“The New Bauhaus” – Everything old is new again [MOVIE REVIEW]

László Moholy-Nagy, the subject of the film “The New Bauhaus.” Photo courtesy of Bright Iris Film Company.

For those of you who have never heard of László Moholy-Nagy, “The New Bauhaus” will be a revelation; for those of you who have, be prepared for a deeper dive into an infinity pool. “The New Bauhaus,” directed by Alysa Nahmias and co-written by Nahmias and Miranda Yousef, is an invaluable lesson in art, architecture, design, photography, abstraction, commercial application, and creativity as seen through the eyes of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, László Moholy-Nagy.

Following World War I, Walter Gropius, a famous architect, founded a school in Berlin called the “Bauhaus,” meant to signify the confluence of craftsmanship and design. Gropius’s ambition was to integrate the arts into society, eliminating the boundaries that separated them. He invited some of the leading artists of the day to teach at his institute including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers. But when he invited László Moholy-Nagy, a self-taught graphic artist with no teaching experience, the others were upset as though his presence was a contradiction to their experience. How wrong they were. He fit perfectly into their aesthetic as he demonstrated vision, creativity, and skill in graphic design, abstraction, and photography, all innovative for the time.

As Hitler rose to power in the early 30’s, the Bauhaus was forced to close and the artists and teachers were scattered to the four corners, well not exactly the four corners. Klee returned to his native Switzerland, Kandinsky to Paris, Albers to Yale University, Gropius to Harvard, and Moholy-Nagy, on Gropius’s recommendation, to a new venture in Chicago funded by a group called the Association of Arts and Industry. The Association believed that an art school focusing on design would yield commercial products that could be brought to market. Moholy-Nagy, while not opposed to the commercial outcome of creative input, was most interested in getting his students to see “fresh.” He wanted them to investigate material and form; to cultivate a sense of touch. He called his institute the New Bauhaus. His concept was too abstract for both the Association and most of the students. Funding for the school was pulled after the first year and in 1938 Moholy-Nagy had to support himself with his art while looking for a new sponsor.

He found that new patron in Chicagoan Walter Paepcke, founder of the Container Corporation of America. He understood the value of art in everyday life and incorporated art into his products and advertising. Paepcke understood Moholy-Nagy’s vision of creativity.

As an interesting side note, in 1949, Paepcke founded the Aspen Music Festival. The next year he created what is now known as the Aspen Institute. Always, or rather still, influenced by the Bauhaus style, he hired Herbert Bayer, a former student of Gropius and Moholy-Nagy at the original Bauhaus in Berlin, to design the posters publicizing the new Institute. He and Josef Albers were among the speakers at Paepcke’s first International Design Conference in Aspen in 1951.

Created by László Moholy-Nagy, subject of the film “The New Bauhaus.” Photo courtesy of Brite Iris Film Company.

Opening in 1939, students flocked to the new School of Design because Moholy-Nagy believed that everyone was an artist. Education was doing, not reading. To succeed in his classes you needed to know all the ins and outs of the material you were working with as well as the tools. It was mandatory not just to know how to use a machine but also how to take it apart and put it back together. Art history was incorporated into the daily work not taught separately. His philosophy was that design serves a social good. The goal was to make things that people needed and wanted.

With the advent of World War II, he adapted his curriculum to incorporate therapeutic design using alternative materials because steel was in short supply. He believed that the purpose of technology was to improve lives.

Always struggling to keep the school afloat, (a charming fundraiser he was not) many of his students would go on to fame and in some cases fortune. As an educational innovator he was a great success.

An exhibit of Moholy-Nagy’s work in “The New Bauhaus.” Photo courtesy of Brite Iris Film Company.

Moholy-Nagy’s lasting fame, however, is his wide reach in the art world. He is considered by many to be the founder of the field of graphic design. His photography was ground-breaking in both composition and subject matter. But he also understood that the essence of photography is in the light. He experimented extensively with photograms, using light as his paintbrush on photosensitive paper. For some it’s a failing but for most it’s a strength that he can’t be tied to one particular art form. He was always experimenting and left behind a vast archive despite the fact that he died in 1946 at the age of 51, a mere 30 years after he first decided to become an artist.

Although usually not a fan of “talking heads” brought on to explain the subject matter to the audience, Nahmias’s choices are outstanding, Whether curators at important museums, educators and former students at the Design Institute, or his daughter and grandchildren, all have important information to convey. That his former students are still so enthusiastic about their time at the school is a tribute to the man and his vision. So see the film, but then search out an exhibit of his works. They will blow you away.

Opening July 20th on VOD platforms.








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Written by: Neely Swanson

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