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Lucia Moholy: The woman who helped shape Bauhaus

Marginalised for much of her life, Lucia Moholy's role in shaping the Bauhaus aesthetic is celebrated at the Bröhan-Museum.

Lucia Moholy. Meisterhaus Dessau (1925–1926) von Osten (Architektur: Walter Gropius) Sammlung K, courtesy Galerie Derda Berlin © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

In the mid-1940s, Lucia Moholy was browsing through a 1938 MoMA catalogue when she came across some images that she had made during her time at the Bauhaus. She was surprised to see them, as Walter Gropius – the celebrated architect and founder of Bauhaus – had told her they were all destroyed in an air raid during World War II.

After doing some research, she discovered that Gropius had, in fact, saved the original glass negatives and was passing them off as his own. So began a long correspondence between the two, with Moholy imploring Gropius to return them to her.

Our view has been shaped by Gropius’ use of her images…. Now we have the chance to reshape our view of Bauhaus.

Thirty years after discovering the deception, with the help of a lawyer, she managed to get back 300 of her original 500 images. “Without her pictures, no one would know about Bauhaus,” says Tobias Hoffmann, curator of Lucia Moholy – The Image of Modernity. “In Germany, there were other centres of creativity, like Berlin or Hamburg with Kurt Schwitters, but she made Weimar and Dessau – two small provincial towns – world famous.”

In one defining photo taken by Moholy in 1926, the angular lines of the Bauhaus building in Dessau contrast sharply with the light of the sky. On the left hand side of the photograph, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the crisp sans-serif text written vertically: BAUHAUS. These clean black-and-white images immortalised the movement, and were instrumental in turning it into the most influential art and design school of the 20th century.

Lucia Moholy. Wassily und Nina Kandinsky im Esszimmer ihres Hauses, Dessau 1927 Privatsammlung © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

The Bröhan exhibition presents Moholy’s iconic Bauhaus photographs within the context of her life – born in Prague, she spent the interwar years in Germany before fleeing the Nazis to London, working for the UN, then ultimately settling down as an art writer in Switzerland – and within her photographic output, which also includes documentary workshop photos and portraits.

She was right at the vanguard of photography in the 1920s, framing items with geometric forms and background colours.

“It was also Gropius’s genius to realise how important her photographs were to our understanding,” says Hoffmann. Walter Gropius is perhaps the best known figure to emerge from Bauhaus. A visionary architect, he embraced contemporary materials to produce elegant, pared-down buildings; he was also the most prominent global figure in the postwar rediscovery and celebration of the movement.

But what made him steal Moholy’s images? For Hoffmann, there are a number of possibilities: “Photography at that time was not really seen as art in the way painting was. And he thought: ‘I asked her to do the pictures so they belong to me.’ The other reason is that she was a woman. Not even a student of the Bauhaus, but a wife of one of the Bauhaus professors, László Moholy-Nagy.”

Lucia Moholy. Photo: (c) Anne-Meitner

Though Moholy wrote the texts in the books her and her husband published together and was instrumental in developing the photograms that would make him famous, Moholy-Nagy massively underrepresented his wife’s role. “They were of one brain,” says Hoffmann, “You can’t really separate the work they did together.”

In her book Marginal Notes: Documentary Absurdities from 1972, Moholy wrote about her dismay upon discovering that Moholy-Nagy had failed to acknowledge her work in his book Painting, Photography, Film: “Through all those years we had kept quiet about the extent and manner of our collaboration. How then should friends and colleagues have realised the exact circumstances?” That marginalisation was reflected in how Moholy would say she was more a “documenter than an artist”, according to Hoffmann.

Without her pictures, no one would know about Bauhaus.

“Yet she was so much more – she was right at the vanguard of photography in the 1920s, framing items with geometric forms and background colours to make the design pieces look truly compelling.” Although many female artists connected to Bauhaus were written off as marital appendages, the appropriation of Moholy’s work reveals how the male-dominated protagonists dictated our perception of the school.

“Our view has been shaped by Gropius’ use of her images,” says Hoffmann. “Now we have the chance to reshape our view of Bauhaus.”