Treasures from the Vault: Gabor Peterdi

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Gabor Peterdi was a painter, printmaker, and educator whose imaginative abstractions are in FWMoA’s permanent collection and the upcoming exhibition Miró in New York, 1947: Miró, Hayter, and Atelier 17. 

Born in Pestújhely, Hungary in 1915, Peterdi showed artistic prowess at an early age; he attended the Hungarian Academy when he was just 14 years old and was given a solo exhibition at the Ernst Museum. The following year Peterdi received the prestigious Prix de Rome that provided him the opportunity to travel to Rome and study at the Accademia di belle Arti. To support himself, Peterdi worked as a wrestler in the circus and sold postcards on the side.  

In 1931 he left for Paris, the center of the art world. It didn’t take long before he was introduced to printmaking at Atelier 17. A mecca for artists, both seasoned and young, from all over the globe its founder, Stanley William Hayter, revived interest in engraving and was a proponent of Surrealism. While known for prestigious art academies, the rigorous entrance requirements and conservative approach led many Parisian artists to study elsewhere. They didn’t necessarily flock to Paris to learn printmaking, but they were adventurous in spirit, which fit perfectly with Atelier 17’s approach. 

At the same time, artists couldn’t help but sense the rising conflict around them, particularly in Spain and Germany in the 1930s. Peterdi’s earliest prints reflect this ominous atmosphere. Thinking on his art from this time period and the impact of Surrealism, Peterdi said, “the spiritual movement of surrealism helped to liberate for me a desire for lyricism and romanticism. I associated the movement with memories of my childhood and the result—these bulls and roosters, awakened from the peace of my childhood into the bloody turbulence of life today.”i His engravings from the late 1930s depict bulls and roosters in battle and contorted human faces that evoke anxiety and despair. 

Like many other artists, in 1939 Peterdi immigrated to the US, leaving behind the growing threat of war. In the subsequent years, he didn’t create art; he worked on a farm in western Florida and served in the military as a cartographer. Peterdi also assisted in the apprehension and return of escaped Hungarian war criminals from Austria. 

After his five-year hiatus from art, Peterdi resumed printmaking at the relocated Atelier 17 in New York. In 1947, he made his first color print and forged a fresh direction in his work.  He explained, “The uncertainties of our century forced me to express them as they burst into futile and horrible action. But I believe in life, and it is in this faith which now compels me to express the creative force of nature as a symbol of the triumph of life over destruction.”ii    

Gabor Peterdi, American, b. Hungary. Polite People. Etching and aquatint on paper, 1948. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Arts United Renaissance Campaign, 1989.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

FWMoA’s Polite People (1948) is populated by organic forms that are sprouting, bursting, and morphing into other shapes. They seem to suggest themes of growth and regeneration, a sign of his new outlook of promise. 

East Wind (Dark Ocean) (1955) is from a portfolio of 12 etchings and engravings entitled Of Earth and Water. Peterdi distilled his metamorphosing forms, seen in Polite People, into calligraphic lines. He captured the essence of nature whether in a piece driftwood, wildflowers, a wave, waterfall, or the wind.  His expression of elemental forces is individual, akin to the life-force felt in Charles Burchfield’s paintings. 

Gabor Peterdi, American, b. Hungary. East Wind (Dark Ocean) from the Of Earth and Water portfolio. Etching and aquatint on paper, 1955. Museum purchase, 1965.59. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In 1949, Peterdi embarked on his journey as an educator, taking a position at the Brooklyn Museum Art School where he set up the Graphic Workshop. He also taught at Hunter College before settling in at Yale University to set up their printmaking department.  

Over the course of his career, Peterdi created 260 intaglio prints. He authored the important resource Printmaking: Methods Old and New, which provides instruction on traditional and experimental techniques in intaglio and relief and discloses his penchant for pushing boundaries. Peterdi proclaimed, back in 1959 when his book was published, “Today I think I can say without much exaggeration that I have made prints with practically every known major process in graphic art.”iii 

See his work on display in Miró in New York, 1947 through June 25, 2023.

  i Una A. Johnson, Gabor Peterdi: Graphics 1934-1969 (New York: Touchstone Publishers, LTD, 1970), n.p. 

ii Una A. Johnson, Gabor Peterdi: Graphics 1934-1969 (New York: Touchstone Publishers, LTD, 1970), n.p. 

iii Gabor Peterdi, Printmaking: Methods Old and New (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1971), xxvi. 

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