Painting With Light

The Bauhaus influence on the cinematic avant-garde
by Gregory Zinman  posted November 19, 2009
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In 1923, the same year that he joined the faculty of the Weimar Bauhaus, Hungarian polymath Laszlo Moholy-Nagy wrote that he wished to create a means of "light composition," in which "light would be controlled as a new plastic medium, just as color in painting and tone in music." Having begun his artistic career as a painter, he  had turned to design, typography, film, and photography by the time he took over the school's introductory Vorkurs course from Johannes Itten. Moholy was one of a small group of artists in Germany—including Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and Walter Ruttmann—seeking to challenge the cultural primacy of easel painting via the development of a new art form, one that would better represent modernity while opening up new possibilities for visual expression. At the Bauhaus, Moholy and his colleagues conducted numerous film and light experiments that can now be understood as precursors to a host of experimental film practices. Equally significant were Moholy's visionary writings on film, which outstrip his actual filmmaking achievements by uncannily anticipating new applications of the moving image.

A new retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, "Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity" (running through January 25), marks the school's 90th anniversary by charting its history and subsequent influence on the worlds of art, design, and architecture. While Moholy and others lectured on the subject, cinema was never explicitly part of the school's curriculum, and not many films were actually made under the direct auspices of the Bauhaus. Perhaps as a reflection of cinema's marginal status at the Bauhaus, MoMA is only screening two films in the exhibition. The first is a nine-minute Neue Sachlichkeit documentary from 1926, How We Live in a Healthy and Economic Way: Part IV: New Living. The House of Professor Gropius, Dessau, which demonstrates the streamlined functionality of Bauhaus design. The second is Moholy's six-minute 1930 document of his own kinetic sculpture, Lichtspiel: Schwartz, Grau, Weiss (Light Play: Black, Gray, White). While the moving image work and theory of the Bauhaus remain largely relegated to film history's footnotes, a consideration of its far-flung experiments demonstrates both their prescience and influence (articulated and unacknowledged) over the cinematic avant-garde that would follow.

Gropius's stated goal of eradicating class distinctions via the marriage of art and craft was rooted in constructivist principles of elementary form, machine aesthetics, and utopian rhetoric—summed up in the new Bauhaus slogan of 1923, "The Unity of Art and Technology." Moholy-Nagy's's experiments in photography, film, and kinetic sculpture at the Bauhaus similarly emphasized the confluence of formal craft and technology. He believed that the use of light and abstraction would engender the expansion of human perceptual faculties and consciousness and that these advances would develop from scientific exploration of artistic materials. Film's technological nature lent itself to the humanist machine aesthetic Moholy was developing.

Moholy's interest in film grew out of his investigations into cameraless photography, which he called photograms, or "writing with light." By placing objects and projecting illuminations onto photosensitive paper and then exposing it to light, Moholy composed abstract pictures of image and shadow. He arrived at this technique independently, though Man Ray in Paris and the German painter Christian Schad, working in Italy, had already made similar inroads into cameraless image-making. Using a variety of materials to shape and transform light, including metal, glass, tissue, oils, water, and acids, he concluded, "Since these light effects almost always show themselves in motion, it is clear that the process reaches its highest development in the film." Man Ray brought his still photograms to life in Le retour à la raison (1923), and the idea that a film could be made without a camera would animate a later generation of direct filmmakers, including Harry Smith, Len Lye, and Norman McLaren, who would paint, scratch, and draw directly on celluloid.

Light Displays

Moholy began addressing film directly a year before he started his Bauhaus stint. In a landmark essay, "Production-Reproduction," he exhorted artists to rethink their use of technology to create, rather than capture, new sounds and visions. He praised Walter Ruttmann's musical animations as well as the color organ performances of Danish inventor Thomas Wilfred, whose instruments produced shifting miasmatic clouds and shapes of brilliant color and vibrancy, for their foregrounding of motion in their moving images. He heaped even greater approbation on the animation experiments of Hans Richter and Swedish artist Viking Eggeling, before concluding that kineticism should be the goal of the moving picture.

Moholy further suggested that filmmakers use film's resources of "color, plasticity and simultaneous displays, either by means of an increased number of projectors concentrated on a single screen, or in the form of simultaneous image sequences covering all the walls of the room." He also formulated ideas regarding "light cannons" that would project images onto clouds or gas, mobile projectors, malleable screens, and public light displays. Moholy imagined a genuinely experimental cinema liberated from convention and driven by developing technology. In other words, Moholy, writing in 1922, dreams up the project of expanded cinema.

It was at that very moment that Bauhaus students Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Josef Hartwig, and Kurt Schwerdtfeger were realizing that dream by constructing hand-manipulated color organs—played by up to four people at once—to project layered, full-color moving geometric forms onto a transparent screen. After completing myriad experiments building various apparatuses with liquids, mirrors, moving lenses, and colored lights, Hirschfeld-Mack published an explanatory booklet describing this "future art," and gave performances of his Reflektorische Farbenlichtspiele (Reflecting Color Instrument) in Berlin, Vienna, Weimar, and Leipzig. That these performances were considered kin to avant-garde cinema is borne out by the inclusion of Hirschfeld-Mack's live light show Color Sonata in Three Movements at the 1925 Absolute Film show in Berlin. Hirschfeld-Mack's piece was part of a program that screened such pioneering avant-garde works as Rene Clair's Entr'acte, Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy's Ballet mécanique, Eggeling's Symphonie diagonale, Ruttmann's Opus II-IV, and Richter's Film Is Rhythm.

Hirschfeld-Mack wished to reduce filmic representation to what he saw as its essential elements, light and time:

We experimented for two years with reflected light compositions to control actual movement of light shapes in rhythmic succession, colors, points, lines, etc., on a screen until mastery of this possible future art was successfully achieved. A special and complicated apparatus was invented for this purpose and hand-manipulated by four students who played their parts from a specially written manuscript. The music was written to form a unity with the rhythmic movements. Yellow, red, and blue in glowing intensity, blended with silvery grey colors moved about in varying tempi on the dark background of a transparent screen. They appeared at one moment as angular forms, triangles, squares, pylons; then as curved shapes, circles, arcs, and wave-like patterns; they joined and created overlappings and color blendings as a result.

Here we see the emphasis on repeated investigation of the medium ("experimented for two years"), the close association of light art with music, the construction of unique equipment, and the stress on simultaneity and superimpositions that characterized the psychedelic light shows that would envelop New York auditoriums and San Francisco discothèques more than 40 years later.

Moholy included Hirschfeld-Mack's abstract score for Color Sonata in his first Bauhaus book, Painting, Photography, Film, in 1925. In the text he announced, "traditional painting has become a historical relic and is finished with," offering light as the principle and material of art's next movement. He also expounded on photography's ability to enhance human perception and lauded film as the potential synthesis of all other arts. In an attempt to prove his points, he printed a revised version of his own typo-photo plan for a film, Dynamic of the Metropolis (1921-22), which had been published the previous year in the Hungarian art journal MA. Moholy's plan, full of geometric designs and the experimental typography that would become a Bauhaus hallmark, calls for fast edits and the use of parallel film strips, and describes the kind of associative, abstract urban documentary that Ruttmann would take up with Berlin: Symphony of a Great City in 1927, and Dziga Vertov would enact with Man With a Movie Camera in 1929. Moholy writes:

The elements of the visual have not in this film an absolute logical connection with one another; their photographic, visual relationships, nevertheless, make them knit together in a vital association of events in space and time and bring the viewer actively into the dynamic of the city.

In one sequence of the unrealized film, images of jungle cats were to be interspersed with shots of Berlin's buildings and citizens. Dynamic of the Metropolis thus appears as a close cousin to the volatile montage of Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin would cause a seismic shift in German film aesthetics when it screened in Berlin in 1926. The plan also called for another kind of "writing with light," the appearance of the artist's signature as a light sign reading: "YMOHOLYMOH." The idea suggests the scrolling text of a Times Square sign—an endless fragmentation, repetition, and variation on the name, an artist's signature for an electronic age.

Light Films

The film works that Moholy produced during this time followed divergent paths. On the one hand, he made short, amateurish social documentaries whose formal qualities seem at odds with his professorial emphasis on craft and technique, and, on the other, continued his investigation into the properties of light and vision. Though Berlin Still Life (1926) is titled for a painterly tradition, the film is full of motion. Shot with short takes in the city's slums, it showcases streetcars, machinery, and the hulking architecture of Berlin's tenements. The structures threaten to blot out the sky and illustrate the diminished role of the individual in an urban landscape where, in the words of Moholy's wife and collaborator, Sybil, "economic depression and political defeatism" trumped hope or the promise of a better life.

Originally intended as a large-scale production with scores of men marching in formation against a futuristic backdrop, the production ended up being a shoestring affair that achieved its effects more modestly. Moholy perched himself on ledges and roofs to achieve aerial views, utilized close-ups, and played with extreme contrasts of light and dark. As a matter of principle (and perhaps as a means of explaining away his lack of technical skill and resources), Moholy eschewed perfect lighting in favor of verité, saying, "All human life has its shadow. Without it, it stops being human. But the typical studio lighting—this insane crossfire of illumination—creates a shadowless world that is without appeal because it is unfamiliar. How rarely does one actually see in sharp focus!" The themes of this film are sharpened in his next documentary, Marseille vieux port (1929), which juxtaposes shots of the French city's indigent against images of its fetid sewers.

After he left the Bauhaus in 1928, Moholy made similar films about the endangered Roma population of Germany, the architecture of Athens and the London Zoo, and, strangely, lobster fishing. In 1933, the year of the Bauhaus' shuttering by the Nazis, Moholy lectured on the importance of amateur filmmaking as a buffer against commercialism and censorship. He encouraged students to experiment with film and collectivize as part of a program of "permanent intellectual-revolutionary education." Filmmaking, for Moholy, would be the reportage and poetry of future generations. A few years earlier, he wrote that the "inability to use a camera will in the future undoubtedly be regarded as analogous in point of illiteracy as inability in the use of the pen."

Light Prop

This is not to say, however, that Moholy had abandoned his interest in moving image abstraction. He spent years working on a kinetic device that would automatically project a changing array of light effects. This mechanized, rotating, sculptural assembly of metal mesh plates with circular perforations, wire, and glass was referred to as, alternately, "a space kaleidoscope," a "Light display machine," a "Light Prop for an Electric Stage," and a "Light-Space-Modulator." Moholy had tinkered and experimented with the machine's design for about eight years, starting in 1922. Although he had meticulously planned its variety of effects, he was surprised to see the results of his efforts when the device was first turned on in 1930. "I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice," he wrote. "The mobile was so startling in its coordinated motions and space articulations of light and shadow sequences that I almost believed in magic."

The light prop also became the basis for a film, the aforementioned Lichtspiel: Schwartz, Grau, Weiss (1930). While Moholy had difficulty convincing viewers of the device's potential as a sculptural object, he believed that the film encapsulated the object's alchemical properties. After a title sequence presented by a translucent globe reading "moholy=nagy zeigt ein lichtspiel" (Moholy-Nagy Moving Picture Display), we see a shadow of the artist's hand descending over title cards reading  Schwartz, Weiss, Grau. What follows is a series of close-ups of the apparatus in positive and reversal footage, at times with layers of superimpositions of the turning device and its reflected shadowplay. Over the course of the five-minute film, the viewer does not get a particularly accurate idea of how the machine operates, or the kinds of effects it can produce. In fact, the effects seen in the film have a greater depth and intensity than those experienced by seeing the device installed in a gallery. Moholy relies on many of the filmic techniques he ascribes to his device—the simultaneity of imagery, manipulating the shooting speed to create a sequence of "slow flickering rhythm"—to give us an idea of how such a device might work best. In many ways, Moholy's film is the Platonic idea of the Light Prop, while the actual work with its modest effects is only an echo of that impossible notion. Moholy's shadow-making machine thus ironically recalls the deceptive cave-wall images described in The Republic, its liberatory promise denied by its inability to live up to reality.

The play on the idea of "projection" is richly multivalent, encompassing the physical projection of light in the work itself; the psychological aspect of projection, in which Moholy may be unconsciously denying the limitations of his own art and ascribing its lack of success to others who cannot see what he sees; and cinematically, the idea of projection as the two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional objects, that defining—and vexing—principle of cinematic illusion, in which the image of the thing stands in for the thing itself.

Regardless of its success as a projector of moving images, the very idea of the Light Prop, not to mention its startling design, proved a profound influence on cinema-minded kinetic artists of the 1950s and '60s, such as Nicolas Schöffer, Abraham Palatnik, Julio Le Parc, and Frank Malina. If Moholy's conflation of light and abstraction was co-opted and horribly twisted to Nazi ends by Albert Speer's "cathedral of light" at Nuremberg's Zeppelinfeld stadium, these artists recouped Moholy's utopianism by constructing whirling light displays they hoped would usher in a new age of human enlightenment. Similarly, artist and William S. Burroughs associate Byron Gysin's tubular Dream Machine device from 1961, which produces a stroboscopic flicker designed to affect a state of higher consciousness in its beholder, arguably stems from Moholy's pursuits. More recently, Simon Starling's modernist throwback Wilhelm Noack oHG (2006), shown at the last Venice Biennale, references the idea of a uniquely designed cinematic apparatus. The piece's title refers to the company used by the Bauhaus for metal fabrication. Starling contracted the firm to build the object: a looming, sculptural steel spiral that doubles as a film projector. A 35mm print is looped within the piece, continuously playing a black-and-white film detailing the story of its own construction.

Light Sound

More than 50 years before the advent of hip-hop, Moholy called upon musicians and composers to produce new sounds with phonographs via scratches and noise. Moholy hoped that by studying the grooves of a phonograph via magnification, artists would be able to develop a system of "sound writing" that would obviate the need for the recording of real sound. If this potential could be unleashed, the phonograph would assume its position as "an overall instrument...which supersedes all instruments used so far." In 1928, he extended his ideas on sound production and media inversion to film. He imagined an "abstract sound film" that would rely on experimentation with the optical soundtrack independent of the image track. "The sound film," he concluded, "ought to enrich the sphere of our aural experience by giving us entirely unknown sound values."

This alchemical notion of transforming the handmade written mark into sound was taken up by several artists—including McLaren, Oskar Fischinger, Rudolf Pfenninger, Barry Spinello, and Guy Sherwin—who sought to create systems of what Moholy had called "opto-acoustic notation." To open up new possibilities in filmic image-sound relations, these filmmakers composed their synthetic soundtracks either by painting or drawing marks directly on the celluloid's optical soundtrack or by photographing cards with previously designed lines or waves onto the same. For the synthetic soundtrack, the notation and sound source are one and the same. Neither recordings of natural sound events nor pieces of music capable of being performed by human musicians on conventional instruments (unless they are transcribed into standard notation, of course), synthetic soundtracks represented the first electronic music and signaled an epistemological shift in the understanding of sound.

Moholy's own experiments with optical soundtracks led him to create his very short (and now lost) Sound ABC film of 1932, in which the artist composed or imprinted images of human profiles, letters of the alphabet, and his own fingerprints onto the optical soundtrack. Moholy then rephotographed the optical soundtrack so that viewers would be able to see the sound forms as they heard them. Sound ABC represents a work in which the audio and visual components had a direct correspondence—whatever imagery was seen onscreen was also responsible for producing the accompanying sound. While making the film, the artist joked with a friend that "I can play your profile, I wonder how your nose will sound." Moholy's experiment not only attempts to preserve a sign of the bodily via the inclusion of the artist's written mark and his representation of his associates' profiles, but to preserve the corporeal itself by reproducing the artist's fingerprints. The body was thus present, and re-presented, every time the film was screened. The inclusion of the artist's fingerprints is perhaps the most explicit example of Moholy's attempt to create a personal language.

In a series of lectures given after he left the Bauhaus, Moholy said that he believed that with sound writing, "the complete restructuring of music becomes possible. With its help, we can create a whole series of new sounds." His conception of this new technology even involved the development of wholly synthetic voices, and, as if his anticipation of scratching wasn't enough, he also spoke of improving the abilities of technically deficient singers—apparently, the New Vision included Auto-Tune.


For every film made during the Bauhaus' existence, dozens more failed to materialize due to lack of funds and resources. In 1922, student Werner Graeff (who co-wrote Richter's Ghosts Before Breakfast [1928]) published two abstract "scores," Composition I and Composition II, that he intended to film, but it wouldn't be until 1959 and 1977, respectively, that he would have the opportunity to animate them. Heinrich Brocksieper turned from photography to abstract animation and produced a number of short abstract animations between 1927 and 1930, combining Moholy and Man Ray's photogram techniques with Richter and Eggeling's constructivist geometry. Only fragments from three of his works survive. Similarly, the painter Kurt Kranz, who studied at the Bauhaus between 1930 and 1933, conceived of perpetual transformations of abstract forms based on his comic-strip-style paintings and drawings (his remarkable Project for an Abstract Cinema [1930] can be seen in the MoMA exhibition), though he did not realize them as films until he made Twenty Images From the Life of a Composition and Black: White/White: Black nearly 40 years later.

Yet amid these Bauhaus remnants we still have Moholy's words, describing an elastic, evolving, and exploratory cinema whose project is not yet complete. They are ideas that continue to bring light to the shadow history of the moving image. 


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Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek
Photogram with Eiffel Tower, by László Moholy-Nagy, 1925-29
Photo Gallery: Painting With Light


November 8, 2009–January 25, 2010 Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity


Gregory Zinman, PhD, is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His writing on experimental film and media has been published in The New Yorker, American Art, and Film History.

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