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A Conversation With Hattula Moholy-Nagy « MAD Blog
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A Conversation With Hattula Moholy-Nagy

On the occasion of the opening of  Space, Light, Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta, MAD jewelry curator Ursula Ilse-Neuman sat down for a conversation with Hattula Moholy-Nagy.  Hattula is the daughter of László Moholy-Nagy, the gifted and multi-faceted artist, who was a great influence on Margaret De Patta. For more than 40 years, Hattula has devoted herself to researching her father’s life and work, while continuing to work in her own profession as a pre-Columbian archaeologist. In 2003 she organized the Moholy-Nagy Foundation, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ursula: Welcome to the museum, Hattula. Can you tell us about the major activities of the foundation?

Hattula: Well, my sons and I organized the foundation with several goals. One of the most important was to bring the life and work of Moholy-Nagy to the public. The other goal was to protect and conserve many of the artworks in the estate, and see that they are properly taken care of. Another goal which we are working on bit by bit is to publish a catalog of all of Moholy-Nagy’s work. This is a tremendous undertaking because he was so multi-faceted.

Ursula: What are your recollections of your father at the Chicago Bauhaus? You were a mere teenager when he passed away so early. He also led an extremely hectic life as an internationally renowned artist, designer, filmmaker, educator, and a family man. Can you tell me a little about the many roles he played?

Hattula: Well, we were always aware that he was very involved in the school. And he did travel an enormous amount, he came to New York very often. He was mostly gone by the time we got up, and he was mostly not home by the time we went to bed. My mother insisted, finally, that he spend at least Sunday mornings with us. So that was nice, my main memories of him are from these mornings when we had him to ourselves.

Ursula: You speak about your mother, can you tell us a little bit more about her? How she was involved both with the Bauhaus, but also otherwise, I’m sure she was a very big help in his life.

Hattula: She was an enormous help. I mean, she was his infrastructure. He really wouldn’t have been able to accomplish half of what he did without her help. She took care of all of the day to day housework sort of things. She raised the children practically single handed. He didn’t drive so she drove him around wherever he had to be driven around to. She gave dinner parties so that he could socialize with Chicago sponsors. Oh and she ran the summer school. And her English was better than his so she would edit his papers and type them up.

Ursula: What language did you speak at home?

Hattula: We spoke English, which in a way is too bad because I lost my German that way. But on the other hand, this was WWII and Chicago had a lot of Germans, not all of whom thought Roosevelt was a good thing, so also my folks were anxious to perfect their English, so we spoke English.

Ursula: Now what do you consider amongst Moholy-Nagy’s many, many accomplishments to be his greatest contribution, or his strongest interest? Was it in the teaching area or was it as an artist, how were his daily activities balanced?

Hattula: I would say it was education. He was very enthusiastic about Bauhaus education, especially about the social aspects of Bauhaus education. He was also a strong proponent of the progressive education movement. A great admirer of John Dewey. So he was trying to combine these different aspects, this social aspect with the attitude towards experimentation, towards building a better world through good design.

Ursula: Could you speak more about the social aspects of the Bauhaus?

Hattula: The idea of the German Bauhaus was to promote good design. Designs that were both beautiful and functional. The union of art and technology. And to make it available to lower income people, not just to the very wealthy. So there’s a utopian aspect to all of this, it was to try to make a better world after this horrible experience of WWI.

Ursula: He had such enthusiasm, which is wonderful for students.  Do you remember him making photograms? It is this camera-less process that so very important in De Patta’s work, and so influential.

Hattula: I don’t remember him making the famous ones because those were done in the school, in the dark room. But I do remember when he was working with paper that changed color in sunlight. He showed me how you could put things on the paper and they would make a pattern or he had a bedspring, a metal bedspring, and he wrapped the paper around that and he said go and hold it in the sunlight.

Ursula:  The spiral configurations!

Hattula: Yes, he had us making them, at least that’s my memory.

Ursula: And you made them too as a teenager?

Hattula: Yeah, anybody can make a photogram.  You can make a beautiful picture out of anything.

Ursula:  What about the Light Space Modulator, arguably his famous kinetic light sculpture? Do you remember him speaking about it or even demonstrating it to you as a child.

Hattula: No, but I do remember the film. Lichtspiel Schwarz Weiss Grau, Lightplay Black, White, Grey. Every now and then he would do a movie night, and so we would take out the 16mm projector from the closet and set it up and he’d show the movies. What I remember about Lightplay, was the projector was old and it made a lot of noise, and it just seemed like the perfect accompaniment for these shifting metal shapes, so that’s what I remember. I don’t remember the actual sculpture, but I remember the film very well

Ursula: And it was totally abstract work, how did you react to it as a young person?  Did you think about the wonderful images, or did you think it was weird?

Hattula: I’ve always thought it was very beautiful.  I still think it’s very beautiful.

Ursula: I am sort of curious about the women at the Institute of Design. The German Bauhaus was notorious for channeling most of the women, not all, but most into the weaving workshop. Was it any different in Chicago?

Hattula: Yes it was, and I think it was a necessity, because it was during the war, so the young men were being drafted, and Moholy-Nagy needed students to keep the school going. So I think he treated the women students as he would the men. The women had to learn how to use power tools, and I think their work was valued as highly as that of the men’s. It had to be.

Ursula: Do you see in De Patta’s work a response to your father’s art and aesthetics?

Hattula: Oh yes, definitely.  My father was sort of obsessed with light. It made me happy to see the way Margaret used light as a component to the structure of her jewelry. And those opticuts are wonderful. And also her use of translucent stones. So I think that there was definitely an influence there.

Ursula: Hattula, having seen the De Patta exhibition at MAD, do you think your father would have agreed with our interpretation of De Patta in terms of your father’s take on aesthetics, light, space, structure?

Hattula: I think so. I certainly agree with it, I think you did a beautiful job juxtaposing Moholy’s art in one hand and De Patta’s art in the other. And I know he would have been terribly happy that one of his students received recognition. He was always happy about that. I think he would have been very happy with the exhibition.

Ursula: Thank you so much Hattula for your insight and your memories of your father. We really appreciate having you here and thank you so much.  I hope it won’t be your last visit with us. Thank you.

Hattula: You’re very welcome and I must thank you and the Museum of Arts and Design for the kind invitation. It was a wonderful learning experience for me to see the show, to learn more about Margaret De Patta and to see the museum.


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