●Edition 4: Still Undead

Synthesis in Language of Vision

Bauhaus Sources in Gyorgy Kepes’s Dynamic Structure Order

Fig. 1. Dust jacket, Gyorgy Kepes: Language of Vision, Theobald, Chicago 1944.

The 1944 book Language of Vision: Painting, Photography, Advertising-Design is not very long—228 pages. Its mostly black and white illustrations show a range of world art, from Peruvian textiles through Chinese painting and Russian icons, canonical Renaissance and modern paintings, to twentieth-century print advertising. (figs. 1, 2) Mostly, these illustrations appear without explanatory captions. Readers were expected to work out for themselves how the illustrations amplified the text, which is dense and often opaque. Generations of artists, designers, psychologists, and philosophers have responded to the book’s open-ended call to shape a “dynamic vision” that could bring about a better world. The book was translated into several languages and remained in print for more than six decades.

Fig. 2. Gyorgy Kepes: Language of Vision, Theobald, Chicago 1944, p. 23.

Gyorgy Kepes (1906–2001) wrote Language of Vision while teaching with László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) at the New Bauhaus (later School of Design) in Chicago in the late 1930s and early 1940s.1 Kepes first left his native Hungary in 1930, traveling to Berlin to collaborate with former Bauhaus master Moholy-Nagy on theatre design, photography, and commercial assignments.2 Moholy-Nagy eventually emigrated to London, with Kepes following him there to continue their collaboration, which included store window design and experimental filmmaking. When Moholy-Nagy moved to the United States in 1937 to establish an American art school on Bauhaus principles, he requested that Kepes join him on the faculty.

Kepes’s book quickly became a staple of the art classroom and studio. Historian of art education Frederick Logan in Growth of Art in American Schools called Language of Vision “the most influential single volume in art education in the 1940’s and early 1950’s.”3 In an Art in America article from 1968, Douglas Davis called it, “[A] brilliant analysis of visual communication,” noting that it had “become a handbook of sorts among those involved with education in the visual arts and architecture.”4

Language of Vision was accepted not only as a text for art education, but as an important work of aesthetic theory—its status confirmed by a citation in the “Selected Current Bibliography” of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism’s December 1945 issue. The book’s perceptual concepts were given serious consideration for many years. In issues of Leonardo from the 1970s, for instance, these concepts figured in James J. Gibson’s discussions of his picture perception theories, stirring responses from Rudolf Arnheim, David Topper, Nelson Goodman, and E. H. Gombrich.5

Kepes intended Language of Vision to be a pedagogical work as well as an exploration of aesthetic theory, and, most importantly, to function as a call to a ravaged post-war world to find a new way forward. In approaching his project, Kepes looked to Bauhaus ideas as well as other art principles, informing these with mid-twentieth century scientific, psychological, and philosophical thought. In this essay, I will outline the structure of Language of Vision and discuss the ideas Kepes sets out in each section. I will set ideas from Kepes’s book against those that form the basis of books by Bauhaus artists and teachers, noting points where Kepes’s thinking is in accord with his predecessors and where he diverges. I intend to show that Kepes’s Language of Vision transforms its sources, particularly its Bauhaus sources, into a new holistic synthesis intended to address the unsettling problems of a chaotic post-war society. Language of Vision’s emphasis is on an expanded “vision” capable of recognizing relational structures, synthesizing these into an integrated whole for the support of art and, ultimately, of life.6

In his introductory essay, Kepes emphasizes wholeness, integration, and unity. He sees the world as chaotic and humans as lacking integrity or wholeness. Science and technology have opened new dimensions to mankind, but mankind still believes that “war, economic crises, or psychological disintegration is unavoidable and due to blind, inimical forces of nature.” With a holistic emphasis, he writes: “To function in his fullest scope man must restore the unity of his experiences so that he can register sensory, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of the present in an indivisible whole.”7

This language of vision is holistic but not static. It is capable of interpreting new knowledge about the physical and social worlds through “dynamic interrelationships and interpenetration”—qualities Kepes believed it shared with both advanced science and mid-twentieth-century modes of communication: photography, motion pictures, and television. This new visual language is, he thought, universally intelligible by both the literate and illiterate. To be comprehended it requires the participation of the viewer, and the viewer must become part of a creative process. Artists and viewers must see through new eyes, dynamically reorganizing sight and the structures we use to communicate visually, using these new structures to reform the world.8

In the first of the book’s three chapters, “Plastic Organization,” Kepes draws on the psychology of optical perception. He focuses on how humans organize such two-dimensional visual stimuli as spots, lines, and shapes. He presents ideas from the early Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler: (fig. 3) he also references Goethe regarding optical after-images; Plotinus on symmetry and proportion; the anthropologist Frank Boas on the rhythmic organization of Peruvian textiles; film pioneers Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter on rhythmic organization; and Percy Goetschius and Paul Hindemith on musical theory. Kepe’s presentation of ideas about the psychology of attention also recalls the work of psychologists Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Bradford Titchener. Wundt’s holistic concept of apperception and his student Titchener’s structural approach to psychology were applied to early advertising methods. Kepes, in turn, brought this range of sources to bear in commercial design, before applying this design thinking to a wider spectrum of communication, which he believed would benefit all humankind.

Fig. 3. Gyorgy Kepes: Language of Vision, Theobald, Chicago 1944, p. 46.

Kepes told the interviewer Robert Brown that the Plastic Organization chapter “deals with the restructuring principles, [how] to see, not how to learn, but [how] to structure whatever impacts one gets from the heart’s side.”9 For Kepes, structure revealed meaning. The idea of “structural laws” was an overarching concept that depended on the viewer’s essential role in grasping qualities of perception and the ordering of vision by actively shaping wholes out of formlessness. He sought to define a structure of perception that the viewer would shape into a larger order, giving meaning to the world.10

In Chapter 2, “Visual Representation,” Kepes deals with past conventions of seeing and of traditional representation, calling for a deeper understanding of modern visual experience, with corresponding new forms of representation. Expressing a utopian belief in the conscious development of vision’s capacity to affect human progress, he claimed the artist must translate the physical experiences of the technologically complex mid-twentieth-century world into two-dimensional representation “by means of a sign system based upon a correspondence between the sensory stimulations and the visible structures of the physical world. … Space-time is order, and the image is an ‘orderer.’ Only the integration of these two aspects of order can make the language of vision what it should be: a vital weapon of progress.”11

In a roughly chronological format he explains visual conventions from the past as well as from other cultures. For example, hierarchy of scale was eliminated during the Renaissance, when artists used linear perspective to show how the world looks from a fixed viewpoint at a single moment in time. In the twentieth century, artists (particularly commercial artists and filmmakers) began to use scale and space free from of linear perspective’s conventions in order to lend their work a new dynamism (fig. 4).12

Fig. 4. Gyorgy Kepes: Language of Vision, Theobald, Chicago 1944, p. 71.

The last chapter, “Toward a Dynamic Iconography,” was, for Kepes, his most original contribution, the section he would have liked to develop further. Here Kepes draws a parallel between the disintegration of visual conventions such as linear perspective and the disintegration of the fixed systems of meaning once supported by these now-crumbled visual conventions. He is concerned here with the reintegration of a new system of meaning to establish values and order. The modern age has not yet developed values, and therefore order is also lacking. It is the task of artists to “liberate the inexhaustible energy reservoir of the visual associations” to create a dynamic new system so as to order the world. This idea of association holds that varied elements may share something in common, but may also have no overtly logical relationship, forcing viewers to resolve the tension produced by making mental linkages between unrelated parts in order to create a meaningful configuration. Kepes sees this revolutionary practice at work in collage, photomontage, film, and advertising art. The “dynamic participation of the beholder” is necessary to bring into balance tensions resulting from the propinquity of disparate elements in order to develop “the new discipline necessary to the dynamics of contemporary life.”13

The unusual structure of the book was intended to demonstrate Kepes’s dynamic iconography. He intentionally refrained from using explanatory captions, forcing viewers to make connections between visual material and text, making a formal demonstration of the ideas he explicated in his writing. He states: “I tried to show the image, as always, not as illustrations of principles, but as the building materials of principles.”14

As a pedagogical work, Language of Vision is related to certain books published in the Bauhaus book series (Bauhausbücher)—those authored by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian—as well as select works by Bauhaus masters Moholy-Nagy and Walter Gropius. Kepes never attended the Bauhaus and his association with Moholy-Nagy began several years after the latter left the School. Yet Kepes was undoubtedly aware of these writings, including illustrations of the work of all the aforementioned artists save Klee in his book.15

In Point and Line to Plane, number nine in the Bauhaus book series, Kandinsky discussed art in terms of language or grammar, as well as music or sound; certain art elements are addressed in terms of temperature.16 He tried to determine the inherent meanings of the most basic elements of art: points are “silent,” horizontal lines are “cold.” Art elements do not function as signs of anything—they are the embodiments of spiritual meaning. In his insistence on the distilled meanings of art forms, Kandinsky hewed to Symbolist principles.

Kandinsky also delineated a research-based “science of art.” Such research must start with the most “basic elements” of art amenable to being analyzed, compared, and correlated— within and across disciplines—eventually resulting in one unified system of meaning for all the arts. Kandinsky anticipated these elements would one day be gathered first in a “dictionary” then a “grammar,” eventually making up a living “language.”17

Like Kandinsky, Kepes found the idea of language-as-structure a useful concept and was interested in ordering art and life systematically. But Kandinsky’s system conveys deeper truths of a spiritual nature. By contrast, Kepes’s language of vision was concerned with vision (or perception) and the need to retrain the eye in a holistic way so as to achieve the practical goal of an improved, integrated society.

Among their other teaching duties at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky and Klee both taught Formlehre, part of the Vorkurs (Preliminary Course). Like Kandinsky, Klee also analyzed art elements, discussing the science of visual perception and emphasizing individual subjective response to the optical sensations of the visible natural world. Klee’s Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch appeared in 1925, the second publication in the Bauhaus book series. Section I takes a line for a “walk,” moving points through space to form lines and planes of various character. Dealing with “structure” in the form of the simple repetition of a unit, this section proceeds to incrementally increase in structural complexity through use of the golden ratio and other examples. Kepes was in accord with Klee’s ideas about the importance of structure, but Kepes’s emphasis on a dynamic, language-like structure for ordering vision, with the ultimate goal of restoring order to society, was not shared by Klee. Nor did Klee share Kepes’s notion that commercial artists had a role in bringing about a new society.

In Bauhaus, Jeannine Fiedler’s compendium on the history of the School, Norbert Schmitz points out that both Klee and Kandinsky were closely connected with a nineteenth-century romantic view of art. In spite of their highly systematic ways of teaching the fundamentals of art (Kandinsky’s geometrically based; Klee’s more concerned with growth in nature), their own work did not necessarily partake of their systems. They reserved for themselves inspiration and intuition in the tradition of nineteenth-century masters.18 By contrast, Kepes’s language of vision takes its shape from philosophy and perception psychology.

Moholy-Nagy’s views on New Vision photography and art were a large reason that Kepes moved from Budapest to join his studio. Kepes must have encountered Moholy-Nagy’s Malerie, Photograhie, Film during his student days in Budapest, when he was mentored by Moholy-Nagy’s colleague Lajos Kassák.19 Moholy-Nagy’s pedagogical works all flow from his book Von Material zu Architektur (later published in English as The New Vision), based on his lectures at the Bauhaus, first published in 1929.20 Kepes would have known of this book from his association with Moholy-Nagy.

In Von Material zu Architektur, Moholy-Nagy calls on artists to shift their thinking from a prescribed canon into something new: organic function achieved through a scientific understanding of how humans interact with their environment. He then calls for a systematic study of how sights or colors affect people psychologically, and speaks of welding elements into a synthesis. He wrote: “The scope of such a study is to survey and organize all the utilizable elements of expression. This study of the basic elements may then play the role of a well-stocked chest of tools, or of a dictionary, but it cannot give security to the creative work itself.” From this basis, Moholy-Nagy attempts a brief “framework of systematization of the elements of artistic creation,” consisting of two main parts: “forms already known” and “newly produced forms,” with a list of possible relationships, such as contrasts and mirroring.21

An expanded version of The New Vision, entitled Vision in Motion, included Moholy-Nagy’s New Bauhaus/School of Design/Institute of Design pedagogy, appearing posthumously in 1947, after the publication of Language of Vision. For Moholy-Nagy, the arts can help move humanity toward a “harmonious social existence” through “re-education of the people” via direct sensory exposure to new imagery, “without involving too much intellectual participation.” Undoubtedly due to contact in Chicago with Kepes and guest lecturers such as the semiotician Charles Morris and semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, Moholy-Nagy proceeds to briefly introduce the idea of an art language, locating its source within each individual without attempting to posit any kind of overarching visual system. This leads to a discussion of a “common language of art based upon visual fundamentals,” of the sort artists organize into their own “simple systems” that are legible to viewers—a variation of Kandinsky’s “tool box” or “dictionary” concept.22

Kepes did not adhere to the notion of a “tool box” or “dictionary” of art, and his discussion of systems does not refer to individual artists’ simple systems, but, rather, to overarching systems of communication and social re-formation too dynamic to be easily explained. Furthermore, the participation of artist and viewer are, in Kepe’s opinion, equally essential.

Aside from the Bauhaus masters previously noted, Kepes also quotes Piet Mondrian on equilibrium in Language of Vision. Mondrian did not serve in the Bauhaus faculty, but his book Neue Gestaltung was the fifth book published—in 1925—in the Bauhaus book series.23 In his essay “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art,” Mondrian states that it is crucial to achieve unity and avoid disequilibrium and disorder by effecting a balance between objective representation (the universal) on the one hand, and subjective representation (abstraction and the individual) on the other. The two tendencies, subjective and objective, must be held in an ongoing balance. For Mondrian, it is essential to try to determine the “great hidden laws of nature,” the most important of which is “the fundamental law of dynamic equilibrium.”24 Old forms of art exhibit a static equilibrium, and they must be destroyed and rebuilt in such a way as to construct “a rhythm of mutual relations.”25

Mondrian makes a distinction between “pioneers” of art and “the mass” or “the collective”—the group of ordinary people who “remains behind yet urges the pioneers to creation.” The pioneers discover the underlying laws of nature and apply them to art. These laws are universal and this art is meant to enlighten mankind and contribute to the progress of humanity. The pioneers “know that humanity is not served by making art comprehensible to everybody; to try this is to attempt the impossible.”26

Kepes shared a few of Mondrian’s beliefs, such as the notion that art should achieve equilibrium in order to partake of a greater unity, allowing human culture to be developed in a progressive way. Unlike Mondrian, Kepes believed that art, structured like a language, can communicate universally and train all humans (not just a select group of “pioneers,” as Mondrian would have it) to see and understand, leading eventually to a realization of humanity’s potential for social good. Mondrian, on the other hand, retains a metaphysical role for art, never speaking of art as a language.

In “Education Towards Creative Design” (1937), Walter Gropius specifically mentioned a language of vision (not a grammar of art or a dictionary of elements), apparently after having been introduced to the writing of Kepes. Here he refers to a “language of shape” and a “grammar of design” based on “an objective knowledge of optical facts—such as proportion, optical illusions and colors,” going on to emphasize that optical facts serve as a structure within which the “multitude of individuals can work together harmoniously.” This is not an optical structure for insuring communication with viewers. Rather, it is presented as a sort of universally understood professional art-making technique.27

As I have tried to show, many of the concepts and concerns Gyorgy Kepes presents in Language of Vision have their roots in the Bauhaus. Both Bauhaus artists and Kepes shared notions of a language of art elements, universal laws, structure, and order, linking these to their utopic hope that art would have a positive effect on mankind. However, a great physical and cultural distance separated the German Bauhaus of the 1920s and 1930s from the post-World War II New Bauhaus in America, where Kepes taught and wrote. Yet the foundational art ideas of the Bauhaus provided an effective basis for Kepes’s ideas concerning how to shape a new, unified society in a world left in chaos after World War II. Kepes consolidated many strands of twentieth-century visual rhetoric, particularly those emanating from the Bauhaus, into an overarching synthesis he described as a modern visual language. To this language he attributed an ability to change the chaotic twentieth century world for the better. The appeal of Language of Vision’s call for dynamic structures of visual communication kept it in print for decades, far into the post-structural world.

  • 1 Gyorgy Kepes: Language of Vision, Theobald, Chicago 1944.
  • 2 Matthew Witkovsky: Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 2007, pp. 81–83. On page 220 Kepes is mistakenly noted as a Bauhaus graduate.
  • 3 Frederick Logan: Growth of Art in American Schools, Harper and Row, New York 1955, pp. 255–57.
  • 4 Douglas M. Davis: “Gyorgy Kepes: Searcher in the New Landscape,” Art in America 56, no. 1 (Jan–Feb 1968), p. 38.
  • 5 James J. Gibson: “The Information Available in Pictures” Leonardo 4, (Winter 1971), pp. 27–35. Letters in response by E. H. Gombrich, Rudolf Arnheim and James J. Gibson Leonardo 4, (Spring 1971), pp. 195–199 and Nelson Goodman, Leonardo 4, (Autumn 1971), pp. 359–60. Dennis Couzin, “On Gibson’s and Goodman’s Accounts of Depiction,” Leonardo 6, (Summer 1973), pp. 233–235 and Gibson’s letter, pp. 284–285.
  • 6 By “holistic” I mean that all elements (of art, vision, or life—or all of these together) are understood to be in relationship—and not viable if separated. For more on holism, see Jerry Fodor and Ernest Lepore: Holism: A Shopper’s Guide, Blackwell, Oxford 1992.
  • 7 Kepes: Language of Vision, p. 12, 13.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 13, 14.
  • 9 Robert Brown interview of Gyorgy Kepes transcript, 7 March and 30 August, 1972; 11 January 1973, p. 21.
  • 10 Kepes: Language of Vision, p. 13.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 66–68.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 71.
  • 13 Ibid., pp. 201, 202, 207, 209.
  • 14 Kepes interview with Brown transcript, pp. 21, 24.
  • 15 In Language of Vision works by Mondrian appear on pages 42, 47; and by Moholy-Nagy on pages 50, 79, 91, 116, 149, 157, 159, 160, and 218. A diagram by Kandinsky appears on page 22; it is a reproduction of 9 points in ascent from Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane, Dover, New York 1979, p. 151.
  • 16 Wassily Kandinsky: Point and Line to Plane, in: Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (eds.): Complete Writings on Art, Da Capo Press, Boston 1994, n. p. Originally published as Point and Line to Plane: A Contribution to the Analysis of Pictorial Elements, Albert Langen Verlag, Munich 1926.
  • 17 Kandinsky: Point and Line to Plane, pp. 600–602.
  • 18 Norbert M. Schmitz: “Teaching by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee,” in: Jeannine Fiedler and Peter Feierabend (eds.): Bauhaus, Könemann Verlag, Cologne 1999, pp. 382-391.
  • 19 László Moholy-Nagy: Malerei, Photographie, Film, Albert Langen Verlag, Munich 1925.
  • 20 László Moholy-Nagy: Von Material zu Architektur, Albert Langen Verlag, Munich 1929. László Moholy-Nagy: The New Vision, (1928); and, Abstract of an Artist, 3rd rev. ed., G. Wittenborn, Inc., New York 1946. Other revisions and editions were published.
  • 21 Moholy-Nagy: The New Vision, pp. 53, 54, 55.
  • 22 Laszló Moholy-Nagy: Vision in Motion, Paul Theobald, Chicago 1946, pp. 7, 25, 114.
  • 23 Piet Mondrian: Neue Gestaltung: Neoplastizismus = Nieuwe Beelding, Albert Langen Verlag, Munich 1925.
  • 24 Piet Mondrian: “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art,” in: Herschell B. Chipp (ed.): Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, pp. 349–362, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1968, p. 355. Originally published in: J. L. Martin, B. N. Nicholson, and N. Gabo, (eds.): Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, Faber and Faber, London 1937, pp. 41–56.
  • 25 Mondrian: “Plastic Art,” p. 361.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 352.
  • 27 Walter Gropius: “Education Towards Creative Design,” American Architect and Architecture, 81 (May 1937), pp. 26–30.
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