The Spotlight, the Reflector, the Electric Sign: Light Art and Technology in 1920s Germany
Venator, Amy Melissa
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation examines mechanical light art made in 1920s Germany by Raoul Hausmann, Nikolaus Braun, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, and László Moholy-Nagy. It reframes Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage, which begins most accounts of light art, as the last in a decade of sustained artistic engagement with electric light. Although these artists worked in different circles, in different cities, and over a span of ten years, each responded to Germany’s rapid electrification during the mid-twenties, a process symbolized by the streetlights and lighted advertisements of the nighttime metropolis. In reconstructing these lost works, I argue that artists’ encounters with light technologies inspired them to re-purpose electric light as an artistic medium. Here the similarities end, for the light arts were as different as the technologies that inspired them. Dada artist Raoul Hausmann’s optophone of 1921 was an unbuilt device that projected colored light and transformed it into corresponding sound using photoelectric cells. This technology and the science behind it proved light’s unstable materiality, the central theme of Hausmann’s optophonetic art. In 1923, November Group member Nikolaus Braun exhibited his alternating light pictures, reliefs lit internally by hidden light bulbs and inspired equally by his teacher’s light studies and his work in his father’s brilliantly lit cafés. His light art’s affinity with the café’s sculptural light fixtures engaged with contemporary debates about café culture. The same year, Bauhaus student Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack premiered his color-light plays, pseudo-cinematic projections of moving colored shapes synchronized with music. The color-light plays used electric light to create the absorptive psychological state the artist experienced while making art and, in his late pedagogical work, observed in children at play. The final chapter returns to László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop at the 1930 Paris Werkbund exhibition. I argue that the Light Prop constituted Moholy-Nagy’s critique of the exhibition’s message of standardization, while also betraying the artist’s inability to come to terms with electric light’s commercial origin in lighted advertising. Despite their differences, Weimar Germany’s light artists shared a deep, often conflicted, relationship with electric light that spoke equally to its potential and limitations as an artistic medium.