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Lucia Moholy’s stolen legacy

"The English Years" celebrates the work of the over shadowed Bauhaus photographer. See some of the photographs that Walter Gropius stole and more at her retro at the Bauhaus-Archiv, on through Feb 27.

Image for Lucia Moholy's stolen legacy
Lucia Moholy. Photo by Anne Meitner

The English Years celebrates the work of the over shadowed Bauhaus photographer.

One day in London in 1946, Lucia Moholy opened up a copy of a MoMA exhibition catalogue and couldn’t believe what she found: her own photographs of Bauhaus buildings and interiors, taken back in the 1920s before her 1933 flight from Berlin. She thought they’d been lost forever. She wouldn’t find out till much later that her old friend Walter Gropius, renowned German architect and founder of the Bauhaus, had them all along and had been lying about it for professional and financial gain.

Now the Bauhaus-Archiv is paying homage to the underappreciated artist and art historian with a special exhibition. The English Years sheds light on the work of a woman who has, until recently, remained in the shadow of Gropius and her ex-husband, László Moholy-Nagy.

Born Lucia Schulz in 1894 in a small Czech town, she moved to Berlin after studying art history and philosophy in Prague. While working as an editor, she met and married Moholy-Nagy. Just a couple years later, in 1923, the Hungarian artist was invited to teach at the Bauhaus, the now-iconic school of design in Dessau. During the five years they spent there, Moholy not only studied darkroom photography, but was a constant collaborator, and the primary darkroom technician, for her husband’s creative work. She also dedicated her time (for which she was likely not paid) making promo images of design objects and photographing Gropius’ buildings. 

She shot on glass negatives using a precarious large-format wooden camera, and she took all of them with her when she moved back to Berlin as the Nazi Party was beginning to take hold. In a year’s time she and Moholy-Nagy had split, and she started seeing a Parliament member from the Communist party. When he was arrested in her apartment, Moholy realised she could never return home and fled, first to Prague and then through Austria, Switzerland, France, and eventually to London. She asked Moholy-Nagy to take care of the nearly 600 negatives she’d taken. That same year, Bauhaus was shut down for good.

During her exile in England, around which The English Years revolves, she met her new surroundings with curiosity, shooting stylised black and white images of London’s buildings and inhabitants. She also opened a commercial photography studio, taking mostly commissioned portraits of London’s elite, capturing them from unconventional, sometimes unflattering angles. Just over a decade later she was working for UNESCO, travelling to Turkey, Cypress, Syria and beyond for archival projects with her camera in tow. The displayed photos from her travels portray subjects abroad similarly to those in her new home, not glamorised or exoticised, but with a raw sense of beauty.

During that time she wrote 100 Years of Photography, the first book to dig into the medium’s impact on culture, which has just been published in German for the first time alongside the show. The images printed in the first edition are up, as well as those that didn’t make the cut, further contextualising the breadth of her knowledge of photography’s history. A year after the book’s publication in 1939, just as she was reestablishing her career as a single woman in a new country, Moholy’s London home was bombed in a Nazi air strike, and she lost most of her belongings again.

Meanwhile, Bauhaus’ recognition was growing internationally. Gropius had also fled, and ended up moving to the US. He collaborated with New York’s MoMA in 1938 to mount a major exhibition – the catalogue for which didn’t end up in Moholy’s hands till eight years later. She contacted Moholy-Nagy to ask where her negatives were, and he said they were with Gropius. But when she wrote to Gropius asking for them back, he claimed he didn’t have them. It wasn’t till 17 years after he brought them with him to the US that he finally admitted to having them, but still, he refused to return them.

Gropius knew well the value of Moholy’s images: during World War II and the Cold War, Dessau was inaccessible to the West, and from 1950-1980 it was illegal to photograph the Bauhaus. Later, after the Iron Curtain fell, the buildings were altered. Moholy’s photos were the only ones that had captured the school in its pure form.

Despite years of legal disputes brought by Moholy, Gropius continued to reproduce the images without her credit and it wasn’t until 1957 that she received a mere 50 of them in a settlement. She worked for the rest of her life to collect more of her negatives from various private hands, and ultimately donated 230 of them to the Bauhaus-Archiv. She passed away in 1989, and according to her records 330 negatives are still missing.

Visit The English Years to celebrate Lucia Moholy’s singular accomplishments. While the story of her stolen legacy is not at the forefront of the show, it’s there for the finding in the newly corrected history books.

The English Years, Through Feb 27 | Bauhaus-Archiv, Tiergarten