Moholy-Nagy, inspirational and profound

Bauhaus pastiche, Gillian McIver 2012

On the weekend i went to see a film programme by and about the work of László Moholy-Nagy. The Hungarian born artist was an early film maker,  a multidisciplinary artist and designer, and an educator. He was a dynamo of a man and a very inspirational figure.

I did not know much about Moholy when I went to the show, I had seen some pictures of his static works in books and I liked them, but to be honest it was some kind of instinctual ‘pull’ that made me decide to go and see THAT particular set of screenings out of all of the Barbican’s Bauhaus screen offerings.

The first film, Permanent Experiment, by Jens Schmohl, was a documentary explaining the life and work of Moholy with interviews of those who had known him. I was struck by what a bunch of chilled out serene and grounded old people these were, and how warmly they all spoke of this man who was their educator, so many decades after his untimely death. Wow – to be remembered like that 40 years later. The film by Schmol isn’t a hagiography however, it’s an honest look at a man who was visionary, driven and probably too ‘alive’ to live for long. He used up too much of the world’s energy. But what a man!

It’s interesting to know that Moholy spent time in London,  leaving Germany like many of the Bauhaus members (and with Jewish blood on his father’s side, fleeing for his life) and was not really accepted with open arms.  His Modernist ideas were too exuberant and  radical for the buttoned up Brits, who liked their surrealism polite and their Modernism a bit sour. Moholy was rejected for a position at the RCA – London’s loss was Chicago’s gain, as he founded his own school in that city and played a huge role in the development of the American modernism that has been so decisively influential in art and design worldwide.

Primed by Schmohl’s film, the programme followed by four of Moholy’s works. Ein Lichtspiel schwarz weiss grau (1930) is an experimental film made in the studio, where Moholy has assembled and built a set of objects that interpolate and relate to one another, a play of light and mechanism captured by the film camera which is also part of the interpolation. It is mesmerizing and hypnotic, beautiful and wondrous as the eye trails the light and the glint of metals and the ethereality of glass. I had seen still of the film, but never the film itself, and now I could truly appreciate it.

This was followed by three astounding documentary films: Berliner Stilleben  a portrait of Berlin, Marseilles Vieux Port, and Gross-Stadt Zigeuner a remarkable portrait of a Gypsy community in Berlin. Here Moholy’s camera wanders everywhere, fluid yet disciplined. He gives equal time to the city and its constructions, and its people. He shows the people in the city and the city as a structure, and how people function -or try to function – in it. His Berlin is more of a sonata than a symphony, making a great counterpoint to Ruttmann’s equally brilliant yet very different 1927 portrait of that city (now there is a screening i would love to attend, both Berlin films!). The poverty and deprivation of Marseilles old port is captured by Moholy’s camera with sympathy, not pity; he shows us everything, yet it is never poverty-tourism. He shows us the fortitude and pride of the people especially, the old women, fierce and proud. And his Gypsy film is truly amazing, even more so when you discover (as narrated in Schmohl’s film) one of the gypsies took a potshot at him with a rifle as he was filming and he just kept filming!

I really cannot understand why this was the first time that i have seen Moholy’s films, especially the documentaries. They deserve to be seen far more widely. I also can’t understand why they are not right up there in the annals of the history of documentary. They are on a par with Bunuel’s Las Hurdes.  Very, very important films. No less experimental than Ruttmann or Vertov, but warmer somehow, humane and profound. It is possible to get Moholy’s films on DVD but they are not in regular distribution, you have to get them form the Moholy-Nagy foundation and so they are very expensive. I’d definitely invest if I had they money however. It’s depressing that the likes of the BFI don’t bring out a DVD collection and spread this wonderful work more widely.

As a film-maker, I was really shocked and compelled to realise that so many of the things Moholy did relate directly to what I have been doing myself! His city documentaries are, in principle,  pretty much the same kind of thing I have been working on (with video). Seeing Moholy’s films has pointed out to me things I can improve on in my work.  And  Lichtspiel – the studio based experimental film, brought me back to a piece I have just completed. It’s a dual-screen,  studio based experimental film based on the twin actions of a hand-built zoetrope and feedback from a video projector and camera interacting with one another. I just completed it and when I got home I changed the title from “Immaterial Perspective” to “Immaterial Perspective (after Moholy-Nagy)” since the piece is a kind of hommage – unwitting but very real hommage!

Even Moholy’s film about the construction of the animal houses of London Zoo reminded me of the reams of corporate and commercial work I have done, and the way one tries to inject a minute modicum of one’s own vision into the dry, prescribed product. In Moholy’s case, while I was uncomfortable watching the evocation of the Zoo and its incarcerated beasts, I loved Moholy’s shots where the people appear just as caged as the animals!

And lastly, like Moholy I am also an educator. I can’t pretend that I have the desire or energy to found my own school, as he did. But I’d like to think that by sharing some of what I know, I can help or inspire others on their creative journey. Something Moholy-Nagy is still doing, long after his death.

film by John Halas