Born in Hungary, achieving international fame in Germany, and concluding his tragically short life in the USA, László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) was an artist from interwar central Europe who is still recognised as one of the most significant innovators of modernism worldwide. Working across different media – painting, graphic design, photography, film, sculpture – he produced a multifaceted oeuvre that was, nevertheless, centred firmly on his key concerns: light and movement in modern art, the new artistic avenues opened up by modern technology, and the complex tensions of modern life. The artwork examined in this article, Dynamic of the Metropolis, was a seminal work that summed up the early years of his career. It combined his avant-garde inspirations, his interest in Constructivism and typography, with his attraction to modern technologies such as photography and film. It also elucidated issues that preoccupied him from the early 1920s: the tensions between modern humanity and the natural environment, between technology and the biological limitations of humans.
The history of modern art has its share of icons, and the Bauhaus in particular is considered a reliable supplier of great achievements between the wars. Undoubtedly one of them was the design for a single-family house by Farkas Molnár (1897–1945), famously titled the Red Cube, which was planned for the first Bauhaus exhibition in 1923 but then remained in the design stage. The focus of most commentators has rarely been on how the building can be analysed and situated in detail, however, since it is its iconic look that has draw most of the attention. The colour and forms of the designs are reminiscent of the latest creations in painting in the early 1920s, which circulated across Europe, especially in the Soviet Union and the Netherlands. This entails the discussion of Constructivism, which also had an impact on architecture. In the first years of the Bauhaus, the utopian and rational character of art in the machine age was thus negotiated, but at the same time, for many artists, including Farkas Molnár, the human being remained the measure of all things.
In the Budapest suburb of Pasarét, just some 400 metres away from the church of St. Anthony’s, discussed in an earlier article in this blog, is a quiet residential street of villas built in the early 1930s. This unassuming road, Napraforgó utca (Sunflower Street), occupies an important place in the history of interwar architecture and urban thought in Hungary, for it was an experiment in the uses of modernist design in addressing the acute housing problems of the post-war city. Somewhat neglected in the decades after the Second World War, it was declared a national historic monument in 1999, and in the last ten years or so it has become a subject of particular interest due to its putative association with the Bauhaus. The title alone of the Napraforgó Street Bauhaus Association (Napraforgó Utcai Bauhaus Egyesület), set up in 2017, indicates the importance given to this connection. On the occasion of the 2019 Bauhaus centenary, the Association organised walking tours and an open-air exhibition in the street.
This month’s artwork has a double aspect. Primarily, it is a piece of design consisting of white porcelain plates, dishes and cups. Yet it is also a black and white photograph that depicts the set, highlights its qualities, and advances its presentation. It is an example of co-operation between the designer Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976) and the photographer Josef Sudek (1896–1976). The two collaborated on many images depicting and advertising Sutnar’s porcelain sets, glassware or cutlery. While this article pays attention to the role of photography in communicating design, its main focus is the porcelain set. What is of particular interest is the place it occupied between commerce and art in the attempt to elevate the aesthetic standards of a regular Czechoslovak home.
The second keynote lecture of our workshop Modernity and Religion in Central European Art and Architecture will take place at
18.00 CET on 13 May 2021
Elizabeth Otto (State University of New York at Buffalo)