By Stephen F. Eisenman
Artists have fretted about capitalism for more than two-hundred years. Soon after Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations,” the poet and artist William Blake dampened enthusiasm for capitalism and its culture. He attacked “fashionable fools” who produced “contemptible works” for sale in the art marketplace, and worried about “dark Satanic mills” spoiling “England’s green and pleasant land.”
A hundred years later, things were even worse. Competition for resources and markets led to a world war that killed millions. Vast landscapes were destroyed by warfare, mining and logging, and men and women seeking poorly paid factory work clogged the cities of Europe and North America. Many artists and writers did what they could to condemn the rampant exploitation, even creating a trans-Atlantic, anti-art movement called Dada to negate capitalist logic. It lasted only a few years. Some other artists, for example in Russia, soon to become the Soviet Union, joined the ranks of the revolutionists themselves. They created a Constructivist art that would, they hoped, play a role in building the emerging post-capitalist order. Most of these artists were soon frustrated either by the resilience of capitalism or the failures of socialism.
The Hungarian-Jewish artist László Moholy-Nagy somehow managed to maintain his anti-capitalist faith through World War One, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the Great Depression, exile in London and Chicago, the Holocaust and World War Two. He died of leukemia in Chicago in 1946, aged fifty-one, still full of ideas and in the midst of trying to revive the Chicago Bauhaus. In his life he produced works in every conceivable medium, including painting, photography, film, collage, architecture and sculpture, and in fact invented some new ones. And this was the key to his radicalism: he considered himself first of all a producer and only secondarily an artist. The true socialist in art, he believed, was not the one who expressed anti-capitalist ideas, but whose work by its very form challenged the means of production of his time. The German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, Moholy’s almost exact contemporary, described this as a focus on “technique.” Let me explain what that means with a few examples.
“Composition Z VIII” (1924) is a large painting of seeming simplicity but actual complexity. It consists of multiple, colored, geometric forms interpenetrating in space. At the lower left and upper right are two discs, one black and the other white, truncated by the canvas edge. Between them are a number of diagonal and vertical bars of different colors. By one reading, the bars are separate, weightless and translucent; where they overlap, a new color is produced. By another, they are a pair of distinct, floating structures, each held together by a vertical fulcrum, passing like two ships in open sea. The background of the drama consists of nothing more than bare, nubby, unprimed canvas.
Painting in distemper, as here, dates to Late Antique mummy portraits at Faiyum, Egypt. Single-point perspective, also employed, was a product of fifteenth-century Italy. And yet for all its traditionalism, the work is distinctly avant-garde. The revelation of the bare canvas suggests commercial calico printing. The forward thrust of the forms—they appear to enter the viewer’s space—reverses the usual approach to perspective, which is to penetrate the plane of the canvas. The best comparison I can think of is Caravaggio’s “The Supper at Emmaus” (1601) in the National Gallery, London, with the left hand of St. James and the nearby basket of fruit penetrating the viewer’s space. The combination produces an unusually active observer, one who must engage the work at both optic and haptic levels.
Moholy-Nagy was a prolific photographer and collagist. He asserted several times that the photographic image trumped the written word, and that literacy needed to be redefined in the age of mechanical reproducibility. His humorous photomontage “Mass Psychosis” (1927) depicts a scrum of women in negligees at the top of a cylinder, a similarly assembled group of black tribal people below, a German military officer, a man with a billiard cue, and a woman squatting and aiming a rifle at an anatomical diagram of a man and his elongated shadow. Moholy-Nagy was referencing, with tongue in cheek, Freud’s recent book “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921). Beginning about a decade later, and continuing until his death in 1946, he made a series of slides consisting purely of traces and skeins of colored light that resemble his own tangled wire-and-Lucite hanging sculptures. The slides anticipate the gestural paintings of Jackson Pollock, but because they were made with an inexpensive new technology, they were accessible to nearly anyone. This is what it means for the artist to become a producer: to employ new media that have the potential to turn spectators into artists. For a little while in the 1930s, it must be noted, Moholy, pressed by circumstances, put his talents to the service of the advertising industry. In this case the producer also became a marketer and worked at cross-purposes to his own subversiveness.
In 1927 Moholy wrote: “Well-being is caused by the spirit that animates technology; it is a socialism of the mind, a dedication to the spirit of the group. Only a proletariat awakened to this grasp of essential communality can be happy.” The exhibition “Moholy Nagy: Future-Present” presents the exhilarating anti-capitalism of someone who, in unpropitious times, searched to find the best technique to awaken and help organize an anxious, restless and rapidly changing audience.
“Moholy-Nagy, Future-Present” is on view through January 3, 2017 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.