Books | Culture | Visual Arts

Review: Hungarian Lit Night “Moholy-Nagy in Britain” by Valeria Carullo. An immersive book launch at the Hungarian Cultural Centre



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In the two years László Moholy-Nagy lived in London (1935-1937), his creative energy and innovation were boundless. He charmed the British who warmed to his friendly, ebullient and witty character – ‘that lovely madman’. Poet Steven Fowler in opening the event said, ‘Everyone wants you to be one thing, go in a straight line, so if you’re a poet,  a writer, a film-maker, a visual artist, a composition artist, an architectural designer and architect, normally people will not want to get to know you, but somehow Moholy-Nagy managed to navigate a path through.’

Before serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War, Moholy-Nagy studied law at Budapest University. Fowler explained horrific experiences as a soldier led Moholy-Nagy to realise that his life belonged to art. At the age of 21, still suffering from his wounds, he wrote a poem focussed on the central idea behind his future work, creating art using the light.

_jpg_rgb_1500hFor Valeria Carullo, curator of photographs at the Royal Institute of British Architects and the author of Moholy Nagy in Britain, the discovery of a number of photographs by Moholy-Nagy was a revelation. She knew about his time spent in the UK, so starting with the photographs she was determined to find out what else was in the collection. Carullo, while not an expert on Moholy-Nagy, was a fan. The artist’s intense relationships with British architects – and Carullo’s reason for writing the book – were his wide-ranging contribution to British architecture. The book is driven by a visual narrative, supported by documents and letters as means for Carullo to ‘express myself visually’, as she said, and as homage to Moholy-Nagy.

When he attended in the National Congress of Architects in Athens in 1934, Moholy-Nagy led a design studio in Berlin after a successful stint teaching at the legendary art school the Bauhaus (1923-1928). Ever since, his photography – his vision ‘look at things’ – was perceived as inspirational. In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, he was no longer allowed to work in Germany as a foreign national. Spending most of 1934 in Amsterdam, he made visits to Britain to investigate the new KODAK colour processes, before moving there in 1935 with his second wife Sibylle.

Ready to take on any work, Moholy-Nagy was initially based in an advertising agency on the Strand, producing brochures for Imperial Airways, London Transport posters, and embracing anything else that came his way. He was also involved in designing mannequins, price tags and shop window displays for the retailer Simpsons of Picadilly.

Soon he got the chance to work on the film Lobsters (1936) about the lives of Suffolk, documentary in character but with an innovative visual narrative. Carullo advised that the final frames are particularly worth watching – they include very funny scenes. Other documentaries included a commission by the London Zoological Society of the new buildings of London and Whipsnade Zoo. Through his friendship with poet laureate John Betjeman, he was involved in photographing the Street Markets of London, Eaton School and Oxford University. Another commission for the Architectural Review in 1936, ‘Leisure at the Seaside’, involved him in not only producing the photos but designing the layout as well.  Though not primarily a photographer, Moholy-Nagy had revolutionary ideas about the contrast between light and shade, movement and stillness.

He made many friendships, including Lesley Martin who established the Hull School of Architecture, where Moholy-Nagy also lectured. He admired the British tradition of tolerance, regarding Britain as the last place left in Europe to express creativity and freedom. However, after two years in Britain, he was disappointed not to have obtained a full-time teaching post and moved to Chicago. He died there of Leukaemia in 1946, aged 51.

Moholy-Nagy believed everyone could be an artist and express their creativity – and he encouraged his students to do so.  The evening concluded with an evocative poem, written especially for the event by Fowler, which included the resonant line:

How like László in London to be on Instagram, while I am talking, before it existed.’

Both Fowler and Carullo made an irresistible case for getting the book and finding out more.  The evening ended in lively conversation and superlative Hungarian wine.


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