The Pedagogical Theory and Contributions of Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus School

Muche | Bauhaus
Photograph by Georg Muche

by Jenna Duncan

January 14, 2011

One of the great contributions of the Bauhaus art movement in Germany in the early 20th century was an attitude fostering experimentation in design and hands-on learning, under the guidance of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and his colleagues Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger, Vasily Kandinsky, Adolf Meyer, Georg Muche and Oskar Schlemmer, students were encouraged to create, construct and dream (Weber, 171; New Vision). The big picture of the Bauhaus School was to train young designers in drawing, painting, sculpture and design in order to apply these skills to architecture (New Vision 17).

The teachers of the Bauhaus and New Bauhaus schools assigned objectives such as to manipulate the surface structure of a medium (creating different physical effects), study space and volume through experimentation with sculpture, play with the refraction of light on or through different surfaces, or simply to create tactile tests that they could give subjects to study their aesthetic preferences (Vision in Motion 65-69). The students would design a chart, wheel or multi-level table containing different textures such as soft fur, rough sandpaper, smooth plastic, etc. They would then invite a subject to run his or her hands over the chart or table and describe each tactile sensation (74-77). They often conducted these experiments with blind volunteer subjects. From these volunteers they often collected the most interesting, impartial physical descriptions of the items the subjects felt with their hands (65-73).

Oftentimes, from the experiments there resulted very practical results. For example, from his students’ experiments in design for the form and contour of the human hand, some crafted more ergonomically comfortable telephone handsets from wood and plastic (Vision in Motion 66-73). Other hand form experiments yielded new designs in everything from fountain pens to screwdriver handles (73). Moholy-Nagy saw the future in “tactilism” and believed the movement towards practicality, which he was helping to teach and spread, would help foster a new movement in art, which he termed Futurism (New Vision 27).

Though not all of their products were wholly utilitarian, the designs that came out of the Bauhaus School commanded the general public take notice. The new thinking born from this movement in design begged the public make closer examinations of the use of public spaces and the devices and contraptions that filled their lives, and to take stock of the purposeless and purely ornamental. In fact, Moholy-Nagy advocated a move away from the purely ornamental and encouraged a move in design towards the organic, functional and most aesthetically appealing (40-67).

Moholy-Nagy advocated a system of organic building reliant on fluidity, where all parts added up to the whole (New Vision 22). He saw function and utility as the main goals of product and architectural design, and even believed that moving towards the model of Constructivism could help fight the spread of Nazi-ism and fascist ideals (20). He believed in the usefulness of the workshop, and encouraged collaboration and constructive criticism amongst students and faculty at the Bauhaus School (21).

Moholy-Nagy was also interested in motion and kinetics, and the way that movement and gravity had roles in figures coming together or moving apart. He also liked to experiment with the use of light in art and design (89). He suggested that the future of art would be dependent on inventing new ways to refract and bend light; painting with light. “We must ‘paint’ colors with flowing, oscillating, prismatic light instead of with pigments,” he write (89). His experiments led him to to try new effects by manipulation refractions, bouncing light off of or through new surfaces or in new and unusual ways. In some cases, he might be credited with advances in optical illusions, or research which led to the creation of holograms and even 3-dimensional photographic and film technologies.

His experiments with photography, photograms and painting with light naturally led him to become interested in film. He was mostly fascinated with new experiments using multiple projections of movement, which he dubbed simultaneous, or poly-cinema (Painting, Photography, Film 41-45, 122-126). “Cubism advanced the work of photography by the study of problems more particularly of its province—especially that of the treatment of surface values… Photography awoke to the possibilities of its own methods only after a decade of Cubist experimentation. The same applies to the use of simultaneous views in motion pictures, also foreshadowed in Cubism (as juxtaposition, in contrast to the post position of cinema projection). Simultaneous action was was attained in Cubism by presenting at the same time a view from above, from the side, from a cross-section, etc.—a kind of spatial superimposition of parts.”

He worked in film in London after leaving the Bauhaus School in the mid-1930s, producing several short films and writing one screenplay, a vision of the busy metropolis, not unlike Walter Ruttmann’s or “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City” (1927).

Moholy-Nagy’s ideas about Constructivism, practicality in art and his theories on teaching and hands-on learning in art, sculpture and architecture were deeply embraced in America, and the legacy of the Bauhaus School lived on through he and his international colleagues who spread out beyond Europe (Weber 304). Moholy-Nagy will be remembered as one of the fathers of a highly influential art movement that has changed the face of advertising, architecture, and practical design forever.

Works Cited
Haus, Andreas. Moholy-Nagy: Photography & Photograms. London: Thames & Hudson.; New York: Pantheon Books. 1980.

Moholy-Nagy, László. Painting Photography Film. 1925. Trans. Janet Seligman. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1973.

Moholy-Nagy, László. The New Vision: Fundamentals of Bauhaus Design, Painting,
Sculpture, and Architecture. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. (1938) 2005.

Moholy-Nagy, László. Vision in Motion. Chicago: Hillison and Etten Company. 1947.

The Moholy-Nagy Foundation. 2004. Web. <;. 27 Dec. 2010.