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April 24, 2006

When Modernism Works: Albers & Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World at Tate Modern

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Albers & Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World
Tate Modern, London
9th March - 4th June 2006
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

There was much to enjoy in Chris Peachment's review of an exhibition of Second World War artists at the Imperial War Museum. But I was puzzled by the following assertion. He says:

how inappropriate abstraction is to portraying war. Only realism will do.
I wonder what he makes of Picasso's Guernica. But then, he might argue, Guernica conveys the horror of war, not the actual day-to-day experience of trench warfare or aerial combat.

Symbolically, however, I would argue, the air that Picasso's putto in the top right-hand corner breathes (and she is, I think, a pictorial of the vengeful fate to be found in Botticelli's Primavera) is toxic, spreading havoc like bombs falling from the skies. The graceful, upright maidens in Primavera, by the time Picasso gets his hands on them, have all fallen down. This change of planes is something that devastates natural order. Something one of the artists in the Tate Modern's exhibitions understood only too well.

In the years immediately following the First World War, two pioneers of 20th-century art, Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy, abandoned representational art in favour of abstraction. Tate Modern brings them together for the first time in a stunningly good exhibition.

Moholy-Nagy was born around 1895, on a wheat farm in Hungary. His father abandoned ship, and he was brought up by his mother and grandmother. He looked back at his childhood as "a terrible great quietness". The young László was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, fighting in Galicia and on the ferocious Russian front in the First World War. He was wounded, hospitalised and suffered horribly. In between engagements on the battlefields, he made his first drawings and wrote poetry. One of these poems, Light Vision, deals with principles that would come to sustain him:

Space, time, material - are they one with light?
You could say that ideas were all he had left.

If this exhibition is about ideas, and it very much is, there is heart, viscera and energy in it, as well. It is life-affirming in its variety, complexity and depth.

The first room introduces us to both artists via their work with light and glass. In 1920, German-born, 32-year-old Albers abandoned academia for Walter Gropius's Bauhaus. He was drawn by Gropius's aim of combining fine arts with traditional crafts. Albers chose pieces of glass he found and made collages from them. His fascination with his materials is intense and the lattice-work grids he composes are wound in copper wire with all the homespun care of an industrious artisan. If this is modernism, why is it so pretty? And why does it feel so lovingly produced? There is no sense of the machine here. Moholy's pieces – and Moholy was also a recent arrival at Bauhaus – are what he called "photograms". While Albers was experimenting with glass, Moholy was tinkering with camera-less photography, or "painting with light", as he put it. He arranged spring coils and cog wheels into geometrically correct compositions on photographic paper. He exposed them to light of varying intensities, to produce a ghost-like effect of, yes, machinery. But clouded and obscure, so as to look fragile, and almost lost.

At first sight, Room Two reminded me of the V&A's exhibition of Modernist artefacts. For there, right in front of me, was the dreaded Modernist's armchair. But this one, by Albers, was different. It was an armchair I could have sunk into: a commodious frame constructed from mahogany, beech and maple. There was even sprung and padded upholstery (hurray!) with a grey woollen covering – for that Granny touch that I so yearn for. It was the perfect combination of modernist ideals with human comfort. Despite the fact that it was designed (in 1928) for the purpose of being sat upon, it still looks sleek and smart: the nickel-plated screws sharp reminders of its production.

Right behind it, was the daintiest tea glass I've ever seen (Albers, 1926). Made of heat-resistant glass (practical, you see), porcelain, nickled steel and Ebonite, it had a pair of Mickey-Mouse ears for ease of consumption. There was a fruit bowl to match. I could have sat there, sipping my tea, and dipping into a bowl of strawberries, admiring the series of oils displayed in front of me. They are by Moholy and in them he tortures a black line into submission, and then freedom.

I heard the third Reith lecture by Daniel Barenboim before I left for Tate Modern, on Radio Four. As I listened, straining to hear his words against the endless flow of traffic emanating from the Harrow Road, something he said about,

a fantastic vertical pressure of the horizontal floor of music
struck me as, in some incomprehensible way, exceptionally meaningful. He played a crescendo from a Beethoven symphony to illustrate his point. Chromatic half-tones, irresolute chords, all mounting to climax, and I got it. The melody disintegrated under the pressure. But the traffic outside my window rolled on regardless.

Barenboim's words impressed me, once again, as I looked at these pictures.

In the world of sound,
he said (what follows is a transcript from R4's website),
in this magical world of sound, ambiguity means that there are many, many possibilities, many ways to go. And the longer you hold back on the resolution, the more interesting the whole thing becomes. As if the moment where there comes a fantastic vertical pressure on the horizontal floor of the music, and at that moment you know that the music cannot continue any more the way it was before, such as the world was not the same after the 9th November of 1938, or the 9th November of 1989, or the 11th September of 2001 - events that have changed everything both towards the future and towards the past.
And I knew exactly what he meant. Moholy, unlike the Modernists featured at the V&A, did not discard his artistic predecessors. He took their line and moved it forward.

In A 19, the culmination of this series, Moholy does what Beethoven did. In applying pressure to this line of his, interspersing a circle of heat here and there in varying intensities, he creates a pulse that dictates this series. It takes the shape of the flatly black horizontal being coaxed into the diagonal in an explosion of colour. Moholy is giving his melody a visual shape, scattering boxes and parallelograms in its wake, brash colours finally meeting in an explosion.

Moholy once said,

Technical progress should never be the goal, only the means.
This is exemplified in his photographs. Extraordinary that they should be so little known in this country, as one of his jobs when he landed here in the 1920s was to compose photographic essays of Eton school. Dusk on the Playing Fields of Eton is a Gelatin Silver Print showing, in the foreground, two black-clad, top-hatted, lordly youths strolling across a field blanched grey, where, in the distance, shadow-boys in white play a ghostly game of rugger. He doesn't just capture the two boys' sense of entitlement, but their peers' absorption in the rules of the game. All this against a weirdly absent landscape.
I do not so much believe in art as in mankind. Every man reveals himself; much of it is art,

Moholy once said. He must be the most humane artist the modernist movement produced. One senses, as one does with Albers's armchair, that he understood people. Albers, too, exemplifies his debt to the past, in making his armchair sittable-upon. The other photos by Moholy are similarly dazzling in their use of strange technologies and his ability to radiate his subjects with mood and meaning. In Gutter, he makes sewage beautiful. A strip of rough fabric left to rot in a gutter diverts water into the the drain but, in his hands, becomes a diagonal line; the drain a perforated rectangle. These are raw materials indeed for abstract composition. His Negative Cat shows the musculature beneath the fur, the stripes of which are like streams of fire. The tension mounts in its body until it finds expression in electric eyes. Most of all, it is his use of light that creates these unsettling effects.

He was an exciting artist, restless in his experiments with media. In 1930 he produced an extraordinary kinetic sculpture based on his work with photography. At first sight, the Light Prop for an Electric Stage, also known as the Light Space Modulator, looks like a giant, multi-faceted cheese-grater. But he used its revolving, shining, glittering, captivating surfaces to make a film which is shown on the wall in front of it. Light Play: Black-White-Grey (1930) is his most famous film. (He made a socio-realist film about lobster fishermen in Suffolk and a promotional film about London Zoo: he was nothing if not versatile, which is why, I think, the English did not quite take to him.) These other films were bread-and-butter work, Light Play is his cake. The film follows the Light Prop's movements in close-up, resulting in an interplay of reflective surfaces, beams of light and dancing shadows. He called it a

moving painting
which is how it is presented here. The sculpture itself is constructed from steel rods, mobile perforated disks, a rotating glass spiral, mirrors, various gleaming metals and a sliding ball. It is his photograms in motion. Placed on a plinth it makes shadow and light compositions on the walls, floor and ceiling of the room.

There is an unexpected climax to this show. Albers, after playing with sand-blasted glass and photography for decades, returned to grassroots. Leaf Study (c.1940) is two dried ferns placed on translucent paper mounted on black board and made to look like fish swimming side by side. Its grace is almost childlike, and suggestive of a more organic approach to art than is usually associated with Modernism. But both men shattered preconceptions about this movement with almost everything they did, whilst still exploring its themes, and still drawing upon their heritage. Their triumph was that everything they touched they made unique to them.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury. Ms Pizzichini has previously reviewed the V&A's Modernism exhibition for the Social Affairs Unit: Modernism - seeing it at the V&A is better than sitting on it, working in it or living in it, argues Lilian Pizzichini.

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