László Moholy-Nagy, Telephone Pictures

Moholy-Nagy claimed to create these objects without touching them or even seeing them—how does that work?

László Moholy-Nagy, EM 1, EM 2, and EM 3 (Telephone Pictures), 1923, porcelain enamel on steel, 95.2 x 60.3 cm, 47.5 x 30.1 cm, and 24 x 15 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, at an exhibition devoted to the work of the great Hungarian avant-garde artist, László Moholy-Nagy. We’re looking at three enameled images. I can’t call them paintings, I can’t call them sculptures, they’re not quite signs.

Dr. Elizabeth Otto: [0:23] These are often referred to as “The Telephone Pictures.” Moholy-Nagy claimed that he created these entirely without touching them or even seeing them.

Dr. Zucker: [0:33] When we think about painting, the hand of the artist is almost like their signature. It is their presence in the object. So what does it mean to create a work of art where there’s a distance?

Dr. Otto: [0:41] This is a moment when artists are trying to rethink what it is to be an artist. Part of that is to think of art as completely a product of the mind and the eye, and not at all having to do with the individual artist’s hand. This is presented almost like a display in a store.

Dr. Zucker: [0:57] This is an inexpensive mechanical process.

Dr. Otto: [1:00] The reason he called them telephone pictures is that he sat down with graph paper and plotted out how these pictures should look, what color should be in what square, called up a technician in a factory who had the same graph paper — another modern technology — and the technician was able to plot out the same squares and then manufacture the pictures in three different sizes.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] He’s dissolving the distinction between the fine artist and the engineer.

Dr. Otto: [1:25] One of the major projects of the Bauhaus — the institution to which Moholy-Nagy is most closely linked — was that it would dissolve what the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, called the arrogant distinction between the craftsman and the artist. When Moholy-Nagy comes in in 1923, the Bauhaus is in the midst of a big change away from craft and towards technology.

[1:47] The new slogan is “Art and technology, a new unity,” and Moholy-Nagy is brought in as the embodiment of this.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] You do see the scientific rigor, and although the image itself seems very simple, this white field with two black stripes, a red stripe, a yellow bar, and then something a little bit more complicated, perhaps either a yellow horizontal that has been outlined in red or yellow in front of red. He’s creating complex spaces. What is in back of what? What is in front of what?

[2:14] Are all of these elements the same size, but further away? Dissecting the cues that we’ve learned over the 500 years since the Renaissance and how we depict an image on a flat surface.

Dr. Otto: [2:25] Right at the same time, Moholy-Nagy is creating paintings that are exploring some of these same problems. How are we to orient ourselves in relation to this picture is one of the questions I think it poses to us.

[2:36] Is this a space of imagination? Is it a representation or is it just something flat? Is it an industrial object? Is it a picture to have in your home? Is it something to help you contemplate a new utopia that hasn’t yet been imaged, but Moholy-Nagy was very interested in himself? All of these things are in these pictures.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] Because it’s not paint that’s been applied to the surface, most of the surface is as deep as everything else. There is a uniformity to the depth of each color. One is not so much on top of the other, with a possible exception of the yellow, which seems to bulge out and actually ride physically on top of the red.

Dr. Otto: [3:12] Which I wonder, is that communicated in the telephone conversation or is that a quirk of this technology?

[3:18] After all, it is still somebody putting bits of pigment onto a surface and it’s heated up so it’ll stay for forever, but beyond that it’s a lot like painting in some ways still.

Dr. Zucker: [3:28] Except at the distance of a telephone call.

[3:30] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Otto and Dr. Steven Zucker, "László Moholy-Nagy, Telephone Pictures," in Smarthistory, April 6, 2017, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/moholy-telephone/.