Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: The new vision (1938)

15/01/10 – A selection of excerpts from Moholy-Nagy’s The New Vision (1938).

Foreword

The New Vision was written to inform laymen and artists about the basic elements of the Bauhaus education: the merging of theory and practice in design. (5)

America is the bearer of a new civilization whose task is simultaneously to cultivate and to industrialize a continent. It is the ideal ground on which to work out an educational principle which strives for the closest connection between art, science, and technology. (ibid.)

To reach this objective one of the problems of Bauhaus education is to keep alive in grown-ups the child’s sincerity of emotion, his truth of observation, his fantasy and his creativeness. That is why the Bauhaus does not employ a rigid teaching system. Teachers and students in close collaboration are bound to find new ways of handling materials, tools and machines for their designs. (ibid.)

This book contains an extract of the work in our preliminary course, which naturally develops from day to day while practiced.

The work of the Bauhaus would be too limited if this preliminary course served only Bauhaus students; they, through constant contact with instructors and practical workshop experience, are least in need of its record in book form. More important – one might say that the essential for the success of the Bauhaus idea is the education of our contemporaries outside of the Bauhaus. It is the public which must understand and aid in furthering the work of designers coming from the Bauhaus if their creativeness is to yield the best results for the community.

To prepare this understanding is the main task of The New Vision. It is my hope that it will stimulate those are interested in art, research, design and education. (6)

Introduction

At present in art education we are striving toward the timeless biological elements of expression which are meaningful to all people and useful to all people. This is the first step to a creativeness for everyone, before culture (values of historic development) can be introduced. We are therefore less interested in the immediate production of the “objective” quality of expression usually called “art”, than in the ABC of expression itself. (8)

1. Preliminaries

The future needs the whole man
A specialized education becomes meaningful only if a man of integration is developed along the lines of his biological functions, so he will achieve a natural balance of his intellectual and emotional power instead of on those of an outmoded educational aim of learning unrelated details. (11)

The present system of production
All educational systems are the results of economic structure. (12)

But how about technical progress?
The true source of conflict between life and technical progress lies at this point. Not only the present economic system, but the process of production as well, calls for improvement from the ground up. Invention and systematization, planning and social responsibility must be applied in increased measure to this end. (13)

Not against technical progress, but with it
The solution lies accordingly not in working against technical advance, but – in exploiting if for the benefit of all. Through technique man can be freed, if he finally realizes the purpose; a balanced life through free use of his liberated creative energies. (ibid.)

Only if it is clear to man that he has to crystallize his place as a productive unit in the community of mankind, will he come closer to a true understanding of the meaning of technical progress. (ibid.)

[…] technical progress should never be the goal, only the means. (ibid.)

Biological needs
In this book the word “biological” stands generally for laws of life which guarantee an organic development. (13-14)

Everyone is talented
Every healthy man has a deep capacity for bringing to development the creative energies found in his nature, if he is deeply interested in his work. (15)

Conclusions
[…] the injuries worked by a technical civilization can be combated on two fronts:
1. By the purposive observation and the rational safeguarding of the organic, biologically conditioned function through art, science, technology, education, politics.
2. By the constructive furthering of our overspecialized scientific culture, e.g., relating its results to all single human activities (15)

The responsibility for carrying out the plan lies with each individual
Only the person who understands himself, and cooperates with others in a far-reaching program of common action, can make his efforts count. Material motives may well provide the occasion for an uprising, for revolution, but they can never be the deciding cause. (16)

[…] the right of the individual to a satisfying occupation, work that meets the inner needs, a normal way of life and a real release of human powers. (ibid.)

The task for education
What we need are:
1. actual life examples of strong-minded people, leading others onward;
2. an integration of intellectual achievements in politics, science, art, technology, in all the realms of human activity;
3. centres of practical education.

The “Bauhaus”
The Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, in Germany, attempted to meet this shortcoming, not placing “subjects” at the head of its curriculum, but man, in his natural readiness to grasp the whole of life. (17-18)

Their training this first year is directed toward sensory experiences, enrichment of emotional values, and the development of thought. The emphasis is laid not so much on the differences between the individuals but more on the integration of the common biological features and on the objective scientific and technical facts. This allows a creative approach to every task. (18)

Objectives and methods of Bauhaus education
[…] not the single piece of work, nor the individual, highest attainment, has to be emphasized, but the creation of the commonly usable type, the development of the “standard.”

To attain this goal, scattered individual efforts proved insufficient. In place of isolation there had to be a general concept; instead of solutions in detail, a serious quest for the one essential, for the basic and common procedure of all creative work. In other words, all design has to be approached with the same questions of function, material, production processes, social significance, etc. The recognition of this led to a new mental attitude and became its most significant exponent. Gropius declared that the designer has to think and act in terms of his time. He wished to abolish the supremacy of intellectual work over handwork. He pointed out the great educational value of craftsmanship. “The machine cannot be used as a short cut to escape the necessity for organic experience” (Lewis Mumford). In the Bauhaus, on the technically simple level of handwork, still possible to grasp as a whole, the student can watch the product grow from beginning to end. His glance is directed to the organic whole.(19)

The Preliminary Course
The basic idea of the New Bauhaus education is that everyone is talented, that once the elementary course has brought his emotional and intellectual power into activity, he will be able to do creative, which means his own, genuine work. This does not mean necessarily “art.” Art is the expression of the highest level of a cultural epoch which cannot be forced by any means. But the comprehensive knowledge of materials, tools, and function makes possible for all work such a high quality that an objective standard, not an accidental result, will be obtained. Thus the Bauhaus does not aim at the education of geniuses or even “free artists” in the old sense.

There are too many “free artists” in the world: they are often minor talents with minor problems and without the possibility of ever making a living. The Bauhaus does not want to add to their number. As members of human society the Bauhaus students must learn to face practical as well as spiritual problems. If, however, by taking in all the practical and spiritual material offered to them during their training, some of the Bauhaus students develop into “free” artists, the school certainly will be glad. This will be their own personal achievement. But as long as they are in the Bauhaus, they must see themselves as designers and craftsmen who will make a living by furnishing the community with new ideas and useful products. This is the realistic basis of the workshop training. (21-2)

The specialized workshops
1. Wood, Metal (object design)
2. Textile (weaving, dyeing, fashion)
3. Colour (murals, decorating, wallpaper)
4. Light (photography, motion picture, light display, typography)
5. Modeling (glass, clay, stone, plastics, etc.)
6. Stage (exposition architecture, display)

The Bauhaus trained architect will know by his previous workshop training that only the closest collaboration of art, science and technology guarantees an organic building purposeful in the physical and spiritual sense as well. (22)

2. The material (Surface treatment. Painting)

Sensory training
[…] a grasp of materials through actual experience of its properties, its possibilities in plastic handling, in tectonic creation, in work with tools and machines such as is never attained through book knowledge in the usual school exercises and the traditional courses of instruction (23)

[…] it is indispensable in human development to pass through all the stages of rudimentary experience in every field of sensory activity; thus man little by little attains his own expression and find the forms to use. (ibid.)

Structure
The unalterable manner in which the material is built up […] (35)

Texture
The organically resulting outward surface […] (40)

Surface aspect
[…] the sensorily perceptible result (the effect) of the working process, which shows itself in any treatment of material, as in the upper surface of material which has undergone change through external factors (42)

Massing (mass arrangement)
[…] the regular, rhythmical, or else irregular, massing (45)

It is difficult to note organic relationships in mass arrangement of surface units, the whole being often not a synthesis but a mere addition. (ibid.)

Exercises in surface treatment
Many people will perhaps not be convinced of the justification of such exercises until some practical application is pointed out. […] But we are, in the first period of Bauhaus teaching, much less concerned with such applications than with the fundamental relationship of man to material, which may be built up by such exercises as this. (48)

Education without traditional approach can perform miracles in the use of tools and machines. The Bauhaus students generally become so interested in their tasks while working on their realization that they do not find any difficulty in the use of machines. (59)

Application
Mere observations as to the make-up of the material are of no value. Effective expression of such observations is gained only in their meaningful application – a very different thing from accidental exploitation of one of the characteristics of the organic origin of the material. Purposive application alone can lead to the optimum handling of material. (60)

The basic law
In all fields of creation, workers are striving today to find purely functional solutions of a technical-biological kind: that is, to build up each piece of work solely form the elements which are required for its function.

Of course “function” means here not a pure mechanical service. It includes also the psychological, social and economical components of a given time. It seems that is would be better to use the terms “organized functional” for design. Such a design must be serviceable eve n to function unforeseen while it in use. (61)

The responsibility
Creative powers can be turned into channels other than the purely ornamental – channels organically more correct. (61)

Ornament
[..] past are the arguments of functional and ornamental form; today nature (the organic) provides the functional form that has essential meaning (beauty). (62)

[...] there should be no fear of the “cold intellectualism” of form merely according to purpose. (ibid.)

Where a complete fulfillment of the functional need has been found, there is nothing left for ornamentation. (62)

“Division of surfaces”
Formulas can never be the basis of creation. Real creation needs intuition on the one hand, and conscious analyses, discretion, mature judgment, and consideration of manifold association on the other. (63)

The criterion should never be “art,” or “not art,” but the giving of form to the necessary functional outlets. Whether this may be called “art” today or tomorrow must be a secondary consideration. (64)

Art
The structure, texture and surface treatment values first played a great part in the work of the cubists (Picasso, Braque). They were later taken over by the futurist, and still later, by the other “ists”. They became, for instance, the stimulus for a new typography; they affected photography, advertising, the motion picture, the theater, and have had many repercussions on our whole life today. (67)

Even today our existence seems excessively burdened with accretions from the past when compared with the new plan of life in which all creation springs form inner necessities. (ibid.)

About cubism
[…] there manner of work is better characterized as the resolution of the objective world into its elements, into dissected and newly organized planes which produce subtle but very definite articulation of the surface. (70)

3. Volume (sculpture)

Engineering assemblage as an economical working principle has had a fundamental influence on the new sculptural creation. (110)

An attempt to lift the heavy decorative base (the pedestal). It is an act similar to the elimination of the picture frame, and the bleeding off of the reproductions in a book. (119)

Toys are in many cases sculptures best suited to our time. They often adapt most suggestively technical ideas and explain the processes better than scholarly discussions. (130)

As is the case everywhere, it is true that a wide and comprehensive knowledge of characteristics and elements is less important for creative work than the capacity and the courage to build up new relations among the elements of expression already at hand, to raise them above the commonplace by giving them a new meaning through shifting their meaning. This state of mind is most successfully attained in one relies on the centre of certainty in the active human being, whose existence and responsibility is grounded in the actual – in life.

Without this sureness, elements harmonious in themselves can never grow into an organism. They remain only a series, forming perhaps a rich arabesque, but of no significance in the sense of the building up, of the biological “nourishment” of man. (154)

Not the representation of an object, or even of a feeling, is the real problem here, but the sovereign organization of relationships of volume, of material, of mass, of shape, direction, position and light.

Thus a new reality emerges. (155)

Precepts of function
The biologic make-up of man is the genuine source of each organic expression. (156)

[…] to supplement these mathematical geometric constructions [i.e., old teachings/formulae of proportion] there is need of a thoroughgoing coordination with the laws to which man is subject and upon which his biological make-up depends. (156)

Precepts of elements
Study of elements may fulfill the purpose of a well-stocked chest of tools, of an encyclopedia, but cannot lay the foundations for creation. (158)

[…] the way of using the elements can be directed only by biological necessity. (ibid.)

4. Space (architecture)

Space is reality
Space is a reality in our sensory experience (162)

Space is the position relation of bodies
[…] spatial creation is the creation of relationships of position of bodies (volumes). (163)

The experience of architecture
The road toward experience of architecture thus proceeds first of all over a functional capacity of grasping space which is biologically determined. (178)

Architecture – all the functional parts taken together – must be conceived as a whole. Without this, a building becomes a piecing together of hollow bodies, which may be technically practical, but can never serve in creating space. (178)

The dwelling should not be a retreat from space, but a life in space, in full relationship with it. (180)

[…] architecture will be understood, not as a complex of inner spaces, not merely as a shelter form the cold and from danger, nor as a fixed enclosure, as an unalterable arrangement of rooms, but as an organic component in living as a governable creation for mastery of life. (180-1)

The future conception of architecture must consider and realize beyond the single unit the group, the town, the district, the country, in other words, the whole. (181)

Architecture will be brought to its fullest realization only when the deepest knowledge of human life as a total phenomenon in the biological while is available. (ibid.)

Instead of static: kinetic
Formerly the architect made from visible, measurable and well-proportioned volumes building masses, calling this “space creation.” Bt real spatial experiences rest in simultaneous interpenetration of inside and outside, above and beneath, on the in and out flowing of space relationships, on the often invisible play of forces present in the materials. (184)

Space creation is not primarily a question of the building material
Space creation is today much more an interweaving of parts of spaces, which are anchored for the most part in invisible, but clearly traceable relations, moving in all directions, and in the fluctuating play of forces. (184-8)

The historic sequences
The ocean liners built since the nineties are the precursors of modern architecture. The necessity of attaining maximum space content and complete stability with the smallest possible weight forced the shipbuilding engineer to solutions similar to those the modern architect achieves. (189)

The biological pure and simple taken as the guide
[...] space creation is not limited to a single structure, it is created in all directions, without limitation; boundaries become fluid, space is conceived as flowing; a countless succession of relationships (198)

Openings and boundaries, perforations and moving surfaces, carry the periphery to the centre and push the centre outward. A constant fluctuation sideways and upward, radiant, all-sided, announces to man that he has taken possession, in so far as his human capacities and present conception allow, of imponderable, invisible, and yet omnipresent space. (202)

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
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