Art as Idea: László Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Works

51j9r1IrpYL._SX385_On the 20th of July 1895, Jewish-Hungarian born American artist László Moholy-Nagy was born in Bácsborsód, Hungary. He was a “painter, sculptor, photographer, designer, theorist, and art teacher, whose vision of a non-representational art consisting of pure visual fundamentals – colour, texture, light, and equilibrium of forms – was immensely influential in both the fine and applied arts in the mid-20th century. During his Bauhaus years Moholy-Nagy developed the theories of art education for which he is known. He created a widely accepted curriculum that focused on developing students’ natural visual gifts instead of teaching them specialized skills. His dictum was: “Everybody is talented.” At the Bauhaus itself, fine-arts training was abolished in favour of “designing the whole man.  (Britannica).

In 1922, shortly after joining the faculty of the Bauhaus art school, in Weimar, Germany, in one of the first attempts to utilize telecommunication technology for the production of art, Moholy-Nagy called a Berlin sign factory: “In 1922, I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings in porcelain enamel. I had the factory’s colour 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.) One of the pictures was delivered in three different sizes, so that I could study the subtle differences in the colour relations caused by the enlargement and reduction. (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist, 1944).

Long before Andy Warhol was even born across the pond, Moholy-Nagy tried to remove human input from the work of art and find mechanised ways of replicating or mass producing art, treating it as a technological process: “I was not afraid of losing the “personal touch” so highly valued in previous painting. On the contrary, I even gave up signing my paintings. I put numbers and letters with the necessary data on the back of the canvas, as if they were cars, airplanes, or other industrial products.” These are his words from his book Abstract of an Artist, which documents the actual abstracting of 70an artist. “In place of the identity of the maker, one will read an impersonal product label – numbers and letters of a computer bar-coded system stamped onto the back of a canvas in order to provide the “necessary data” in the age of mechanical production and reproduction. He would later claim to have ordered them by describing them over the telephone, exaggerating both his distance from the manufacturing process that produced them and the degree of technological mediation involved. (…)This mode of production, utilizing a sign factory and a design charted on graph paper, has sketched a network that interrogates the structure of the sign. The telephone paintings set up static in the lines, on the graph paper, in the sign factory, in the final product-a buzzing for telecommunications and for communication in any form. With the gesture of the dialling or the push-button hand that generates art by telephone, it is the impersonality and the anonymity of the language machine and of the telephone machine that have gone into a remote-control reproduction.” (Louis Kaplan, ‘The Telephone Paintings: Hanging up Moholy’, Leonardo, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1993).

During his Bauhaus years, the artist moved away from expressionism in the traditional medium of painting and tried his hand at working in various media such as photography, typography, sculpture, painting, printmaking, and industrial design. In doing so, Moholy-Nagy showed that the artist of the modern age is more of a producer of ideas rather than things. While they appear as any abstract geometric compositions, his ‘telephone works’ use a “mathematical progression to change its scale, highlighting the conception of the image as transferable data. The telephone, the automobile, the airplane and, of course, radio, were for the avant-garde artists of the first decades of this century a symbol of modern life, in which technology could extend human perception and capabilities.” (Eduardo Kac) 

Posthumously, the artist’s partner Lucia Moholy insisted that, “the enamels were intended only for experimentation with the effects of colour in relation to the size of their reproduction. But with the logic of the dispatch in the production and reproduction of the paintings, something has been lost in the mails and later recalled – that is, the telephone paintings.” (Louis Kaplan). In a chapter of the book Painting, Photography, Film (1925), László Moholy-Nagy had reproduced two “wireless telegraphed photographs” and a sequence of two images he described as examples of 41m2bPnvy6L._“telegraphed cinema”, closing the section with the following statement: “Men still kill one another, they have not yet understood how they live, why they live; politicians fail to observe that the earth is an entity, yet television has been invented: the ‘Far Seer’ — tomorrow we shall be able to look into the heart of our fellow-man, be everywhere and yet be alone. (…) With the development of photo-telegraphy, which enables reproductions and accurate illustrations to be made instantaneously, even philosophical works will presumably use the same means — though on a higher plane — as the present day American magazines.” This was indeed a very perceptive premonition into the versatile forms of telecommunication available today and the means by which art becomes distilled into an idea or concept, easily transferable to everybody, everywhere and at the same time. 

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