Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Handful of Hungarians: First Up: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

It's easy to find material online about the sad Hungarians. The suicidal and depressed Hungarians. Where the Danes are often cited in Happiness Indexes (which Unistat does not maintain, for rather obvious reasons) as the happiest people or near the top (usually with the Swedes, the Icelanders have slipped lately, due to economics, or so I have heard) the Hungarians...? Well, something seems amiss.

But I've long noted that some Hungarian intellectuals and artists have vastly enriched my life. It's an inordinate influence, it seems to me, given the population, and the sheer numbers of artists and intellectuals that have captivated me since my late teens. There may be something in their genes, or in the national ethos of "between-ness"- not quite East, not quite West - groped at by the writer I linked to above - in my second sentence.

The authors of The Xenophobe's Guide to the Hungarians - two Hungarians - write about the deep-seated pessimism in the Hungarian mind: "With Hungarians pessimism is a state of mind. They are happy to cultivate this gloomy view. As they put it, 'An optimist is a person who is poorly informed.' Hungarians are realists: in the their folk tales they live happily 'until they die,' not 'ever after.'"

Maybe they take school very seriously (too seriously?), and so a larger pool of "prepared minds" unleashes more creative genius on the world, I don't know. It does seem that mathematics is/was very well-taught, and very many children gain an enthusiasm at an early age for numbers and solving equations and just generally thinking mathematically. I would call the Magyars the People of Genius, which is often said about the Jews, and clearly, many of the Hungarians I admire are part Jewish, but I still don't feel satisfied I've pinned down what it is about the Magyar people that so resonates with me.

So on with the first of my love letters/appreciations for these magnificent Hungarian nervous systems...

Genius A: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

(Say something like "MO-hoylee Nawj")

Born in Hungary in 1895 and died of leukemia in Chicago in 1946, after studying law before World War I, he was injured in the war and at age 23 fell in with avant-garde intellectuals and artists and decided to pursue art. In early 1919 he supported the Hungarian Communist Party (AKA "Red Terror," nothing threatening to the ruling class there!), but was never all that active, being far more interested in artistic ideas involving Expressionistic play of light and space, and futuristic ideas about industrial design merging with art. The Hungarian commies were defeated pretty quickly, and by late 1919 Laszlo fled repression for Vienna, then quickly to Berlin by 1920. He became a teacher at the Bauhaus in 1923, just as the school's interests were transitioning from Expressionism to industrial design.

                                    Here's a good example of Laszlo's use of lines, graphics, and space


                                    Light Display: Black-White-Gray: Constructivism. If you want to see 
                                                    the thing in kinetic splendor, for 13 seconds, click HERE.


After five years he left the Bauhaus and worked in film and stage design in Berlin. As the political climate began to get cloudy, he bailed for Paris, then the Netherlands, and by 1935 he was in London, by 1937 in Chicago. He worked for the Spiegel catalog in Chicago after the New Bauhaus in Chicago closed for lack of funds. He'd met Walter Paepcke, chairman for the Container Corporation of America, who liked Laszlo's ideas and technical brilliance. In 1939, with Paepcke's backing, Laszlo started the School of Design in Chicago, which later morphed into the Institute of Design, which later became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, the first school in Unistat to award a PhD for Design.

Nothing I write here can adequately explain why I admire Laszlo so much. Even looking at his stuff in other corners of the Internet seems to fall short. If you can't get to a museum to look at his stuff, get thee to a library and look at his works in those big art books, 700s in the Dewey system.

Here's a guy who did pioneering work in photography (he declared that photography could teach humanity a new way to see); he worked in metal sculpture, sometimes with moving parts. He designed posters for the London subway system. When he needed a job in London, he designed a display for men's underwear, which I once saw I forget where, but it was really cool. He was a painter, did photo montage, experimented in typography, studied the art of printmaking, sculpted, ran with Dadaists and Surrealists and people like Walter Gropius. His cousin was the conductor Sir George Solti. His father was Jewish, so we're glad he made it to London and Unistat in time. His overall virtuosity in the plastic arts totally blows me away. His vision was utopian: art and technology would merge, science and design would work synergistically, unlocking a dynamo of creative energy within the human mind and society, and the future would see ever-improvement.

He was romantic. The open source software company Laszlo Systems say they were influenced by him.

I've recently been reading about his experiments with photograms and the use of light, and the effects of light's absence, and think he and Man Ray and El Lissitzky and their brethren may have found a trapdoor into the Illuminati...(I said "maybe.")

Some wonderful writing on Laszlo by one of our best writers on all things avant, Richard Kostelanetz, HERE.

Oh, yea: Moholy-Nagy even took a deep interest in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and here's his info-dense grid-like structural map of the deeper psychogeography of that most postmodern of books (click to enlarge):




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