Bauhaus Artist László Moholy-Nagy Designs an Avant-Garde Map to Help People Get Over the Fear of Flying (1936)

Though he’s hard­ly a house­hold name like Kandin­sky or Klee, Hun­gar­i­an painter and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy was just as influ­en­tial as those mem­bers of Wal­ter Gropius’ Bauhaus dur­ing the 1920s. As a teacher and one of the collective’s “lead­ing fig­ures,” Fiona Mac­Carthy argues, he may have indeed been, “the most inven­tive and engag­ing of all the Bauhaus artists.” Where all of the school’s mem­bers embraced, and some­times cri­tiqued, emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies, mate­ri­als, and modes of pro­duc­tion, per­haps none did so with such con­vic­tion as Moholy-Nagy.

“Every­one is equal before the machine,” he once wrote, “I can use it; so can you. It can crush me; the same can hap­pen to you.” His cool “grasp of new tech­nolo­gies,” writes Mac­Carthy, “was prophet­ic.… Entranced by the mech­a­nized pro­duc­tion of art­works,” he ridiculed “the artists’ tra­di­tion­al stance as indi­vid­ual cre­ator.” Many mod­ern artists shunned adver­tis­ing work, but in Moholy-Nagy’s case, the tran­si­tion seems per­fect­ly nat­ur­al and con­sis­tent with his the­o­ry. He also need­ed the mon­ey. Hav­ing fled the Nazis and set­tled in Lon­don in 1935, the artist found him­self, notes Hyper­al­ler­gic, “look­ing to pick up some work to sup­port his dis­placed life.”

He found it in 1936 through the UK’s Impe­r­i­al Air­ways, who com­mis­sioned him to apply “his con­struc­tivist style” to a map (view it in a larg­er for­mat here) intend­ed to reas­sure ner­vous poten­tial cus­tomers of the safe­ty of air trav­el, a still new and fright­en­ing prospect for most trav­el­ers. He did so in a way that “makes air trav­el seem as approach­able as step­ping on the sub­way,” with his offi­cious­ly col­or-cod­ed “Map of Empire & Euro­pean Air Routes.” The map, accord­ing to Rum­sey, “draws on the pio­neer­ing infor­ma­tion design work of Har­ry Beck and his Lon­don sub­way maps,” made in 1933 and “orig­i­nal­ly con­sid­ered too rad­i­cal.”

In addi­tion to this busi­nesslike pre­sen­ta­tion of order­ly and pre­dictable flight pat­terns, Moholy-Nagy cre­at­ed a brochure for the British air­line (see the cov­er above and more pages here). Incor­po­rat­ing the so-called “Speed­bird sym­bol,” these designs, writes Paul Jarvis, made “the point that Impe­r­i­al spanned the empire and in time would span the world.” Not every­one was impressed. British tran­sit exec­u­tive Frank Pick, who presided over the visu­al iden­ti­ty of the Lon­don Under­ground, called Mohagy-Nagy “a gen­tle­man with a mod­ernistic ten­den­cy… of a sur­re­al­is­tic type, and I am not at all clear why we should fall for this.” His com­ments under­score MacCarthy’s argu­ment that the Hun­gar­i­an artist’s rep­u­ta­tion suf­fered in Eng­land because of nation­al­ist hos­til­i­ties.

Mohagy-Nagy’s art “is inter­na­tion­al,” said Pick, “or at least con­ti­nen­tal. Let us leave the con­ti­nent to pur­sue their own tricks.” The state­ment now seems a bit uncan­ny, though of course Pick could have had noth­ing like Brex­it in mind. As far as Impe­r­i­al Air­lines was con­cerned, Mohagy-Nagy’s “con­ti­nen­tal” avant-gardism was exact­ly what the com­pa­ny need­ed to entice wary, yet adven­tur­ous pas­sen­gers. You can down­load free high res­o­lu­tion scans of the map, or buy a print, at the David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion (an orig­i­nal vin­tage poster will cost you between four and six thou­sand dol­lars). And see some of Mohagy-Nagy’s less com­mer­cial work at this down­load­able col­lec­tion of Bauhaus books and jour­nals.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load Orig­i­nal Bauhaus Books & Jour­nals for Free: Gropius, Klee, Kandin­sky, Moholy-Nagy & More

Andy Warhol and Sal­vador Dalí in Clas­sic 1968 Bran­iff Com­mer­cials: ‘When You Got It, Flaunt It!’

Design­er Mas­si­mo Vignel­li Revis­its and Defends His Icon­ic 1972 New York City Sub­way Map

“The Won­der­ground Map of Lon­don Town,” the Icon­ic 1914 Map That Saved the World’s First Sub­way Sys­tem

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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