Lásló Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Bortnyik, and Walter Gropius: The Issue of Depth in Geometric Abstraction
The discussion of art history is a discussion of a narrative, a thread of artistic consciousness that is passed from artist to artist and movement to movement. When studying the whys and wherefores of this thread, frequently the relation between two artists (and thus the relation of their respective styles) is intricate. That is, it is rare to find a clean pass of the needle from one artist to another, there are always fuzzy middle grounds – Thomas Hart Benton taught Jackson Pollock, but how much of Benton’s influence carried through Pollock and on to Mark Rothko during those late nights in New York pubs? Thus, when the relation between two artists is crystal clear, an exploration of both is warranted if for no other reason than to fully grasp the complexities of the artistic style at hand.
This is precisely the case with Lásló Moholy-Nagy and his student at the Bauhaus Alexander Bortnyik. It is apparent that Bortnyik’s work is greatly influenced by his teacher, without question the thread there is obvious. The component that is of interest, however, is Bortnyik’s style is not a direct copy of Moholy-Nagy but at the same time is not simply a separate style with influences from the Hungarian. Bortnyik’s work around 1923 struck an awkward medium between these two extremes.
Before discussing the differences, and eventually sussing out the qualities of each artist’s body of work, one must first examine the similarities between Moholy-Nagy and his student. For exemplification, one can consider Bortnyik’s 1923 Geometric Forms in Space and Moholy-Nagy’s K VII from 1922. The similarities lie in the use of flat plains of color. What is interesting about these two artist’s employment of the flat plain, though, is that its manifestation is not flat and Malevichian but instead a sense of demential depth is present in both works.
In K VII, a feeling of depth and hierarchy is communicated without the use of traditional perspective-inducing aids like a vanishing point or obvious horizon. Instead, the flat plains of color apear to be layered due to the changing opaqueness of the forms: plains that appear to be farther away in depth are less opaque than the plains that appear to be closer. The plains in the front of the visual field are not completely opaque, though, and this adds to the feeling of depth and hierarchy due to the fact that one can see more distant forms through plains that are visually closer.
Further of note in K VII is the notion of pattern and repetition. Each plain has a close relationship with one other plain in the work. The vertical, dark blue rectangle relates to the light blue and slightly more square-like rectangle to its right while the dark blue, thick horizontal plain relates to the thin, line-like red plain that runs vertical to it. This micro-relation of forms with one another creates a cadence in the piece that, as will be discussed later, Bortnyik’s Geometric Forms in Space lacks. Further sources of the rhythm of K VII can be seen when considering the assembly of plains in the foreground – for lack of a better term – in relation to the assembly of plains in the background. Albeit in less opaque tones, the unit of plains in the front is, with one exception, mirrored in the unit of plains in the rear. While this mirroring alone would suffice to relate the two gatherings of forms, Moholy-Nagy increases the tension by making the just outside of square plain a very light yellow instead of the light blue that covers the frontal similar plain. This warmth of color is just enough to relate the rear square-like plain to the red frontal line, thus solidifying the visual connection between both collections of plains and creating the only relationship in the piece between two non-obviously similar plains.
Bortnyik’s Geometric Forms in Space does not share the visual cadence that K VII possesses. The heart of the issue is that, while Moholoy-Nagy utilizes opacity and slight variations in color to produce the feeling of depth present in K VII, Bortnyik employs fairly traditional methods of showing perspective and depth, methods that fail to live up to the abstraction in Geometric Abstraction. To begin with, there is arguably a horizon in Geometric Forms in Space created by the light green form meeting the massive, ground-like darker green form on the left of the piece. While a case could be made that this is just two forms meeting, the feeling conveyed is one of a traditional landscape: a lighter sky, a darker ground. Yes, the light green form ends around the horizontal midpoint of the piece, meeting another dark plain, but the greens of this dark plain appear to differ from the greens of the “ground” plain, thus making the “ground” plain a separate entity. Beyond the issue of the horizon, the busy collection of forms where the grey, dark green, light green, and even red and white forms meet grants the piece a vanishing point of sorts.
The use of quasi-three dimensional forms and threats of shadows further alienate Geometric Forms in Space from the Geometric Abstraction at play in Moholy-Nagy’s work. The white plains meeting at right angles with the grey plains on the right, left, and center of the piece give the plains volume, something that is wholly absent from K VII. In fact, the only perfectly abstract geometric form in Bortnyik’s piece is the red horizontal that rests in the center of the work, an obvious tip of the hat to his more talented teacher.
While both of these works serve as firm points from which to string the art historical thread, only K VII honestly pushes the envelope. Bortnyik’s piece is too caught up in the old way of showing depth and space to fully embrace the beauty embodied in Moholy-Nagy’s work. The awkward medium that Bortnyik achieves is perhaps not a medium after all, maybe its just a misstep.
When considering another great master, Walter Gropius, in conjunction with Moholy-Nagy, the differences become less clearcut and objective. Partially, this stems from the fact that Gropius and Moholy-Nagy are more of a match in terms of caliber, but also because of the zeal with which each artist executes his art. That is, both Gropius and Moholy-Nagy are precise, and successful, in the way in which they embody the Bauhausian mantra of mathematic line and plain in their work.
Moholy-Nagy’s 1923 A XI contains much of the same plays on repetition and cadence as his earlier K VII. The work from 1923, though, is decidedly more theoretical in nature, exploring less the issue of depth and more the issue of perception. While the varying degrees of opacity come into play again, the heart of exploration lies with the slanted, right angle meeting of two thin blue plains. These plains appear to penetrate the other forms in the piece in both the X and Y axis, again punctuating this penetration with shifts in opacity. This time, especially when considering the vertical of the two blue segments, the plains seem to go under and over and under again instead of merely being layers of color.
This more tuned, theoretical examination of line and plain intersections also manifests itself in Gropius’ Monument to the March Dead of 1920. Gropius explores the same issues of similarity and difference as Moholy-Nagy but does it in sculpture, letting the lighting and shadow of the work create the lines and varying shades. Unlike paint, though, the lighting will change over the course of the day (at least with the real sculpture and not the mockup under artificial lights in the Bauhaus exhibition) which creates an even more interesting dynamic. Without a video record of light on the piece, and thus being able to see the transitions and shifts in visual line and plain that take place, it is doubtful that the full value of the work can be appreciated. In this way, Gropius’ earlier work is arguably more interesting than the static paint on Moholy-Nagy’s 1922 and 1923 canvases.
And thus the hat-trick is complete. Moholy-Nagy and Bortnyik exemplify the teacher and student dynamic, where that narrative thread is passed from one to the other but, at least in this case, perhaps not executed perfectly the second time around. Considering Moholy-Nagy and Gropius, however, we see a different situation: a pair of equals, a pair of theoreticians each exploring the same thread in a different direction. The thread running through Gropius to Moholy-Nagy and then to Bortnyik is the same thread that wove the Bauhaus, the epicenter of articulate, and sometimes inarticulate, exploration of Geometric Abstraction, the shockwaves of which are still reverberating.
Image of K VII courtesy of the Tate Collection.
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