BEGINNINGS IN HUNGARY AND A SOJOURN
IN VIENNA (1895-1919)
© 2004 Hattula Moholy-Nagy
László Moholy-Nagy was born in 1895 in Borsod,
a small village in southern Austria-Hungary. The village name
was later changed to Bácsborsod and the country is
now the Republic of Hungary. László’s
father was the foreman of a large estate, who left his family
when his children were young. Three sons survived, of which
László was the middle child. Their mother took
the boys to
her family in Ada, now in Serbia, and their maternal uncle,
Gusztáv Nagy, became their guardian. He was a lawyer
and lived in the nearby town of Moholy.
László and his younger brother, Ákos,
went to high school, in Szeged, at that time Hungary’s
second largest city, while the oldest son, Jenö, went
to school in Budapest. László’s first
ambition was to become a writer, and while he was still in
school some of his poetry was published in the Szeged newspapers.
when he graduated in 1913, his uncle encouraged him to study
law in Budapest and the family moved to the capital. World
War I interrupted László’s law studies,
which he never finished. In 1915 he enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian
army as an officer in the artillery.
He had begun to draw before he went into the army. But he
turned to it in a serious manner during his many hours in
artillery observation posts. He produced hundreds of sketches,
many in color, on the backs of military-issue postcards that
he could easily carry with him. These drawings are lively
and often humorous and, in effect, record his military career.
In 1917 his left thumb was shattered by shrapnel. He had a
long convalescence in Budapest and went on reserve status.
The War was a terrible experience for him; not only the trauma
of being wounded, but also the appalling conditions of trench
In common with many other veterans, a strong sense of social
idealism began to crystallize at this time.
While on reserve in Budapest, he published short stories and
literary criticism, but he was already thinking seriously
about becoming an artist. He was encouraged by a close friend,
Iván Hevesy, an art critic, who was another of
his important early mentors. He attended evening classes at
Robert Berény’s art school and entered his work
in exhibitions. So around 1918, at the age of 23, he embarked
upon his career as an artist. His early paintings and drawings
were figurative and tended towards Expressionism.
Except for a very brief hiatus at the end of the 1920s, Moholy
considered himself a painter, first and foremost. His short
autobiography, Abstract of an Artist (1944), gives an account
of how his art evolved. He wrote that at first his work was
figurative because he found the contemporary art of his day
chaotic. He didn’t understand Cubism, Fauvism, or Futurism.
He studied the drawings
of artists like Rembrandt and van Gogh and became fascinated
by the expressive power of lines alone without halftones.
Then he began to study composition and, finally, the effects
of color on composition. He made collages of juxtaposed colored
paper strips and carried these configurations over into paintings
of agricultural fields. By 1919, if not earlier, he was also
experimenting with Dadaist compositions.
And he may also have begun to photograph at this time, probably
introduced to photography by a friend, Érzsi Landau,
who had her own studio in Budapest.
When the War ended, László returned to Szeged,
where he remained for almost a year before leaving for Vienna
at the end of 1919. In Vienna he joined the MA (Today) group
of Hungarian avant-gardes in exile, a group founded and led
by the artist and writer, Lajos Kassák. But he found
Vienna uncongenial and in the spring of 1920 he moved on to