Arts & Culture

Light Prop shines again

5 min read

Replica of 1930s kinetic sculpture at HUAM

This Saturday (July 21), one of the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s most unusual artworks will get a new lease on life.

“Light Prop for an Electric Stage,” a kinetic sculpture by Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy, represented a startling union of art and technology when it was introduced at an exhibition in Paris in 1930. Powered by an electric motor and with a circular opening cut into one side, the Light Prop’s collection of perforated discs and screens slowly revolved, casting shifting light patterns, reflections, and colors onto the rear wall of the box. At the time, Moholy-Nagy suggested that this rear wall could be removed to allow the shadowy patterns to play on walls and ceilings.

Now, 77 years later, the Light Prop, or Light-Space Modulator, as it is also known, has become a fragile antique. A part of the Harvard Art Museums’ collection since it was given to the University by the artist’s widow in 1956, it is customarily switched on for only a few minutes a week in connection with a talk by a Busch-Reisinger staff member.

Beginning July 21, however, museum visitors will have a chance once again to see the Light Prop more as Moholy intended. Actually, what they will see is a replica commissioned by the Tate Modern in London for a 2006 exhibition on Moholy-Nagy and abstract painter Josef Albers. The replica was created by craftsman-engineer Jürgen Steger based on the original mechanical drawings, early photographs, and a film made by Moholy of the Light Prop in operation.

The replica will be installed in a darkened gallery with spotlighting that will create a dramatic play of shadows, translucencies, transparencies, and reflections generated by the machine’s multiple surfaces. Moholy-Nagy’s short film “Light Play: Black White Gray” (1930), in which he enhances the Light Prop’s imagery with close-ups, double exposures, and special effects, will also be shown. The exhibition will run until Nov. 4, 2007.

“The Light Prop is a classic work of modern sculpture, which we’re very lucky to have in the Busch-Reisinger’s collection,” said Peter Nisbet, the Daimler-Benz Curator of the Busch-Reisinger and organizer of the upcoming exhibition. “It’s been primarily influential as one of the great pioneering kinetic sculptures of the last century, especially for artists in the late ’50s and ’60s when a lot of this interest in art and technology came to the fore again.”

Moholy-Nagy took the Light Prop with him when he left Germany for London in 1935 and when he came to the United States in 1937 to found the New Bauhaus in Chicago. However, years of travel and being loaned to various galleries and museums took their toll on the machine.

“It came to us, according to the records that we have, in not very good shape,” said Nisbet. “Over the years it suffered some damage, mechanical failure, and the repairs and restorations maybe were not always of the highest quality. I think Moholy didn’t really treat it as a work of art. He treated it as a machine to produce light effects, and so felt perfectly comfortable either replacing pieces or adding structural elements to stabilize it.”

Because it is based on original records, the new replica is in a way closer to Moholy’s original design than the much-repaired and altered original. Moreover, according to Nan Rosenthal who earned a doctorate from Harvard’s Fine Arts department in 1976 and wrote one of the first in-depth studies of the Light Prop, Moholy would have applauded the use of a replica of the machine since he believed that it was the idea behind an artwork that was important, not whether the artist executed it himself. In fact, the original Light Prop was not created by Moholy personally, but by a team consisting of an architect and a machinist, with additional help from the German electrical company AEG.

According to his writings, Moholy intended the Light Prop to produce what he called an “architecture of light” and he may have also envisioned it as part of an avant-garde theatrical performance, a field of art in which he was very much involved.

“The Bauhaus, where Moholy had worked until 1928, was a hotbed of innovation in stage design and costume design. There was a lot of interest in abstract plays, in electrical lighting devices, in rotating stages. It’s a very rich history of experimentation, and Moholy is at the center of it, and the Light Prop is a key example of that commitment,” said Nisbet.

But the Light Prop represents only a portion of Moholy’s contribution as an artist and a teacher, Nisbet points out. He hopes that exposure to the newly installed replica will prompt viewers to explore the museum’s resources (notably a wide range of other works by the artist, available for viewing in the museum’s study room) and learn more about this seminal artist and teacher who believed that geometrical abstraction could be a way of educating people’s vision and contribute to the transformation of society.

“Moholy was one of the great synthesizers of the many different strands of modern art,” Nisbet said. “He was very attuned to the thinking of the avant-garde, and he was able to combine these strands and influences in an enormously productive and polymathic career.”