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BIOGRAPHY

Peri’s early training as an actor with Janos Macza in Budapest, specifically his exposure to the Modernist theatre ideas of Edward Gordon Craig, gives a unique theatrical slant to his abstract constructions, which sometimes closely resemble Gordon Craig’s designs for motorised kinetic stage sets. Peri set out a theoretical position on modern art and the theatre in a 1922 text co-authored with Raoul Hausmann titled “Aims of the Prè Theatre”. This concern with theatre and placing the viewer in a dynamic relationship to art led to Peri’s greatest contribution to Modernism, the invention of the asymmetrical cut-out painting or “shaped canvas”. These are painted compositions of extreme spatial tension where the static rectangle of traditional painting is replaced by irregular forms that break out of the picture plane. The American collector and artist Katherine S Dreier bought several of these works directly from Der Sturm for the Societe Anonyme and they were exhibited regularly in America from the early 1920s onwards. In 1923 within the Great Berlin Art Exhibition’s Novembergruppe section Peri exhibited 3 radically minimal and large wooden cut-outs in red and black. This 3 part Space Construction is annotated by Peri as being 17 metres long and 7 meters high but was in this incarnation probably the same scale as Lissitzky’s Proun Room, which was in the neighbouring booth. Peri later wrote that this exhibit marked the culmination and end of his Abstract work and that “further experiments in this direction would have resulted in the total destruction of form”.

As early as 1923 Peri was attending architecture classes with Erich Bucholz at the Politechnical Institute in Berlin’s Kurfurstunstrasse and in 1924 he entered the international competition to design Lenin’s mausoleum. His proposal was exhibited and reproduced in Russia and praised by Adolf Behne. Encouraged by this success and wanting to make things of practical use to society Peri gave up art for architecture in line with the Productivist tendency within Constructivism. He started work as an architect in the Berlin city planning department but was mostly restricted to administrative tasks. During this time however he produced several designs for large scale residential developments which parallel the contemporary work of architect and Bauhaus teacher Ludwig Hilberseimer. Peri’s last exhibition at Der Sturm took place in 1924 where he showed his architectural plans alongside Hilberseimer and Nell Walden.

Berlin, 1927

After arriving in London, the family briefly lived in Bassett Road, Ladbroke Grove, before moving to a maisonette at 10 Willow Road, Hampstead, where Peri used the spare room as a space to work. In 1937 he found a permanent studio a couple of miles to the east in Camden Town, enabling him to work on a larger scale. Many artists exiled from Germany now came to London and Peri was in contact with John Heartfield, Moholy Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes, Arthur Segal and others that he had known in Berlin. Through the newly formed Artist’s International Association he met English artists and became involved with the artistic and political life of London, exhibiting with the group and speaking on behalf of Realism in their debates. Peri typically argued against Surrealism, Abstraction and Soviet style Social Realism in favour of a modern Realism that would express human relationships and emotion. Initially Peri was close to Herbert Read, the Peri's and Read's holidayed together in Northern Ireland in the summer of 1935. From 1936 onwards though Peri was supported critically by Read's rival Anthony Blunt, who regularly reviewed his exhibitions in The Spectator and organised an exhibition for him in Cambridge in 1937.

During the latter half of the 1930s Peri appears to have been a frequent visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum, mining Egyptian, Italian Renaissance and French 19th century art as source material for what he now termed The New Realism. Theatrical elements recalling Gordon Craig’s influence also reappear in the work of this period, particularly in a series of black concrete mask-like portraits and bas-relief figures on stairs. Most importantly Peri drew obsessively from life, travelling all over London to record scenes in streets, pubs, cafes, and workhouses. These quick studies would then be rigorously analysed and formalised as subjects for sculpture. At this time Peri became dissatisfied with casting in bronze: it was expensive, and he wanted a more direct working process. Having first cast in concrete in 1920 he now developed a technique for modelling directly in wet concrete using his own formula for “Pericrete”.

 

Peri held his largest ever exhibition in 1952 at the Artist’s House in Soho titled 'From Abstract Art to New Realism'. He organised and funded the show himself, exhibiting more than 90 works among which were reconstructions in concrete of his 1920s wooden abstracts. The display of these works, which so obviously prefigure the 1960s Abstraction of American artists like Frank Stella came too early for a London audience, little was sold and the exhibition was not reviewed. Around this time Peri, who had by now changed his first name to Peter, met John Berger who would later write often and supportively about him in the New Statesman. The hero of Berger’s first novel A Painter of our Time is based partly on Peri and partly on the Hungarian art historian Frederick Antal. Berger particularly admired the two major suites of etchings Peri produced in the 1950s illustrating Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Peri was attracted to the spirituality of Bunyan’s allegory and this work coincided with him turning away from Communism towards the peace movement and Quakerism. He began to concentrate on small-scale figure sculptures in coloured concrete, producing a series of hundreds of “Little People” which form a huge repository of observations from life and formal invention. Many of the introspective seated figures in this series are portraits drawn at Quaker meetings. Peri himself saw this series as his biggest artistic achievement.

Peri was born on the 13th of June 1899 in Budapest, his original name was Laszlo Weisz. His mother Amalia Goldstein and father Mano Weisz were working class Jews, Mano was a tailor (later a railway porter at Budapest’s central station) who originally came from a country district in north-east Hungary. Peri was educated at a Grammar School, and while a teenager persuaded all his family to change their name from Weisz to Peri.

He was involved in the Hungarian avant-garde from an early age and took an active part in the Galileo circle and the MA group, joining Janos Macza’s innovative theatre workshop in 1917. Apprenticed to a stonemason he also attended the Budapest Proletarian Art Workshops formed during the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, where under the influence of Bela Uitz he produced his first Expressionist paintings. Peri was touring Czechoslovakia in a theatre company engaged in agit-prop when the Hungarian revolution fell. He was unable to return home as he was on the Hungarian police's blacklist and would have faced execution had he gone back. At about this time he married his first wife, Irma Mackassy, the daughter of an exiled Hungarian General.

 

In 1920, after a brief stay in Vienna, Peri went to Paris where he continued his revolutionary and artistic activities, he found shelter above a bakery but was soon expelled from France for sedition. Later in 1920 he settled in Berlin, becoming close with a group of exiled left-wing Hungarian avant-garde artists. In Berlin he was at first involved in Dada, exhibiting a plank of wood hanging on a string in a telephone kiosk titled The Hanging Man, but he quickly moved towards Constructivism. At that moment there were strong links between the Hungarian and Russian avant garde but Peri’s particularly advanced knowledge of Constructivist theory may also have been due to his friendship with the artist Jolan Szilagyi who studied at Vkhutemas and was herself a close friend of El Lissitzky’s in Moscow.

 

Peri’s artistic journey from Expressionism through Dada to Constructivism is comparable with the trajectory of his friend and countryman Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with whom Peri went on to hold two exhibitions in 1922 and 1923 at Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm Gallery. Reviewing the first of these exhibitions Lissitzky wrote "Against the background of jellyfish-like German non-objective painting, the clear geometry of Moholy and Peri stands out in relief. They are changing over from compositions on canvas to constructions in space and material". 

Berlin 1924 (left to right: Unknown, Alfred Kemeny, Peri, Jolan Szilagyi, Irma Peri) 

In 1928 Peri resigned from his job and returned to making figurative art, later recalling “I realised that just because Constructivism could be useful for architecture, that didn’t make me an architect”. He was now divorced from Irma (having briefly had an affair with her sister) and that same year he met Mary Macnaghten, an English music student and granddaughter of social reformer Charles Booth. Returning to art Peri began to draw and sculpt single figures from life, with a particular emphasis on studies of mass and kinetic energy. Having abandoned architecture he now returned to Constructivist theory by an alternate route - figuring the human organism itself as a constructive unity of reciprocal dynamism. Referring to this conception of the body he later stated "Constructivist ideas are still there - how to relate people, movement - people's legs and arms with each other. It is not accident a man holds his arms like this, it is also always related to the leg's movement". This new figurative work was supported by Peri’s relationship with art historian, collector, and Sparticist Eduard Fuchs. Fuchs is perhaps now best remembered through the essay Walter Benjamin wrote about him in 1937 but his writings on subjects including Daumier, caricature and erotic art were widely read in Weimar Germany. Daumier’s art became an important inspiration for Peri at this time and Fuchs commissioned several bronze sculptures from him around 1930.

In Berlin’s increasingly charged political climate Peri joined the German Communist Party and contributed cartoons to it’s newspaper Rote Fahne. He was an active member of Oskar Nerlinger’s The Modern group (previously known as The Abstracts) and The Association of German Revolutionary artists (ASSO). He took part in ASSO’s unsanctioned display at the 1932 Great Berlin Art Exhibition organised by Oskar and Alice Lex Nerlinger where, immediately following the opening, artworks were confiscated by the police. The artists stayed in the space handing out leaflets and drawing slogans on the bare walls. In 1933 Mary (now Peri’s wife) was arrested while in possession of Communist propaganda and Peri punched a Gestapo officer during an incident at a political demonstration. The family were obliged to hurriedly leave Germany for England and along with their personal affairs could only carry a few of Peri’s bronzes, a collection of drawings, some photographs, and linocuts. The bulk of his Abstract work was left in the Berlin basement, Peri intending to have it sent for later. When Mary's sister, Biddy Jungmittag who stayed in Berlin, eventually called at the Gropius flat where they had lived, she found that everything had been destroyed.

Between 1936 and 1938 he held four solo exhibitions in London and Cambridge including ‘From Constructivism to Realism’, ‘The New Realism in Sculpture’ (organized by Anthony Blunt) and “London Life in Concrete”. This last exhibition took place in an empty house in Soho Square and was sponsored by the Cement and Concrete Association who wished to publicise the new coloured concrete products that Peri was using. The exhibition included larger scale multicoloured reliefs that took their subjects from the metropolitan life Peri experienced himself, he was an avid consumer of London culture; concerts, cinema, cartoons, Soho bohemia as well as galleries. The exhibition catalogue reflects this with titles such as Film Queue, Tea Shop, Pub, Rush hour, Bank holiday, Chess and Lyons Waitress.

 

During World War 2 Peri volunteered for air raid rescue services in North London, getting the dead and injured out of bombed premises. He documented much of what he saw in drawings, etchings and sculpture, showing some of these works in his first exhibition after the war at Paul Wengraf’s Arcade Gallery, held jointly with the Surrealist Stella Snead. This was followed by a solo exhibition in 1948 at the AIA’s gallery in Soho titled Peri’s People which included etchings from two extensive series begun in the early 1940s; Londoners and People in Contrast. Londoners continues the themes addressed in London Life in Concrete such as Film Queue and Pub, often in a humorous manner. People in Contrast is more austere and obviously concerned with form. Using reflections and oppositions it often features contrasting pairs of figures placed on striated abstract planes that jut out unsupported into space.

Around 1948 he approached the London County Council with a plan to use the technique of modelling directly in wet concrete to decorate then newly built social housing in Lambeth. He saw this project as a way of creating a direct and vital contact between the artist and the people in the tradition of Renaissance fresco painting. The resulting three reliefs on the South Lambeth estate, although somewhat altered, can still be visited today and are now listed. Following these projects Peri was invited to produce a sculpture for the 1951 Festival of Britain. His first proposal titled 'Reflections' was deemed too big for the site and he eventually contributed 'Sunbathing Group'. Two reclining figures mounted directly on the wall as if seen by the viewer from above. This inverted orientation, which Peri often used and termed “horizontal sculpture”, has its roots in the disorientating aerial perspectives of 1920s New Vision photography and Constructivist visual theory.

Peri at work on Boys playing football, South Lambeth Estate, London 
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Peri continued to work in concrete but increasingly experimented with Polyester resin for both small scale and public sculpture. He undertook many commissions for schools and universities in this new medium particularly in the Midlands and East London. The strength and lightness of Polyester allowed him to create a series of “diagonal sculptures”, life size figures which seem to defy gravity, flying upwards into space from the wall’s surface.
 
This use of new material technology in art accorded with Peri's earliest Constructivist statements on the importance of using modern materials to express modern life. As the titles of two of his exhibitions make clear; From Constructivism to Realism (1936) and From Abstract Art to New Realism (1952), Peri was intent on illuminating a regenerative artistic path forward from Abstraction, stating “the significance of my representational painting and sculpture is: that it follows Constructivism, i.e. using all the knowledge I gained through abstract art.” What Gyorgy Kepes terms “dialectical vision” remains the structural foundation for Peri’s Realist work - he consistently creates a clash of contrary visual statements within a single image employing techniques of reflection, rotation, inversion and distorted perspective. Crucially, Peri’s use of these devices remains true to the original Constructivist aspiration of educating perception holistically - whereby creating a new relationship to space and vision through art would develop people's emotional and spiritual perception.
In 1965 Peri married artist Heather Hall, the same year he appeared as the central figure of the BBC film 28B Camden Street, a documentary on the demolition of the artist’s studios where Peri had worked since the 1930s. Camden Council subsequently built new studios for the displaced artists on the same site and Peri was able to move in shortly before his death in 1967. Around the same time he finally received financial compensation from the German government for the loss of his early works in Berlin.
Peter Peri, Hackney, June 2020.
With grateful thanks to Gerti Fietzek, Jean Macintyre, Heather Niman and Emmanuelle Peri. 
 
 
In memory of William Peri.
Peri in the new Camden studio, 1966

© 2020 Peter Laszlo Peri Estate