In 1923, the young Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy was invited by Walter Gropius to join the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, the school of fine and applied arts Gropius had founded in 1919 with the goal of creating a new, modern artistic culture. There, Moholy took over from Johannes Itten as the master teacher of the Vorkurs, the six-month probationary program required of all students that was designed to explore the formal characteristics of color, line, and structure across various media. Moholy was a rationalist and technophile, committed to exploring the artistic potential of new media and industrial techniques, and his teaching offered a marked shift from the more mystical pedagogy of the early Bauhaus. By 1928, when Moholy resigned his position, this more rationalist approach had become synonymous with the Bauhaus idea, and it profoundly shaped the course of modern art and design in the years to come. His painting, Z VII, part of a generous bequest from the New York collector Richard Zeisler, is one of the first major Bauhaus works to enter the National Gallery's collection and reflects Moholy's thinking in this period in important ways.
Moholy's Painting, Photography, Film was published as part of the Bauhaus book series in 1925, a year before Z VII was made. A key manifesto exhorting modern artists to work in new technological media, it stood as a watershed challenge to the traditional preeminence of painting and sculpture. Scholarly discussions of Moholy's paintings tend to end at this point, taking the artist's call to move from "painting in pigment" to "painting in light" at face value. Indeed, Moholy abandoned painting in 1928 for two years in a self-described crisis of artistic identity. Z VII was one of the last paintings he worked on before making this break. But with the exception of this short hiatus, the artist continued to paint while working in other media, including collage, photomontage, photography, film, metal constructions, and graphic and product design, in a kind of broad visual portfolio that defined an influential new model for artistic production in the modern age. The interrelationship of work in various media was central to his project—an attempt to place light and its effects, rather than illusionism, at the center of artistic creativity.
Z VII is one of a series of nine works labeled with the letter Z that were executed from 1922 to 1926, roughly congruent with his tenure as a Bauhaus professor, and it was the last to be finished. Here, an array of intersecting, colored planes on a bright, mustard-yellow background suggests various translucencies and projections. In a retrospective statement written in 1944 about his work in the 1920s, Moholy referred to his goal of modernizing vision itself, stating that "my intention was not to demonstrate only individual inventions, but rather, the standards of a new vision employing ‘neutral' geometric forms." One component form with blue dots on a gray parallelogram creates an affinity with the perforated metal planes of his kinetic light prop, the Lichtrequisit, a motorized, rotating metal construction with lights that was conceived in 1922 and built for the 1930 Werkbund Exhibition in Paris.
Z VII may have been repainted in the 1930s after being damaged, creating thick, almost relieflike planes that contrast with the more thinly painted surfaces of other works in the Z series. If so, the later return to this work gives it a special conceptual position occupying Moholy's attention both before and after his break from painting. The significance of this work to the artist himself is suggested by the fact that it served as the cover illustration for a special issue of the journal telehor, which accompanied an exhibition of his work in Brno in 1936 and also served as the artist's first retrospective monograph. Both on the cover and as an internal illustration, Z VII was oriented horizontally, rather than vertically, as it has been more recently hung. Z VII is an important addition to the Gallery's holdings of works from the historical avant-garde.
center reverse; the artist's name stenciled, "VII" in superscript, and a crossed-out arrow between the last two words: L.MOHOLY-NAGY / Z VII (1926) / OBEN HAUT; lower right reverse, the artist's name stenciled: L.MOHOLY-NAGY
(Rose Fried Gallery, New York); purchased 29 April 1960 by Richard S. Zeisler [1916-2007], New York; bequest 2007 to NGA.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1971.
- Line + Movement, Annely Juda Fine Art, London, 1979, no. 37, repro., as Z.
- Sensing the Future: Moholy-Nagy, Media and the Arts, 1921-1946, Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin, 2014-2015, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Dickerman, Leah. "László Moholy-Nagy, Z VII." Bulletin / National Gallery of Art, no. 38 (Spring 2008): 18-19, repro.
- Tsai, Joyce. László Moholy-Nagy: Painting after Photography. Oakland and Washington, 2018: color plate 8, 117-122, color fig. 4.5, 189 (notes 18 and 24).