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THINGS TO COME in Santa Barbara

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Leuk 5 by Moholy-Nagy

What is the best movie ever made? Things to Come is not usually featured on a list of cinema’s finest achievements, but it is my favourite. If you visit the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Orlando, you can see an image from the closing scene of the movie. It is on the painted ceiling featuring iconic images of Hollywood’s greatest movies.

Starring the two great knights of the British stage, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sir Ralph Richardson, along with Canada’s most famous actor Raymond Massey, Things to Come is an extraordinary look into the future of space exploration from the vantage point of 1936. Its ending is the most uplifting segment ever filmed. “All the Universe or nothing!”

Set design from Things to ComeSet design from Things to ComeAn unattainable dream? Perhaps, but one that resonates in the work of Moholy-Nagy. Here is Eik Kahng, chief curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art: “Painting for Moholy was a visionary medium; the only means by which the artist could continue to explore the unattainable dreams he had for an art imagined as immaterial.”

When the makers of the movie wanted the most futurist possible set design they turned to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), an advocate for the integration of art with technology. In 1930 he had created a kinetic device meant to produce lively light displays for a modern stage, so he was the ideal choice for Things to Come (an adaptation of the H.G. Wells book The Shape of Things to Come).

A 2006 reproduction of this kinetic device is featured in an exhibit devoted to Moholy-Nagy, currently showing at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

ArchitekturArchitekturMany of Moholy’s paintings are on display here, beginning with his iconic Architektur of 1922 (shown in this article). Curator of the exhibit Joyce Tsai (University of Florida, Gainesville) says in the catalogue of the exhibit that “the art and theory Moholy produced in 1922 maintained that art could transform the world to shape the future by habituating the viewer to new, modern modes of perception.” And it was just this concept of “shaping the future” that was the animating principle of the movie Things to Come.

It was the famed film producer Alexander Korda who asked Moholy to contribute special effects to his movie Things to Come. Unfortunately only a few seconds of this work appear in the edited film, but visitors to the Santa Barbara exhibit can see a full 9-minute film of these effects.

A film canister of his unused special effects was discovered in the archives of the Denham Studios in the 1970s. Jan Tichy (assistant professor of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago) has created a synchronized three-channel digital projection that makes use of these clips. Each cycle begins and ends with Moholy’s original. In between, Tichy subjects the film segment to transformations including superimposition and reversals of positive and negative sequences. You can watch excerpt from the work at   Visitors can sit in a dimly-lit room to view this, while behind them on the wall are arranged a series of posters for the movie. The museum is hosting a special screening of the film at the end of July.

Poster for the 1936 moviePoster for the 1936 movieAt the end of his life, Moholy painted a work entitled Leuk 5 (shown here as the lead picture to the article), the title coming from the fact he was dying of leukemia. But, as Tsai says in her superb essay in the catalogue, it “also derives from a Greek word which means white, light, and bright. It is the sense of the second that the painting evokes with its luminous colors, playful forms, and open rendering of space, shuttling between micro- and macro-scopic perspectives, and orbits both atomic and cosmic.”

I recently took a 2-week trip to visit many of the major art galleries in the country. Of all the special exhibits currently on display in the United States, this is the most innovative and important. See it before it closes Sept. 27, 2015.

Photo credits:

Architektur, 1922. Salgo Trust for Education, Nee York.

Leuk 5, 1946. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Set designs for Things to Come, 1936. Estate of Laszlo Moholgy-Nagy.

The movie Things To Come can be seen on YouTube.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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