About Moholy-Nagy

Biography

LMN Biographical Sketch

LMN Biographical Sketch

The Biographical Sketch encompasses pivotal events that shaped László Moholy-Nagy’s life.

BEGINNINGS IN HUNGARY AND A SOJOURN IN VIENNA (1895-1919)
© 2004 The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy

László Moholy-Nagy was born in 1895 in Borsod, a small village in southern Austria-Hungary. The village name was later changed to Bácsborsod and the country is now the Republic of Hungary. László’s father was the foreman of a large estate, who left his family when his children were young. Three sons survived, of which László was the middle child. Their mother took the boys to her family in Ada, now in Serbia, and their maternal uncle, Gusztáv Nagy, became their guardian. He was a lawyer and lived in the nearby town of Moholy.

László and his younger brother, Ákos, went to high school, in Szeged, at that time Hungary’s second largest city, while the oldest son, Jenö, went to school in Budapest. László’s first ambition was to become a writer, and while he was still in school some of his poetry was published in the Szeged newspapers. But when he graduated in 1913, his uncle encouraged him to study law in Budapest and the family moved to the capital. World War I interrupted László’s law studies, which he never finished. In 1915 he enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army as an officer in the artillery.

He had begun to draw before he went into the army. But he turned to it in a serious manner during his many hours in artillery observation posts. He produced hundreds of sketches, many in color, on the backs of military-issue postcards that he could easily carry with him. These drawings are lively and often humorous and, in effect, record his military career. In 1917 his left thumb was shattered by shrapnel. He had a long convalescence in Budapest and went on reserve status. The War was a terrible experience for him; not only the trauma of being wounded, but also the appalling conditions of trench warfare. In common with many other veterans, a strong sense of social idealism began to crystallize at this time.

While on reserve in Budapest, he published short stories and literary criticism, but he was already thinking seriously about becoming an artist. He was encouraged by a close friend, Iván Hevesy, an art critic, who was another of his important early mentors. He attended evening classes at Robert Berény’s art school and entered his work in exhibitions. So around 1918, at the age of 23, he embarked upon his career as an artist. His early paintings and drawings were figurative and tended towards Expressionism.

Except for a very brief hiatus at the end of the 1920s, Moholy considered himself a painter, first and foremost. His short autobiography, Abstract of an Artist (1944), gives an account of how his art evolved. He wrote that at first his work was figurative because he found the contemporary art of his day chaotic. He didn’t understand Cubism, Fauvism, or Futurism. He studied the drawings
of artists like Rembrandt and van Gogh and became fascinated by the expressive power of lines alone without halftones. Then he began to study composition and, finally, the effects of color on composition. He made collages of juxtaposed colored paper strips and carried these configurations over into paintings of agricultural fields. By 1919, if not earlier, he was also experimenting with Dadaist compositions.

And he may also have begun to photograph at this time, probably introduced to photography by a friend, Érzsi Landau, who had her own studio in Budapest.

When the War ended, László returned to Szeged, where he remained for almost a year before leaving for Vienna at the end of 1919. In Vienna he joined the MA (Today) group of Hungarian avant-gardes in exile, a group founded and led by the artist and writer, Lajos Kassák. But he found Vienna uncongenial and in the spring of 1920 he moved on to Berlin. In common with many other veterans, a strong sense of social idealism began to crystallize at this time.

While on reserve in Budapest, he published short stories and literary criticism, but he was already thinking seriously about becoming an artist. He was encouraged by a close friend, Iván Hevesy, an art critic, who was another of his important early mentors. He attended evening classes at Robert Berény’s art school and entered his work in exhibitions. So around 1918, at the age of 23, he embarked upon his career as an artist. His early paintings and drawings were figurative and tended towards Expressionism.