National Portrait Gallery / Lucia Moholy

National Portrait Gallery / Lucia Moholy

Continuing in the series of features in Photomonitor’s ‘Collections’ section, Helen Trompeteler, Assistant Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, gives a rare glimpse into the life and work of Lucia Moholy, whose work resides in the NPG’s collection.  


Often overshadowed by the reputation of her husband, László Moholy-Nagy, to whom she was married for thirteen years, it is perhaps now timely to reconsider Lucia Moholy’s individual career and her contribution to the development of twentieth-century photography. Paul Klee in his master’s house studio in 1927, balance study sculptures by Irmgard Popitz and Corona Krause, and performers in Kurt Schmidt’s Man at the Control Panel (1924) are examples from a small selection of photographs by Lucia Moholy shown in the Barbican’s impressive recent exhibition Bauhaus: Art as Life. As the exhibition content suggested, Moholy is known for her photographs documenting daily life among the art school’s masters and students, and the production of its many workshops. However, her career in photography extended long after her days at the Bauhaus.

Born Lucia Schulz in Karolinental, Prague, in 1894, Lucia read philosophy and art history at the University of Prague, before working as head of the editorial office of the Weisbadener Zeitung (1915) and for Kurt Wulff at Hyperion Publishing in Leipzig (1917). Her first experiences in photography are described in a diary entry ‘My first flight into the world’ (3 February 1915):

The interest in photography awoke in me. I am a passive artist. I can capture impressions and would surely be able to record everything from its most beautiful perspective, put them through chemical processes I have learnt and allow them to appear how they affect me...”

Lucia continued her career at Heinrich Vogeler’s Barkenhof in Worpswede (1918-1919) and Ernst Rowohlt publishing house in Berlin, where she first met László Moholy-Nagy in April 1920. Following the couple’s marriage on January 18 1921, Moholy-Nagy was appointed a master at Walter Gropius’s newly formed Bauhaus school, with Lucia joining him in Weimar in 1923.  She worked as an apprentice to professional photographer Otto Eckner and took courses in reproduction photography at the Leipzig Academy for Graphic and Book Arts. Moholy was already an experienced photographer before taking photographs for the Bauhaus, as weaver Gertrud Arndt recalled in an interview with Sabina Leβmann in 1933:

Nobody could take a photograph when I arrived in Weimar, the only one who could use a camera was Lucia Moholy, she had learned it. She came to the Bauhaus as a photographer.”[1] 

From 1923-28, Moholy consistently recorded the architecture, interiors, lives and works of the leading artists of the Bauhaus school. Her documentary practice was representative of a ‘New Objectivity’ which aimed to capture a subject as closely as possible to reality, without subjecting it to self-representation by the artist. Moholy did allow herself limited self-expression in her printing techniques, often using retouching paint to create darkening effects. Walter Peterhans, who taught photography classes at the Bauhaus from 1929, further advocated the use of reportage photography, with many of his students later becoming professional photographers including Irene Bayer, Katt Both, Hilde Hubbuch and Lotte Beese.

Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy enjoyed a highly collaborative creative union. However, their individual creative approaches represent two very different directions in early Modernist photography: the ‘reproductive’ photograph true to reality and the ‘productive’ art photograph respectively. The latter as represented by Moholy-Nagy was often characterised by extreme visual angles, optical distortion and deliberate abstraction achieved through the use of materials such as glass, metal or mirrors. It was an exploration of both these forms of photography which led to Moholy and Moholy-Nagy’s advancements in the development of photograms. Moholy writing in her essay ‘Das Bauhaus-Bild’ (Werk 6/1968) recalled:

“…During a stroll in the Rhön Mountains in the summer of 1922 we discussed the problems arising from the antithesis Production versus Reproduction. This gradually led us to implement our conclusions by making photograms, having had no previous knowledge of any steps taken by Schad, Man Ray and Lissitzky…”[2]

Their experiments were published in magazines including De Stijl (7/1922) and a chapter was devoted to photograms in the book they co-wrote Malerei, Photografie, Film (1925/27). Knowing their unique nature, Moholy also reproduced their creations with a camera for future publication. Moholy and Moholy-Nagy’s achievements in this medium became famous and widely published as the exclusive work of her husband, with Malerei, Photografie, Film being published solely under his name. Moholy later attempted to address inaccuracies found in the published histories of her and her husband’s artistic and personal lives with the publication of Moholy-Nagy Marginal Notes (1972).

Upon leaving the Bauhaus in April 1928, Moholy and Moholy-Nagy moved to Spichernstrasse, Berlin; they separated a year later, and were divorced in 1934. In Berlin, Moholy established her own studio and worked for the Kroll State Opera and Mauritius Picture Press Agency. She also succeeded former Bauhaus member Umbo as head of photography classes at Johannes Itten’s private art school in 1929. By 1933, Germany was under the rule of the National Socialist Party, and Moholy was forced to emigrate, travelling in August to Paris via Prague and Vienna. Unable to take her photographic archive of 560 glass negatives with her, she entrusted her work to Walter and Ilse Gropius for safekeeping.

Settling in London from June 1934, Moholy lived at 39 Mecklenburgh Square, WC1. After receiving support and encouragement from admirers of her work including Stephen Spender’s grand-mother Hilda Schuster, Moholy established a private studio. She lectured on the Bauhaus at the Central School of Arts and Design and taught photography at the London School of Painting and Graphic Art. Portraits of leading scientists, writers, and society figures made during this period include forty-five studies in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection. The majority of these vintage prints were generously given to the Gallery by the Bauhaus Archiv in 1995. Moholy’s tightly cropped portrait studies sometimes photographed from slightly unusual angles, present intense character studies, where indications of social status such as interiors and possessions are removed.  She never learnt photography via the soft pictorial traditions of her predecessors, and she frequently used high contrast, darkening, and shadows to create drama and graphic elements in her compositions.  However Moholy’s eye is one of a truly sympathetic and ‘passive’ artist, who serves her subject with her camera.

While living in London, Moholy was commissioned by Penguin Books to write A Hundred Years of Photography (1939), a ‘Pelican Special’. The book which was the first history of photography in English, sold 40,000 copies in two years. Reprints were never made owing to wartime shortage of paper, yet today it still remains an appreciated introduction to photographic history. She often faced extended periods of considerable poverty, and Moholy-Nagy tried unsuccessfully to secure her a US visa, inviting her to teach at the School of Design in Chicago, where he had been Head since 1937. During the war, Moholy established a photography programme recording valuable manuscripts on behalf of the American Council of Learned Societies, which became the basis for the use of microfilm in science and technology. She later developed products for UNESCO, mainly in the Middle East, before moving to Switzerland in 1959. She lived here for the rest of her life, working as an art critic for publications including The Burlington Magazine.

Moholy enjoyed recognition in her later years. She was voted a member for the Swiss section of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art in 1975 and in 1985, aged ninety, her first biography by art historian Rolf Sachsse was published.  The delay in her decisive role at the Bauhaus being fully understood and documented can perhaps be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly, there was the male culture of the ‘master’ at the Bauhaus which was discussed by Moholy herself in Frau des 20 Jahrunderts (Twentieth Century Woman). Furthermore, the loss of control of her archive in 1933 had significant consequences in the decades which followed. The first unauthorised use of her images began appearing in publications in the United States during the war, and in the 1950s, Moholy entered a dispute with Walter Gropius regarding the return of her negatives. In May 1957, the dispute was resolved when fifty original negatives were given to her in compensation from the Busch-Reisinger-Museum. While some additional negatives were gradually sourced from private individuals, only a small proportion of Moholy’s pre-war archive from the period 1923-28 was restored to her in her lifetime.[3]

Lucia Moholy’s journey as a photographer runs parallel with a much wider history of women’s struggle for gender equality and financial and professional independence during the early decades of the twentieth-century. At the end of the 19th century only a limited number of women had access to studying at art academies. The Grossherzogliche Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule in Weimar was one of the few academies accepting female students in the winter of 1912-1913, with a ratio of 55 women to 99 men. In 1919 Walter Gropius’s opening programme for the Bauhaus announced applicants would be judged by talent and previous education alone, irrespective of age and sex. The summer semester of 1919 received 84 female and 79 male applicants based on this new promise of gender equality in arts education. The story of Moholy and her contemporaries including Marianne Brandt, Marianne Breslauer and Florence Henri is one of modern photography, but also one of the ‘New Woman’, as reflected in the many explorations of female identity in photography from this period, especially through self-portraiture. 

Artist, art critic, and photographic historian, Lucia Moholy struggled for much of her life to secure her own status in photographic history. She should be celebrated today for her individual role in the pioneering developments in photography which were achieved at the Bauhaus. Moholy-Nagy is recorded as having told his second wife Sibyl, “Her intellect was like a beacon which lit up my emotional chaos. She taught me to think.[4] Moholy’s academic writings on photography helped preserve the legacy of the Bauhaus, and that of her husband László Moholy-Nagy. We can be grateful that near the end of her life, she witnessed her own distinguished body of work made since the 1930s, including her significant contribution to scientific documentation through photography, be appreciated by a younger generation devoted to the medium.



[1] Ulrike Muller, Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design (Flammarion, 2009), p. 126

[2] Lucia Moholy, Moholy Nagy Marginal Notes (Scherpe Verlag Krefeld, 1972) p. 59

[3] Moholy discusses this dispute in ‘The Missing Negatives’, British Journal of Photography, 7 January 1983.

[4] Ulrike Muller, Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft, Design (Flammarion, 2009), p.144