Thoroughly modern Bauhaus

    Tate Modern had me tut-tutting with disbelief when it admitted, in the press release for its unexpected modernist pairing of Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, that “this is the first Tate exhibition dedicated to early modernist abstraction for more than two decades”. What? Is it really that long since every exhibition that the Tate appeared to put on seemed to be dedicated to modernist abstraction? How time flies on the cultural merry-go-round.

    In a few weeks’ time, a mammoth survey of the entire modernist upheaval — paintings, sculptures, architecture, furniture, ceramics, kitchen sinks — opens at the V&A, and my plan is to be first in the queue when the doors are unlocked, with you, presumably, second.

    In the meantime, Tate Modern is serving us this delicately pertinent antipasto, in which two of the movement’s hard-core foot soldiers are brought together in what strikes me as a rather unlikely double bill. You might have imagined that Albers and Moholy-Nagy were part of lots of other stories in art before they became part of each other’s.

    Albers is usually thought of as the godfather of American minimalism. He is famous for painting the same thing over and over again for 30 years — four squares of diminishing size, arranged inside each other, with only their colour changing — and his seemingly endless Homage to the Square taught an entire generation of American reductivists how to be single-minded. Moholy-Nagy, meanwhile, was notoriously varied. This one-man renaissance of genres and detours was a painter, sculptor, designer, photographer, film-maker, installation-mounter, Hungarian, Englishman, and only finally American. I remember him best as the designer of my first fountain pen, the Parker 51. But he did so many other things that others will remember him differently.

    It turns out that the immovable Albers and the unstoppable Moholy-Nagy became teachers together in the same place on the same day, February 13, 1923, when Albers was put in charge of the glass workshop at the Bauhaus — that notoriously daunting college of Germanic art and design at which so much of modernism was pioneered — while Moholy-Nagy was made head of the metal workshop. Their paths crossed again two decades later in America, where they both fled to escape Hitler. Here, they both established — or tried to establish — colleges of art based on the Bauhaus model. Both of them thought they had found the brave new world. Both realised, eventually, that they hadn’t. Their shared journey of disillusionment is the tricky plot line followed by a complex display at Tate Modern in which flashes of pure modernist magic are combined with dollops of difficult Bauhaus homework.

    Albers had a curious history. Born in a heavily Catholic enclave of Germany in 1888, he didn’t turn to art until he was in his thirties, having originally trained as a primary-school teacher. Like a lot of hard-core modernists of his era, he was radicalised by a set of florid metaphysical impulses that he would later keep very quiet about — and, indeed, seek to expunge from his story. He was instructed initially in stained-glass manufacture, and his first recorded commission, in 1917, was for a window in a Catholic church in his home town, of which only the name has survived. Rosa Mystica Ora Pro Nobis, the window was called: mystical rose, pray for us.

    Once you know Albers’s mystical secret, it isn’t surprising to see him opening his account here with luminous assortments of coloured glass arranged into grids of glowing light — stained glass done with a ruler. Nor is it difficult to trace a direct line of descent from these first experiments in angular mysticism to the famous 30-year sequence of painted squares at the other end of the show, which seem also to glow as if lit from behind. The catalogue carries an amusing caricature by Marcel Breuer, designer of the great Breuer chair, in which Albers is shown at the Bauhaus with an awful Friar Tuck hairstyle, looking more like a flagellant monk than a modernist.

    Moholy-Nagy also had a mystical bent, although it is harder to follow the mystic beam that shines all the way through his work because he was an altogether more jumpy and irresolute artist. Born in Hungary in 1895, he wanted to be a lawyer, but a spell on the Russian front during the first world war soon shattered that hope. He took up drawing instead, specifically to record the pain and madness around him. These first war drawings are not on show here, but we need, perhaps, to remember them when we consider the majestic suite of abstract paintings from the early 1920s with which Moholy-Nagy is introduced to us. The floating squares, the hovering circles, the gentle interlocking crosses, the orbiting curves, seem to be an attempt to imagine a perfect cosmos, somewhere too far away in space to be ruined by humans.

    While Moholy-Nagy’s cosmic abstracts give the show a gorgeous beginning, and Albers’s glowing Homages to the Square supply it with a gorgeous end, the journey in between can be difficult to follow. The show’s publicity proclaims that it “focuses on the posthumous dialogue between their oeuvres”, which I understand to be an admission, in Tate-speak, that our chosen two didn’t actually have much in common. Once Albers had concluded his first wave of Bauhaus experiments in stained glass with a ruler, he struggled for a couple of decades to find his next style. Moholy-Nagy, meanwhile, had no problems with fertility. For a purist, he could be excellently impure.

    Looking into one of the glass cases packed with his myriad book designs, I was delighted to discover a copy of The Street Markets of London, illustrated with his photographs, next to An Oxford University Chest, by that notorious enemy of the modernists, John Betjeman. It even fell to Moholy-Nagy, during his brief English interlude in the 1930s, to come up with the iconic image of the playing fields of Eton, when he photographed two schoolboy toffs in top hats strolling across them at dusk. Yet even this relatively straightforward photograph makes clear his appetite for shifting half-lights and interdimensional overlaps. The schoolboys glow spookily, like a pair of ghosts. And this taste for the immaterial that had been the most reliable feature of his paintings went on to drive the rest of his art.

    The most spectacular evidence of Moholy-Nagy’s urge to voyage between states and certainties is an ambitious piece of kinetic sculpture that he originally built in 1930 for a show at the Grand Palais in Paris. Re-created specially for this exhibition, Light Prop for an Electric Stage is a rather rickety metal tower of interlocking planes and geometric limbs that casts elusive shadows on the walls as it electronically orbits its plinth. Moholy-Nagy made a film of the twirling shadows to be shown alongside the revolving tower itself, an ensemble that is being billed here, rather hopefully, as the first example of installation art.

    As with so many hard-core modernist experiments, these transdimensional tinkerings resulted in art that is grey and studious, and that usually fails to set your pulse racing. The show spends half its length précising the dull experiments in experimentalism before crossing the Atlantic and watching Moholy-Nagy and Albers coming to terms with America. They thought they were arriving in the brave new world — but it turned out to be the land of hamburgers.

    For Moholy-Nagy, this realisation involves a slow descent into pessimism, measured out in some of his most uncertain work. To my eyes, he never really found himself in America. Albers was slow by instinct, however, and the beautiful mix of covert mysticism and ultra-simple geometry that makes up his Homages to the Square gives this show a good enough ending to make you forget the muddle of the middle.