Documentary director and producer Alysa Nahmias shares the artistic strategies she employed while making a film on the life and legacy of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and The New Bauhaus
What was The New Bauhaus? Why is it important to learn about today?
The New Bauhaus was an innovative school of art and design founded in Chicago in 1937 by modern artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and he taught there for the final decade of his life until 1946. After its first year, The New Bauhaus was shuttered by its funders, the wealthy industrialist members of the Chicago Association of Arts and Industries, but Moholy rebirthed it himself with support from Chicago-based tycoon Walter Paepcke and renamed it the Chicago School of Design. Later, the name changed again to the Institute of Design, and the school soon after became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) where it still exists today.
The New Bauhaus and Moholy are protagonists of an influential chapter of American art and design history that is still too little known. The principles of The New Bauhaus, such as a commitment to experimentation and the use of technology for creative purposes are highly relevant today for education as well as an artistic practice.
What were some of the larger philosophical ideas and artistic approaches that were motivating these artists? What can we learn from them?
Moholy-Nagy was a modernist who was influenced by Constructivism, De Stijl, and a variety of European art and design figures including his friend, the architect Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, and the philosopher John Dewey.
Moholy believed that artists should embrace technology but in ways that transform it for “productive” purposes, meaning for the creation of new meanings, aesthetics, and social relevance. He was endlessly fascinated by light and its potential as an artistic material. Moholy believed in inherent human creativity. He told his students, “everyone is talented,” and he seemed to have a genuine curiosity about people’s potential as artists. He understood that they were shaped by the creative process, such that “not the product but the person is the end in view.”
As a designer, Moholy was remarkably prescient about the power of images. He famously wrote, “The illiterate of the future will be one who cannot read images,” which seems like it could have been written by someone in the 21st century who understood smartphone cameras and internet memes were not far off.
Moholy also learned from, with, and because of the support of the women in his life, especially his first wife Lucia Moholy, who was a great thinker and photographer, his longtime companion Ellen Frank, and his second wife Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. One example being that Lucia Moholy introduced her husband to the artistic approach of making photograms in 1920s Germany. The two later became well known as some of the first to work with photograms in the context of formal artistic practice and academic art education.
Talk about Moholy-Nagy. Why was he so singular and influential?
Moholy-Nagy is described by art historians in our film as, “one of the most influential artists of the 20th century,” “a polymath,” and “a paragon of the 20th century.” Moholy was a master of self-invention. He covered a lot of ground in his relatively short lifetime, moving from Hungary to Germany, then Amsterdam, London, and Chicago, and he traveled far and wide to give lectures and commune with other artists. He also taught, wrote, and published a lot. He was an optimist, which is one of the most highly correlated traits in people who are resilient. He believed in the inherent talent and value of others, and that attracted people to him. His art was ahead of its time. Moholy was not only a painter, photographer, sculptor, and filmmaker but also a theorist and conceptualist. Countless contemporary artists consider him an important influence.
What in your life initially sparked your interest in documentary production and direction?
I am an architect and artist by training who learned filmmaking not through books but by working in the field. I have always been determined and passionate about storytelling, and in nonfiction cinema, I’ve found the perfect blend of narrative storytelling, visual and formal expression, adventure, and social engagement. Documentary is as immediate as visual art and can be broadly accessible. It is collaborative and transformative in the most exhilarating ways. It allows me to dive deeply into diverse subject matter, explore profound questions, and connect in unique ways with other people.
What was intriguing to you personally about this film project?
When I studied the Bauhaus while completing my degrees in art history and architecture, I was fascinated by the early years of the Bauhaus and the ensemble of artists who inhabited it. Years later, when the opportunity to direct this film arose, I jumped at the chance. Moholy-Nagy’s life story was not only inherently dramatic but also visually compelling at every turn. It would be an exciting challenge to weave in Moholy’s artwork from multiple mediums (his paintings, photographs, photomontages, sculptures, graphic designs, films, and more) on screen.
Another personal reason for my interest in making this film is that I’m the daughter of a Chicagoan mother. I spent weeks in Chicago as a child, visiting the Art Institute and Wrigley Stadium, and hearing stories told by my grandparents who were born to Greek immigrants on Chicago’s South Side in the 1920s. My Papou would reminisce about selling song sheets on the streets as a child during the Great Depression, joining the military at Navy Pier after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and driving a Coca Cola truck through the city after the war.
I’d also more recently read Thomas Dyja’s excellent book The Third Coast which situates Chicago as a center of 20th century American culture. I knew making this film about The New Bauhaus would allow me to explore Chicago in the 1930s and 40s, a place and time which was formative not only for my family’s history but for our nation’s.
You decided to have an actor read Moholy-Nagy’s words in the film. How did you decide who would voice Moholy?
a contemporary art curator who is not a trained actor. The idea to cast Hans-Ulrich arose when I decided to present the voiceover of Moholy’s words in an unconventional manner. The words needed to be spoken, but not exactly performed. The person reading them needed to have a similar energy as Moholy, but not pretend to be him. The ideas Moholy expresses in his writing aren’t always simple, so the words had to be voiced by someone who understood the meaning behind them in a deep, personal way. My producer Erin Wright knew Hans-Ulrich from the art world, and as soon as she said his name, I said yes! It was an incredibly inspired idea. It was a perfect fit because Hans-Ulrich is a kind of documentarian himself. For years, he has gathered and published interviews with artists and designers, some of which are featured on his popular Instagram account. Fortunately for us, Hans-Ulrich said yes enthusiastically.
Another decision was to film the voiceover so that we could see Hans-Ulrich on screen. My producer/cinematographer, Petter Ringbom, had recently included visuals of voiceover performance in a short video he directed, so he brought knowledge of how to set that up effectively. We filmed Hans-Ulrich at a London studio with minimal rehearsal, and back in the edit, the footage was an interesting new creative element. At times, it is exposed visually, breaking the fourth wall and serving as a sort of cement between certain transitions. At other times, it’s nestled as audio within the flow of existing scenes.
How did you find and get in contact with the friends, peers, and students of Moholy-Nagy?
The first access we established was with the Institute of Design at IIT, where the administration and faculty were supportive and enthusiastic about the idea for this film, and its timing aligned with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus. Our co-producer Ashley Lukasik was instrumental with the access at this stage.
Through the Institute of Design, we met Hattula Moholy-Nagy, who was receptive and open to our initial creative visions for the film. She and her sons, Andreas and Daniel, appreciated that our approach wasn’t going to be textbook or didactic but rather to create a work of cinematic art centered around Moholy’s time in Chicago, which expanded into his broader life story and legacy with thematic resonance and present-day relevance. It was clear that Hattula trusted artists to make creative decisions, and she knew that our approach was also grounded in relationships with scholar-advisors and a track record with arts documentaries. Hattula wanted to support our efforts by giving us incredible access and offering us substantial amounts of her time. She is an accomplished archaeologist, and her archives are very well organized and maintained, which was a priceless asset for us. She is also beloved and respected by Moholy scholars, as well as by former students of her father. I also knew immediately that Hattula would be a compelling character on screen.
As the grapevine grew, we connected with interviewees like Elizabeth Siegel of the Art Institute, Thomas Dyja who authored The Third Coast, designers like Art Paul, Beatrice Takeuchi, Debbie Millman, Barbara Crane, Kenneth Josephson, Barbara Kasten, Jan Tichy, and more. Several people we interviewed are not in the final cut but helped us greatly along the way, such as Bob Tanner and Dirk Lohan.
What was your favorite thing about making this film?
I’ll carry closest with me the relationships I forged with my collaborators, in particular, the other women artists and storytellers: Hattula Moholy-Nagy, Barbara Kasten, Robin Schuldenfrei, Liz Siegel, Joyce Tsai, Debbie Millman, Bea Takeuchi, and Blanche Gilden. Likewise, my co-writer and editor Miranda Yousef, producer Erin Wright, and co-producer Ashley Lukasik provided wisdom and support for me in this long creative labor.
Do you have a favorite Moholy-Nagy quote?
The quote which rings most true in my own life is “Not the product, but the person is the end in view.” I have always felt that to make works of art is to shape one’s own life story and the lives of others through the making of the artwork or “product.”
This film has mostly archival footage. How did you handle the tremendous amount of research required for this film?
The archival footage is sourced from the Moholy-Nagy Foundation, the Institute of Design at IIT, as well as other archives of organizations, and individuals. In order to locate and track the archival materials for the film, I worked closely with my producing team, including archival producers at Studio 34, as well as a researcher, Hannah Hughes, and my editorial team, Miranda Youself and Ludmil Kazakov. It was a team effort that involved many spreadsheets and emails.
Can you share some more insight about working with archival footage?
One key decision I made was to rely almost entirely on images created by artists to represent the historical context in the film. This meant that sometimes, I used Moholy-Nagy’s own photography or filmography to depict places and moments in his life. At other times I sourced imagery made by other artists including his contemporaries and his students. For example, the World War II imagery is primarily created by artists and designers, such as the advertisements created by Herbert Bayer and others for Container Corporation. When we arrive in Berlin in the 1920s, we see a streetcar as filmed by Moholy-Nagy, as well as experimental film footage by Hans Richter and other artists in his milieu. Even the chickens at the start of the film, when we first get to the Bauhaus in Germany were authentically filmed by the students at the Bauhaus in that era. There are very few frames of newsreel imagery in the film. The idea is to experience Moholy’s world as he would have through the eyes of the artists.
Why do you think this film is an important addition to the classroom?
In addition to being a film about art and design history in the 20th century, it’s a timeless story about the value of education. All too rarely are lifelong educators like Moholy-Nagy celebrated for their contributions to culture as teachers. In Moholy’s story, as told by his students, scholars, and the contemporary artists in the film who are inspired by his teachings, it becomes clear that for Moholy teaching was integral to his artistic practice. These two aspects of his life were inseparable and constantly evolving in step with each other. In this sense, the film is not only relevant for the disciplines in which Moholy himself practiced, but for the discipline of pedagogy itself and also for any classroom context to inspire students and teachers alike to honor the inherent talents of every individual. And to remember that their mode of learning and the act of learning together is as important as any disciplinary content being conveyed.
What part of Moholy-Nagy’s story do you think is most essential to art and art history students?
The NEW BAUHAUS includes rarely seen images of Moholy-Nagy and his artwork; some of which have never before been seen on screen. The film also includes original interviews with Moholy’s daughter, his students, as well as esteemed scholars, and contemporary artists whose work orbits around Moholy’s oeuvre. The film’s story offers a contemporary, feminist point of view on Moholy and his Bauhaus context in Europe and the United States.
What aspect of the film do you think will be most appealing to students?
Students will be drawn to Moholy the iconoclast and the teacher. He was beloved by his students; he always challenged them to break beyond the boundaries of what they thought they were capable of doing as individuals. His mantra was, “Everyone is talented.” He was incredibly devoted to his students, and it shows in the interviews in the film with some of his surviving students, and their students. Their interviews are lively and relatable. They bring Moholy to life on screen along with the footage and photographs of him teaching. Many people of all ages who have already seen the film have commented that they feel inspired to be more expressive and creative after watching it.
Is there anything more you wanted to explore about Moholy-Nagy’s or
The New Bauhaus that wasn’t a focus in the film?
Moholy’s wives, Lucia Moholy and Sybil Moholy-Nagy each deserve documentaries of their own. The same could be said of several esteemed faculty from The New Bauhaus and the Institute of Design, such as Nathan Lerner, Marli Ehrman, and Gyorgy Kepes who was Moholy’s friend and collaborator in Europe and became a founding professor at The New Bauhaus then later founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. Kepes is mentioned in the film a few times, but I couldn’t explore his significant friendship with Moholy let alone his own accomplishments in-depth in this documentary.