Pieces by Henry MooreLászló Moholy-Nagy, Lee Miller, Piet Mondrian, Barbara Hepworth or of Ben Nicholson regularly achieve record sums at auction. The dizzying list of artists who have lived or visited the Isokon, alongside his tribe of spies or its writers like the enigmatic Agatha Christie, would not be deserving in a catalog of Christie’s or Sotheby’s houses. No wonder: the place was a privileged “creative hub” of the artistic and intellectual avant-garde of London between the wars.
Each of them has, in its own way, marked the history of art. This is the case of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Born in Hungary in 1880, he is one of the most innovative figures of the Bauhaus. This multidisciplinary and avant-garde artist notably revolutionized the way of doing advertising.
It was Walter Gropius, founder of the famous school of art and design, who invited him to come and teach there in the 1920s. A dozen years later, the artist gave in to Gropius’s pleas to join in London. The latter already lives at the Lawn Road Flats (later known as Isokon) in Hampstead, where Jack Pritchard and his wife Molly welcomed him when he fled Germany with for only possession a suitcase. Moholy-Nagy follows him there. On a wall of this listed modernist building, a ceramic plaque commemorates their presence.
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Pioneer of the photogram, inventor of the typophoto, Moholy-Nagy will revolutionize the
field of visual communication. | George Eastman, Museum, Wikimedia_Commons
Moholy-Nagy, pioneer of the photogram
True to his maxim “design is not a profession, but an attitude”, he knew no barriers. Sculptor, painter, illustrator, design theorist, designer of visionary tools, Moholy-Nagy was the first to apply the use of scientific equipment to the field of art. He ventures one day to place objects on a photosensitive paper then exposes them to light: with the legendary Man Rayhe thus became one of the pioneers of the frame. From Hungary to the Netherlands, he tried his hand at cubism, constructivism, frequented artists from From Stjilthe Surrealists where the Dadaistsapproaching the Dutchman Piet Mondrian, the Russian Wassily Kandinsky (the inventor of abstraction) or German Paul Klee (the latter two also taught at the Bauhaus).
A funny electric machine, made of metal and plexiglass, has nurtured its international reputation. As she moves, she manipulates the light projected onto the surrounding surfaces. It is the first kinetic sculpture ever made, and the exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund in Paris in 1930 spread the artist’s name like wildfire. When he arrived in London in 1935, the newspaper International Textiles, with which he was already collaborating, hired him. His radical ideas do not always pass through the editorial staff, but they earn him the attention of the press group’s advertising agency. He was soon overwhelmed by orders for “commercial art”: advertising campaigns for brands of shirts, cigarettes or airlines followed one another. By making collages of photos used to form words, Mohology-Nagy invents the “typophoto», which is revolutionizing the world of communication and advertising.
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The city of London commissioned this freshly arrived foreigner to produce a series of posters praising the technological advances of its metro. It was he who imagined the logo of the Isokon brand in 1936 (magnificent, the founder Jack Pritchard would later explain, but there was a problem: the chair represented never existed). For a department store, he brings in planes that he uses as decoration. The public is amazed, they are asked to repeat the feat with boats.
At the Isokon restaurant, he meets foreign and British artists, whom he begins to frequent. The sculptors Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth or the painter Ben Nicholson are neighbors of the Isokon: the Mall Studios are only a few blocks away. They share with Moholy-Nagy, as well as with most of the inhabitants of Isokon, a rejection of traditions and conventions which brings them closer together.
Jack Pritchard saw only one fault with the logo of his brand, Isokon, designed by Moholy-Nagy: the chair represented did not exist. | Pritchard Papers/University of East/Anglia/IGT.
An English producer offers the Hungarian artist to make one of the very first aquatic films, titled Lobsters (“the lobsters”). Installed in the mansion of the producer where he stays during the filming, in Sussex, Moholy-Nagy is at the show. This connoisseur of human nature observes with fascination “the feudal relationship between master and servant, the clan relationship of men, the coldness of women and the forced politeness of children”, remembers his wife Sybil. Another opportunity presents itself: that of participating in the adaptation of a dystopian novel by HG Wellsfather of science fictionin collaboration with the painter Fernand Leger and the architect Le Corbusier.
Moholy Nagy working on special effects, but the project will not succeed. He then plans to create a new Bauhaus with Naum Gabo, pioneer of Russian constructivism (to which Pritchard’s Isokon owes its “k”), who lives a few numbers from the Lawn Road Flats, and Ben Nicholson. News reaches him from Germany, which freezes him: he learns that the Nazis have integrated his works into their collection “of degenerate artand that his former housekeeper destroyed those he must have left behind in Berlin. Exhausted, feeling threatened, he left Great Britain for the United States. Chicago fascinates him. “Everything seems there still possible. The paralyzing finality of the European disaster is far away. Yes I want to stay.” He died there of leukemia in 1946.
The year leading members of the Bauhaus left Britain, sculptor Henry Moore decides to settle down at the Lawn Road Flats. He already regularly frequents the Isobar, the restaurant in the building designed by the designer Marcel Breuer. The lifestyle proposed by the Pritchards suits him perfectly: no cleaning or cooking to do himself, a minimalist interior where each object has its use. He can devote himself entirely to his art, without interference or wasted time. The modernist style of the building even seems to influence its art, which takes on more angular accents. A subtle evolution of his work which will later have repercussions on the art market (one of the Reclining Figures by Moore fetched $33 million at auction).
One of the elongated figures (Reclining Figures) by Henry Moore fetched $33 million at auction. | Wikimedia Commons
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Moore also began to explore themes of motherhood and to drill holes in his sculptures – ideas he borrowed, it is whispered, from Barbara Hepworth. It was the vagaries of his own life that inspired the famous English sculptor: with Ben Nicholson, for whom she left her first husband, she had triplets in 1934. While he spends his time trying to leave his first wife, she finds, despite a particularly busy daily life, the time to work. It saves her. “I am unlivable unless I can work: even one hour of work a day keeps me civilized.” His tenacity will pay: his rating will not stop rising, just like that of her ex-husband Ben Nicholson.
Poignant memories of the war, Henry Moore’s Shelters Drawings also mark the dissolution of the group of artists from Isokon and the Hampstead district. | Shelter Drawing, 1941, H. Moore, Tate. Wikimedia commons
When war breaks out
The community of artists in the Hampstead district is particularly influential. In 1936, shortly before Moholy-Nagy’s departure, Roland Penrose organized a Surrealist exhibition in London: 20,000 people flock to discover works by Dalí, Miró, Jean Arp, Brancusi, Moore, de Chirico, Klee, Picasso or Giacometti. penrose, art historian and poet, lives in Hampstead with his future wife, photographer Lee Miller. Ex-muse of Man Ray, whom she drove half mad, she counts among her great feats of arms to have posed in Hitler’s bathtub hours before the suicide of this one.
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Miller and Penrose obviously frequent the Isobar. The small restaurant even houses a few exhibits; to the artists of Hampstead follow one another their “enemies” of the famous bloomsbury groupto which belongs Vanessa Bellsister of the writer Virginia Woolf.
In 1938, Nicholson and Hepworth urged their friend Piet Mondrian to leave Paris for London (Hepworth will honor him through a sculpture in 1966). His studio impresses visitors: repainted in white with touches of color, it is a 3D representation of his most famous works. The war breaks out and the band will gradually disintegrate. There remain, however, a few final testimonies of the time: poignant sketches by Henry Moore (the “shelter drawings”) who, when he was not taking refuge at the Isobar to protect himself from the bombardments, thronged with others to the subway entrance very close to the Isokon. Or, in a wonderful artistic mise en abyme, the photographs of Lee Miller in this same basement, in which Moore seems absorbed in his thoughts and in observing his subject.