Review: Francis De Erdely is a painterly footnote to L.A.’s art history

Is Francis De Erdely a master of radical painting who worked in Los Angeles in the years after World War II but has since been unjustly forgotten?

That’s the idiosyncratic claim of a small exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum aimed at reviving interest in the Hungarian-born artist, who died in 1959 at the young age of just 55. The work doesn’t come close to supporting this, a bold claim. In reality, a conservative, if socially conscious, painter occupies a modest historic corner.

The exhibition catalog is the first substantive publication about the artist, filling a gap in terms of a painter who should be better known even if he can’t keep up with his front- or second-tier contemporaries. He was somewhat prominent in his time, and it’s worth knowing why. But the book is also a mixed bag.

Best of all, we obtain a considerable amount of biographical information, which is helpful in sorting through the exhibition’s 24 panel paintings and 15 works on paper. (He was a gifted draftsman; the drawings are striking.) Born in Budapest in 1904, de Erdely grew up in a time of extreme social hardship, political chaos, and epic bloodshed.

Throughout history, he received both a classical education and an academic education in art from the age of 15. He studied and worked in Spain, France and Belgium and finally fled Europe in 1939, threatened by the Gestapo because of his outspoken anti-fascist activities. With one world war behind him and another about to explode, he emigrated to the United States, living first in New York and then in Detroit, financing himself largely through commissioned portraits. In 1944 De Erdely came to LA, joined the USC faculty the following year and taught academic painting there until his death.

The low point of the catalogue: an art dealer from a commercial gallery dealing with De Erdely’s work was invited to write the enthusiastic introduction. The conflict of interest for a supposedly scholarly and independent museum study is obvious and disappointing. LAM should know better.

De Erdely occasionally turned to still life, but was primarily a figure painter. As befits his biography, his art is a troubled fusion of rigid academic discipline and the socially conscious themes that had gained a foothold in American painting by the 1930s. Blue collar workers are a common theme, from hard hat workers to newspaper vendors, while blacks and browns abound as social outcasts. He worked with live models, usually non-professionals.

An oil painting of a seated man

Francis De Erdely, “Pancho”, 1945, oil on canvas.

(Chaffey Parish Art Museum)

With few exceptions, the faces are downcast and exhausted. Even an image of a man, cautiously described in the painting’s subtitle as reclining – one arm slung over the back of a chair, his head spread out on the other forearm on a table – is demonstratively juxtaposed with an empty wine bottle compositionally wedged between bony hands. Rest or pass out?

The spectacle of modern life as a crippling circus, known by predecessors as diverse as Picasso, Georges Seurat, Charles Demuth and Walt Kuhn, emerges in the disheveled guise of Huey the Clown, his faint smile painted on. In a small still life centered around candlelight, the traditional symbol of hope and enlightenment, the candlesticks are broken.

Stylistically, De Erdely was able to pursue straight-forward realism, as in an exhausted character from Pancho, reclining limp on a bench. More often than not, however, he fuses the Cubist texture and the Expressionist gesture that were at the forefront of modern European painting in his youth.

Return of the Prodigal (1950) is the show’s strongest image, rendered primarily on the catalog cover. A father and son, no longer estranged in this parable of redeeming a recalcitrant child in the face of the unconditional love of a compassionate adult, embrace in a dramatic maelstrom of hugging arms and clapping hands. They are viewed from the air – a celestial view frequently used by the artist – and rendered in stark contrasts of dark and light.

As is often the case, De Erdely outlines her body parts with thick black lines, creating an even greater contrast. (The artist had studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid in his twenties, and certain Spanish Baroque techniques never left him.) Both figures are dressed in white enlivened by primary flashes of light blue, red and yellow. The creases and folds are also mainly rendered in linear strokes of darker color, as if the shapes were carved into space.

Most importantly, the composition and its color palette seem indebted to a painter like the Viennese Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, whose famous allegorical self-portrait with his lover Alma Mahler, completed in 1914, shows them entwined and anxiously floating in a turbulent whirlpool. De Erdely’s portrait, embedded in an abstract field of darkly brushed colors, calms Kokoschka’s turbulence. He bows the old man’s head in gratitude while the young man’s is raised, albeit matter-of-factly in resignation. The anonymous father’s face is obscured, the son’s framed by golden hair. Light pours into the darkness and upon the couple from an unseen source.

A catalog cover with a portrait of a young man and an older man embracing

The cover of the exhibition catalog shows De Erdely’s “Return of the Prodigal” from 1950.

(Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times)

The secular reinterpretation of the painting of the famous New Testament story (Luke 15:11-32) is clearly seen. De Erdely was among a number of post-war LA artists—including Eugene Berman, Howard Warshaw, and particularly Rico Lebrun—who devoted themselves to the artistic representation of what was commonly known as “the human condition” (almost always battered and somber). . Abstraction or non-figurative art was seen, if not with contempt, as something less urgent.

Like De Erdely, Berman and Lebrun were European immigrants; Warshaw came west from New York. Settling in a relatively new town that has had little opportunity to see historical examples of European and American art, it’s as if they decided to fill a void with well-crafted images.

Guest curator Alissa Anderson Campbell identifies the artist’s radical political views, but their disparity with his commitment to traditional, even conservative, painting styles remains a mystery. If De Erdely’s personal politics could be described as radical — or at least liberal, especially in the context of the city’s throbbing conservatism during the Red Scare era — his art was not.

Other art was. While De Erdely was painting Return of the Prodigal, John McLaughlin was beginning to decompose the geometric abstraction of Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian into a perceptual simplicity influenced by an Asian aesthetic that would, a decade later, bring forth light and space in movement. Wallace Berman cuddled bits of junk into sacred objects of humility that would spawn a widespread assemblage art faction.

When De Erdely died, a cadre of younger artists did not pick up his thread and continued to weave it into the 1960s. In the end, the artists have the last word. Not a disinterest among art historians or critical debates about figurative work versus abstraction, as the exhibition suggests, is the main reason his art has been forgotten. De Erdely is a curious footnote in the avant-garde history of post-war LA art.

“Impressive Personalities: Francis De Erdely”

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach
When: Thursday to Tuesday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday closed. Until October 23rd.
The information: (949) 494-8971, Review: Francis De Erdely is a painterly footnote to L.A.’s art history

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