of luminous ambiguous forms.” His photograms, says Elizabeth Siegel, cocurator of the Art Institute’s “Taken by Design” photography retrospective (which runs through May 12), are among Moholy’s most significant achievements. She calls them “miraculous expressions of light and shading.”
Hattula says that both Moholy’s first wife–a writer and, for a time, the Bauhaus’s official photographer–and her mother were enormous boosters. “Not to mention all the women he took up with in between,” she adds, “including Gropius’s sister-in-law.” A gregarious man who liked to teach and organize exhibits, Moholy was a “joiner, a world-class networker.” He regularly went back to Hungary, where his affiliation with the Bauhaus had turned him into a celebrity. He traveled widely when doing commercial assignments–Hattula is the name of a town he visited in Finland.
When Hitler came to power in 1933 Moholy started planning the family’s move to England. “He took a job in Amsterdam,” says Hattula. “I have my mother’s letter cautioning him not to take Dutch and English lessons at the same time. Then he went to London to learn more about color photography.”
While in London, Moholy became fascinated with transparent materials such as Plexiglas, which he used for a set and props for movie director Alexander Korda. He renewed ties with his distant cousin conductor Georg Solti. And he bought a 35-millimeter Leica to experiment with.
Then Chicago’s Association of Arts and Industries, a consortium of businessmen, called. They wanted to open a school to train industrial designers, says Hattula, and they looked to the Bauhaus as a model. They’d offered the directorship to Gropius, who said no, then recommended Moholy.
The school opened in the fall of 1937 in a mansion on Prairie Avenue built by Marshall Field. Moholy was delighted with the chance to promote Bauhaus principles in America, but the New Bauhaus/American School of Design lasted only one year, undone by financial shortfalls and students who wanted to study traditional arts. “He supported us primarily with a job as a designer for Spiegel’s catalogs,” says Hattula.
Undaunted, Moholy resurrected his dream eight months later as the School of Design, with money from industrialist Walter Paepcke. It was this school, and its later incarnations (in 1949 it would be incorporated into the Illinois Institute of Technology), that fostered the three generations of photographers whose works are represented in the “Taken by Design” exhibit. “Moholy had an uncanny ability to generate excitement about various topics,” says Siegel, “and he was tremendously persuasive. The force of his personality was such that his staff worked for free when money was tight. He collected around him some of the most talented designers and artists of the time, who in turn influenced their students. And his torch was carried by the likes of Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and Ken Josephson–all seminal figures in photography.”
Hattula fondly recalls the circle around her father–pioneers such as Nathan Lerner and Gyorgy Kepes (some of whose photos will be exhibited at the Stephen Daiter gallery through May 25). She interviewed many of these people in her effort to understand her father. “I remember him in bits and pieces,” she says. “I saw him making hundreds of 35-millimeter color slides that encompassed portraits, travels, and my favorites–light abstractions, probably his best work. He shot a series of shorts at the school. He wrote a definitive book about his aesthetics titled Vision in Motion. Did I mention that he was a prolific writer too? He was tireless, even in his final year.”
Moholy was only 51 when he died. His ashes are buried in Graceland Cemetery. “That’s where his long east-west trajectory ends,” says Hattula, “this open-minded, learned man–a secular humanist who imagined a better world through design.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Vorhies Fisher, courtesy of Andreas L. Hug, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.