Balanced Play

An Important and Rare Portfolio by a Bauhaus Master

Lázsló Moholy-Nagy created Kestnermappe 6 at a defining moment in his dynamic and astonishingly short career; the portfolio, published the same year Moholy-Nagy began teaching at the Bauhaus, marks a maturation point of his work, as well as the moment when Russian Constructivism’s influence had spread to emerging international avant-garde movements. The importance of this work to Moholy-Nagy, within his extensive body of work, is highlighted by him gifting the present lot to Walter Paepcke around 1944, who was instrumental in furthering Moholy-Nagy’s vision and establishing the New Bauhaus in Chicago.

This suite of six lithographs, rarely offered as a complete portfolio, embodies Moholy-Nagy’s efforts to bring a utopian humanism to abstraction and merge pure form with pure thought. Moholy-Nagy creates pictorial planes that have an interior order and strength—a systematic rightness that is seen not just in his art, but in his life as an educator and institution builder—first at the Bauhaus in Weimar and then at the School of Design in Chicago.

Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus in Dessau, c. 1925. Photo: The Estate of László Moholy-Nagy; Course catalog for the School of Design, Chicago, 1940

Moholy-Nagy worked in a wide-range of disciplines, including photography, painting, collage, typography, sculpture and filmmaking, but his vision always superseded the limitations of any one medium. Though he made prints for just a few short years in the early 1920s, Kestnermappe 6 is not only his greatest accomplishment in the medium, but is one of the finest examples of Constructivist printmaking that exists. The delicate tonal ranges achieved in these prints mirror Moholy-Nagy’s experiments with light and transparency in photograms he was making at the time with his wife, photographer Lucia. Similar to his paintings from this era, the forms in these prints have a lightness and clarity, yet are grounded in relation to each other to create a self-contained, complete space that is not simply rational, but deeply felt.

Kestnermappe 6 is not only his greatest accomplishment in the medium, but is one of the finest examples of Constructivist printmaking that exists.

These prints also prefigure the influential body of print design Moholy-Nagy would create at the Bauhaus, including the Bauhausbücher series, made in collaboration with Walter Gropius, the then-director of the institution. Gropius had invited Moholy-Nagy to head the Metals Workshop after seeing an exhibition of his sculptures in Berlin in 1922; Moholy-Nagy joined the venerated Bauhaus as its youngest professor, and helped steer the institution back toward its original focus of industrial design and a socialist posture concerned with designing for the greater good. 

Photogram by Moholy-Nagy, 1922; Bauhausbücher 5, designed by Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy, 1925

Moholy-Nagy left the Bauhaus in 1928, and moved back to Berlin to start his own design studio. He fled the Nazis, moving to London in 1935 and in 1937, he received a fortuitous telegram from the Association of Arts and Industries (AAI)—an organization of art-minded businessmen in Chicago—asking him if we wanted to establish a new school in the spirit of the Bauhaus, and that Walter Gropius, then teaching at Harvard, had recommended him for the undertaking.

Moholy-Nagy found himself in Chicago in 1938, heading the New Bauhaus out of Marshall Field's mansion on Prairie Avenue. Unfortunately, the ill-fated school closed after just one year; the AAI pulled funding, due to a volatile stock market, as well as their woeful misunderstanding of the importance of experimental pedagogy at the Bauhaus over the immediate production of tangible, commercial goods. One member of the AAI, Walter Paepcke, the founder of the Container Corporation of America, believed in Moholy-Nagy's vision and in 1939, he underwrote the opening of the School of Design, with Moholy-Nagy at its helm and an optimistic mission to “meet the needs of industry and reintegrate the artist into the life of the nation”.

Paepcke shared with Moholy-Nagy a desire to “search the new dimensions of the industrial society and to translate the findings into an emotional orientation”.

Driven by his wife Elizabeth, who was an ardent collector and supporter of the arts (especially avant-garde European movements), Paepcke was one of the first American industrialists to bring “good design” to a company’s branding and products in an innovative and thoughtful way. Though a capitalist at his core, Paepcke shared with Moholy-Nagy a desire to “search the new dimensions of the industrial society and to translate the findings into an emotional orientation”. Together, Paepcke and Moholy-Nagy worked tirelessly to promote the union of industry and the arts in a way that humanized mass production and brought idealism to a post-war landscape frightful and skeptical of the dominance of machines. Moholy-Nagy gifted the present lot to Paepcke in 1944, in gratitude of Paepcke’s generosity and support. In 1946, Moholy-Nagy tragically passed away, though the School of Design persisted and still exists today as the Illinois Institute of Design.

Walter Paepcke of the Container Corporation of America and the previous owner of the present lot; CCA advertisement, 1943

The present owner of this portfolio, interior architect Robert Kleinschmidt, acquired the work in 1996 from the Walter Paepcke Estate, through Robert Henry Adams Fine Art. A Chicago-native, Kleinschmidt studied architecture at University of Illinois and received a master’s degree in Architecture from Columbia University. He worked at the renowned Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), known for its modern International Design heavily indebted to Bauhaus principles. In 1976, Kleinschmidt partnered with fellow SOM architect, Don Powell to form the interior architecture firm Powell/Kleinschmidt. Kleinschmidt and Don Powell worked together for 33 years in Chicago and developed a national reputation for their designs. Following Powell’s retirement, Kleinschmidt formed RDK design, based in Chicago and Palm Springs. For Kleinschmidt the portfolio represents Moholy-Nagy’s principle to “bring the intellectual and the emotional, the social and technological, into balanced play”.

Interior architect Robert Kleinschmidt, the present owner of the lot; Interior designed by Kleinschmidt. Photo: Hedrich Blessing

László Moholy-Nagy 1895–1946

Born in Hungary in 1895, László Moholy-Nagy was one of the most prominent members of the Bauhaus School. First studying law in Hungary, Moholy-Nagy was later drafted into the army to fight in World War I. He was wounded in combat, and while convalescing, he began to draw and write. Moholy-Nagy started to take courses in painting and became a part of the newly-formed Avant-garde group known as “MA”, or Magyar Aktivizmus which means Hungarian Activism. In 1920, Moholy-Nagy married photographer Lucia Moholy (née Shulz) and the couple often experimented with photographic methods; Moholy-Nagy’s Photograms, made without the use of a camera or negatives, stand as enduring part of his legacy. In 1922, Moholy-Nagy was invited by Walter Gropius to become a Master at the Bauhaus School in Weimar. At the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy taught the famous foundational course and was head of the metalsmithing workshop. He left the Bauhaus in 1928 and moved to Berlin where he founded his own graphic design firm. With the rise of the Nazi party, in 1934 Moholy-Nagy left Germany for Amsterdam. A year later, he moved to London, where he continued to work as a graphic designer. In 1937 Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago at the urging of Walter Gropius and together they founded the New American Bauhaus. Due to financial difficulty, the school closed in 1938, but reopened again in 1939 as the Chicago School of Design and is now known as the Illinois Institute of Technology. Moholy-Nagy was director of the school until 1945. He died the following year. His expansive and cross-disciplinary career was honored in 2016 with a retrospective entitled Moholy-Nagy: Future Present at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.