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IMPRESSIONS OF PETER PERI

by John Berger

1968

His face. At the same time lugubrious and passionate. Broad, low forehead, enormous nose, thick lips, beard and moustache like an extra article of clothing to keep him warm, insistent eyes. The texture of his skin was coarse and the coarseness was made more evident by ever being very clean. It was a face whose features and implied experience one can find in any ghetto - Jewish or otherwise.

 

The arrogance and the insistence of his eyes often appealed to women. He carried with him in his face a passport to an alternative world. In this world, which physically he had been forced to abandon but which metaphysically he carried with him-as though a microcosm of it was stuffed into a sack on his back-he was virile, wise and masterful.

 

I often saw him at public political meetings. Sometimes, when I myself was a speaker, I would recognise him in the blur of faces by his black beret. He would ask questions, make interjections, mutter to himself, occasionally walk out. On occasions he and my friends would meet later in the evening and go on discussing the issues at stake. What he had to say or what he could explain was always incomplete.

I knew about Peter Peri from 1947 onwards. At that time he lived in Hampstead and I used to pass his garden where he displayed his sculptures. They were foreign looking. I remember arguing with my friends about them. They said they were crude and coarse. I defended them because I sensed that they were the work of somebody totally different from us.

 

Later, between about 1952 and 1958, I came to know Peter Peri quite well and became more interested in his work. But it was always the man who interested me most. By then he had moved from Hampstead and was living in considerable poverty in the old Camden Studios in Camden Town. There are certain aspects of London that I will always associate with him: the soot-black trunks of bare trees in winter, black railings set in concrete, the sky like grey stone, empty streets at dusk with the front doors of mean houses giving straight on to them, a sour grittiness in one’s throat and then the cold of his studio and the smallness of his supply of coffee with which nevertheless he was extremely generous. Many of his sculptures were about the same aspects of the city. Thus even inside his studio there was little sense of refuge. The rough bed in the corner was not unlike a street bench-except that it had books on a rough shelf above it. His hands were ingrained with dirt as though he worked day and night in the streets. Only the stove gave off a little warmth, and on top of it, keeping warm, the tiny copper coffee saucepan. Sometimes I suggested to him that we went to a restaurant for a meal. He nearly always refused, This was partly pride-he was proud to the point of arrogance and partly perhaps it was good sense: he was used to his extremely meagre diet of soup made from vegetables and black bread, and he did not want to disorient himself by eating better. He knew that he had to continue to lead a foreign life.

This was not so much a question of language (when he was excited he spoke in an almost incomprehensible English), as a question of his own estimate of us, his audience. He considered that our experience was inadequate. We had not been in Budapest at the time of the Soviet Revolution. We had not seen how Bela Kun had been-perhaps unnecessarily-defeated. We had not been in Berlin in 1920. We did not understand how the possibility of a revolution in Germany had been betrayed. We had not witnessed the creeping advance and then the terrifying triumph of Nazism. We did not even know what it was like for an artist to have to abandon the work of the first thirty years of his life. Perhaps some of us might have been able to imagine all this, but in this field Peri did not believe in imagination. And so he always stopped before he had completed saying what he meant, long before he had disclosed the whole of the microcosm that he carried in his sack. 

 

I asked him many questions. But now I have the feeling that I never asked him enough. Or at least that I never asked him the right questions. Anyway I am not in a position to describe the major historical events which conditioned his life. Furthermore I know nobody in London who is. Perhaps in Budapest or Berlin there is still a witness left; but most are dead, and of the dead most were killed. I can only speak of my incomplete impression of him. Yet though factually incomplete, this impression is a remarkably total one.

Peri in conversation at Bar 51, Festival of Britain, 1951
Peter Peri was an exile. Arrogantly, obstinately, sometimes cunningly, he preserved this role. Had he been offered recognition as an artist or as a man of integrity or as a militant anti-fascist, it is possible that he would have changed. But he was not. Even an artist like Kokoschka, with all his continental reputation and personal following among important people, was ignored and slighted when he arrived in England as a refugee. Peri had far fewer advantages. He arrived with only the distant reputation of being a Constructivist, a militant Communist and a penniless Jew. By the time I knew him, he was no longer either of the first two but had become an eternal exile because only in this way could he keep faith with what he had learned and those who had taught him.
 
Something of the meaning of being such an exile I tried to put into my novel A Painter of Our Time. The hero of this novel is a Hungarian of exactly the same generation as Peri. In some respects the character resembles Peri closely. We discussed the novel together at length. He was enthusiastic about the idea of my writing it. What he thought of the finished result I do not know. He probably thought it inadequate. Even if he had thought otherwise, I think it would have been impossible for him to tell me. By that time the habit of suffering inaccessibility, like the habit of eating meagre vegetable soup, had become too strong.
 
I should perhaps add that the character of Janos Lavin in this novel is in no sense a portrait of Peri. Certain aspects of Lavin derived from another Hungarian emigré, Frederick Antal, the art historian who, more than any other man, taught me how to write about art. Yet other aspects were purely imaginary. What Lavin and Peri share is the depth of their experience of exile.
 
Peri’s work is very uneven. His obstinacy constructed a barrier against criticism, even against comment, and so in certain ways he failed to develop as an artist. He was a bad judge of his own work. He was capable of producing works of the utmost crudity and banality. But he was also capable of producing works vibrant with an idea of humanity. 
It does not seem to me to be important to catalogue which are which. The viewer should decide this for himself. The best of his works express what he believed in. This might seem to be a small achievement but in fact it is a rare one. Most works are either cynical or hypocritical-or so diffuse as to be meaningless.
Peter Peri. His presence is very strong in my mind as I write these words. A man I never knew well enough. (In some ways my brother knew him much better.) A man, if the truth be told, who was always a little suspicious of me. I did my best to help and encourage him, but this did not allay his suspicions. I had not passed the tests which he and his true friends had had to pass in Budapest and Berlin. I was a relatively privileged being in a relatively privileged country.
I upheld some of the political opinions which he had abandoned, but upheld them without ever having to face a fraction of the consequences which he and his friends had experienced and suffered. It was not that he distrusted me: it was simply that he reserved the right to doubt. It was an unspoken doubt that I could only read in his knowing, almost closed eyes. Perhaps he was right. Yet if I had to face the kind of tests Peter Peri faced, his example would, I think, be a help to me. The effect of his example may have made his doubts a little less necessary.
 
Peri suffered considerably. Much of this suffering was the direct consequence of his own attitude and actions. What befell him was not entirely arbitrary. He was seldom a passive victim. Some would say that he suffered unnecessarily-because he could have avoided much of his suffering. But Peri lived according to the laws of his own necessity. He believed that to have sound reasons for despising himself would be the worst that could befall him. This belief, which was not an illusion, was the measure of his nobility.
Peter Laszlo Peri, Laszlo Peter Peri, László Péri, Shaped Canvas, Constructivist Art, Hungarian Avant-Garde, Constructivism, Konstruktivismus Kuns, Berlin Dada, Artists International Association, New Objectivity, Neue Sachlichkeit

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