Encounter With Moholy-Nagy

In 1980 John Halas wrote this memoir essay about his time in the Mühely - the Hungarian Bauhaus. Thanks to Vivien Halas for allowing us to reprint it here. All the stills are from the film A Memory of Moholy-Nagy that John produced in 1990. Memory of Moholy-Nagy 1 ‘MÜHELY’ founded in Budapest soon after the collapse of the 'BAUHAUS', was reputed to be at the time the only establishment which carried on the 'BAUHAUS' tradition. There are two possible translations of 'MÜHELY' into English. The first is "STUDIO'; the second 'WORKSHOP'. In the specific period, in the context of the function it fulfilled at that time, the latter translation from Hungarian is the more relevant.

Looking back (which as a rule I dislike doing) to the early thirties when the ‘BAUHAUS' suddenly collapsed, it was not surprising that one of its seeds landed and flourished where many of its tutors came from: Budapest. Among them were Alexander Bortnyik, Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy.

It was Alexander Bortnyik who founded the school, since Moholy-Nagy decided to remain in Germany where he started a design consultancy office in Berlin. This was in 1929/1930. Bortnyik decided to settle in Budapest and somehow managed to raise enough money for equipment and a year's rent, occupying the whole of the second floor in a block of flats right in the centre of Budapest, a few meters away from the world famous Music Academy where Liszt, Brahms and at that time Kodály taught. Both the location and the proximity of the neighbouring buildings played an important part in establishing confidence in the new place. The revolutionary ideas in art and design were advertised and the students rolled in. The place was just big enough to allow Bortnyik and Kati his wife to live, with five other rooms for the students to study in.

Although the right-wing military government of that time did not oppose it, possibly because it didn't know enough about it's leftist philosophy, it certainly did not offer any support either. The 'MÜHELY' however was primarily a workshop where intensive tuition took place and survived on tuition fees received from the then middle-class parents whose children attended it. The commissions for freelance graphics, mainly posters, carried out by Bortnyik, also helped to keep the place financially solvent.

It was during 1930, when I was 18, that I joined the workshop, Personally I couldn't pay; my father, a struggling writer couldn't afford it. I had, at that time, assisted George Pal to do advertising short films but felt that I needed professional tuition in graphic design and arrogantly forced my way in to see the Master. Since he needed someone to wash his brushes and fill up the lettering of his posters with colour, he took pity on me and took me in as a general assistant, without pay.

I found, among others, three highly interesting characters studying there. Gyorgy Kepes, who developed an extremely interesting approach with airbrush textures. Rado, whose colour sense was most impressive and Victor Vasarely who managed to adapt Bortnyik's particular approach of light effects achieved with flat segmented colour shapes.

Soon the number of students swelled to the maximum capacity the place could hold, which was in the four rooms, 16 students. But applications came in and Bortnyik decided to have an evening class as well. Eventually the place held 16 daytime and 12 evening students. With freelance work, Bortnyik had no option but to delegate some of the legwork in tuition, so as his slave I found myself taking charge of the evening classes. I was at the time 19 and attempting to teach students of 40 and over.
Memory of Moholy-Nagy 2 The MÜHELY" was a cultural success and as the next stage of its development Bortnyik decided to enlarge its basis on an international level. He invited Moholy-Nagy from Berlin, Gropius, the founder of the 'BAUHAUS', and Klee from Switzerland as visiting lecturers as well as engaging local artists like Robert Berény whose political views were at the extreme left which, to give credit to Bortnyik, entailed some risks should the establishment get to know about it.

The structure of the place, as far as its physical circumstances permitted, was based on the 'BAUHAUS'. One room was devoted to crafts, design of jewellery and textiles; another to graphics and typography; another to experiments including film and theatre design and one to architecture, furniture and constructional designs. The atmosphere implied that one was involved in a period of evolution, whereby old design concepts were moving into a new twentieth century period with the utilisation of such elements as light new plastic materials, and a concept of understanding of how all these elements are related to basic structures in the world of mathematics and geometry. The concept extended into such details as the construction of new types of lettering composed of geometric shapes which in fact had a strong influence on the future development of typography, taking Jan Tschicold’s ideas a step further and adapting them in practical terms. Practical adaptation was a very strong point about this school. The Russian design school, with Vkhutemas, Rodchenko and Lissitzky among others, were discussed; even the work of Kandinsky was examined. Some were discarded as nonsense; others incorporated as a blueprint for future action.

There was no formal tuition. Everyone was a practical worker subjected to severe criticism by the tutors who were not short of rude and sarcastic comments. Many students could not take this and pulled out quickly. Those who remained appear to have become internationally appreciated like Victor Rado in Sao Paulo, Gyorgy Konecsni in Budapest, Paul Gabor and Victor Vasarhely in Paris .
Memory of Moholy-Nagy 3 Moholy-Nagy came down from Berlin for periods of several weeks, but at first his contribution appeared to be appalling. He was rude, impatient and utterly intolerable and he enjoyed being so, unlike all of us. At the same time there appeared to be no status difference between masters and students. We were all on the same level. The difference between us was that due to experience and knowledge. Naturally the tutors knew more than we did and expected us to absorb what they had to say and show in an impossibly short time.

Nevertheless, one factor was clarified. We were pioneers in looking at and doing art and design in a new way. We approached our work from the point of view of a single complex concept; as an integral part of modern industrial civilisation which had to be changed urgently. There was neither a sense of hero-worship, which later developed around some of these characters especially Gropius and Moholy-Nagy. They certainly didn't expect it from us either. If appreciation had to be applied it was offered to Robert Berény who undoubtedly was the most talented artist, painter and graphic designer among the tutors and the nicest character of all of them. His views were extreme left and he constantly ran the risk of being boycotted by the establishment. His early death before the war was a tragedy for all of us who knew him.

Moholy-Nagy was a great survivor. He could talk himself in and out of any situation, but he was one of the few experimental constructionalists who was able to substantiate his fundamental ideas with actual work which, true to the basic 'BAUHAUS” ideals, spread from one central point over a wide field of activity in visual expression; from photography, graphics, painting and film. His film 'Light Module’ influenced me a great deal. He was able to talk about it for years, although it lasted only twenty minutes. It also influenced Alexander Bortnyik who made several animated films in his spare time, using me as his assistant. By that time, although only 20, I was considered to be an expert and to be trusted whenever it came to stop-motion experiments, photography and technical execution. The long nights of activity amounted to a condition of cheap slave labour, but I didn't mind it at all.
Memory of Moholy-Nagy 4 With the dark clouds gathering over Central Europe, Moholy-Nagy decided to leave Berlin and Budapest to come to London in 1935. Vasarhely left for Paris during 1930. I arrived in London at the end of October 1936. I called Moholy-Nagy soon after. He was preparing on exhibition at the London Gallery in Cork Street to be opened on December 29th. I was asked to assist him to hang his mobiles and to set up the continuous film projection. It was during that period that I had the opportunity to meet again Marcel Breuer who in the meantime had become the undisputed innovator of tubular furniture.
Memory of Moholy-Nagy 5 Both characters made their mark on the British scene but thought better of it and soon, one by one, they left for the States .

As for Alexander Bortnyik, he became the principal of the Academy of Art and Design and a distinguished figurehead of the post–war establishment until his death in 1978.

John Halas
London, 1980

H&B at 75

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