BETWEEN THE WARS
by Mary Peri
Peter Laszlo Peri was born in Budapest in 1899, the eldest son of a large and poor Jewish family. He had four brothers and three sisters. His father having failed as a tailor became a railway porter, a very unusual employment for a Jew, but he was a countryman - porters had no regular wage and depended entirely on tips so the family did not have much security. His mother's family were fairly prosperous shop owners and disapproved of her marriage, but they did support the family in times of crisis, and as Laci was a clever boy one of the uncles paid his fees at the grammar school. The Peris lived in a typical apartment block in Pest. A large square dark grey building surrounding a courtyard with open galleries round it by which you reached the doors of the apartments. They lived on the fourth floor. There were three rooms and a very small and primitive kitchen from which Laci's mother produced delicious traditional Hungarian food paprika chicken, goulash, rétes, a kind of paper thin pastry stuffed with cabbage and palacsinta - pancakes plus. He often used to describe their meals and how he helped his mother to bottle tomatoes and paprika for winter use.
It was intended that he should become a lawyer and after he left school he entered a lawyer's office. He was fifteen and still at school at the beginning of the First World War and conditions in Hungary were rapidly changing. He joined the Petöfi Society, a sort of debating society as far as I understood - left wing and intellectual. He took part in debates on political and social questions and became a Socialist. When the first Communist government came to power after the war he was able to leave his office, which he hated, and go to an art school to study sculpture, but he was also interested in the theatre and was invited to join a group of travelling actors performing Hungarian and international classics all over the country. Being rather disappointed in his art school he joined them. At the time of the defeat of the Communist government his group were in Czechoslovakia and he decided not to go back to Budapest. With many others he went first to Vienna and then to Paris. The refugees were given a good deal of support unofficially and Peri lived there free with several others, over a baker's shop. They also got hot rolls and bread free from the baker. The refugees organized protests against the new reactionary regime in Hungary and Peri took a prominent part, reciting patriotic Hungarian poetry at a public meeting.
Berlin c. 1929 (Mary far left, Jussuf Abbo second from right. Photo Estate of Jussuf Abbo
The police were there and he was ordered to leave France. He took a train to the German border, got out at the frontier station, walked to the other end of the train, got in again and it worked- he had avoided the control and arrived in Berlin without any papers. There he found many compatriots and managed to get his passport put in order by an art-loving German official.
He found lodgings in a house where there were other Hungarians, among them an old ex-general and his daughter, Irma. He and Irma became attracted to each other and soon got married. It was the time of the inflation in Germany and everything was upside down. No one had any security and people lived from hand to mouth as best they could.
Peri became involved with the group of experimental abstract artists known as the Sturm, which included several Hungarians. He soon made his mark among them and got commissions, paid for mostly in kind, for his large "constructivist" works in abstract architectural shapes. His wife earned money working in an office. Peri described it as a time of great optimism among his artist friends. They were full of revolutionary enthusiasm and sure that a new and better Socialist world was about to begin. After a time the Marxist members of the Sturm came to think that they should use their art in a way more directly of help to society and Peri decided to become an architect. He enrolled as a student and managed to pass several of the very stiff technical examinations, but he never qualified. He got a job in the Berlin Architect’s department and at first was very pleased; but he soon got frustrated and saw no hope of ever doing anything but routine work, so he left. He entered for several architectural competitions and made many ingenious models and drawings but I don’t think he had any success.
I went to Berlin with my sister in 1928 as a music student and we met Peri at a party and found that he was living round the corner from us in the Potsdammer Strasse. He was unemployed, living on the dole and by this time separated from his wife. He had a studio high up in an office building. It was a large square room with huge plate-glass windows; he had covered the walls with red and blue hessian and had built himself a wooden box-like structure in one corner where he had his divan bed. By this time he had abandoned constructivism and was modelling small figures in plasticine and drawing.
Biddy, Mary and Peri, Berlin, c. 1929
He lived a very austere and ordered life. Once a week when he got his money he did his shopping Buckling Leverwurst, speck bread, coffee and tobacco, enough to last him for a week. He smoked a huge Hungarian pipe, two feet long, with an amber mouthpiece, given to him by the General and drank a great deal of thick Turkish coffee.
My sister, Biddy, and I had a studio at the top of another office building in the Victoria Strasse. Ours was romantic - whitewashed with slanting skylights and a view of the canal. Next door were two old German ladies who grew chives, mint and parsley in pots on the flat lead roof and had a beautiful tiled stove. There was also a mad woman in another room. We had a gas cooker in the passage and washed in a stoneware basin. After we made friends Peri used mostly to eat with us.
An art collector, Herr Fuchs, took an interest in Peri’s work and bought several small figures which were cast in bronze. He was a Trotskyite and lived in a very tasteful house in Grünwald - cacti and ponds with goldfish. I don’t know what happened to him but he lost interest in Peri’s work.
Peri's studio/apartement?, Berlin, c. 1930
Peri also did satirical drawings for the Communist Press. He found this very hard work and spent many agonising hours trying to think up ideas. He was completely on his own by this time except for his Communist friends. The Sturm had broken up and its members were scattered. Those who did remain in Berlin disapproved of his realistic work and he lost contact with them.
In 1930 the office building in the Postsdamme Strasse was modernised and Peri was offered money to get out, so we took two modern flats together in Templehof near the airport. Lovely airy rooms, bathrooms and central heating. It was at this time that the Nazis first became noticeable in Berlin. Groups of S.A. marched about aggressively and held huge organised meetings with counter demonstrations by the Socialists and Communists. The economic crisis deepened, too. My sister left us and Peri and I moved to a flat in Siemenstadt really meant for the workers at the huge Siemens factory nearby; but they were mostly on short time and could not afford the rents. The flats were designed by Gropius and were very modern and comfortable; central heating, of course, a communal laundry and many labour-saving devices.
He had friends among the left-wing artists and together they started the Artists International Association with the object of using art to promote peace and prevent fascism. The movement grew rapidly and Peri put all his energy into it. Exhibitions were organised and a small gallery was rented just behind Leicester Square where members could show their work. At this time Peri began working in cement. At first he used it in reliefs but later he found a way of building up figures on a wire armature, keeping the cement wet by spraying it with water. He used to have a milk bottle full of water handy and used his mouth as a spray. He had a big exhibition in, I think, 1938 in Soho Square in a beautiful empty house which has since been pulled down. He did all the arranging himself and it was very effective. He was very strong and could lift his heavy concrete figures; he never trusted anyone else to do it.
This exhibition brought him some success and he began to be more hopeful. He found a studio in Camden Street and was able to do larger works. Recognition seemed to be coming - but then came the war. He joined the rescue service in Camden Town and made many drawings of the scenes he experienced. He got on very well with the other rescue workers and in a way I think he enjoyed that strange, rather communal life.
After the war he had to start again really from the beginning; by this time many other sculptors were using concrete and so the medium no longer shocked people. He became fascinated by the Pilgrim's Progress and interested in the Quaker movement, and joined the Society of Friends.
From then on although he was never satisfied he alternated between moods of deep depression and times when he had projects on which he expended enormous energy. He always had a commission of some sort to keep him going. He had the idea of turning Camden Studios into a cultural centre using the derelict church for an art school and exhibitions, etc., and although it hasn't worked out as he envisaged it the Council has rebuilt the studios and a hall for communal use. He moved into the largest of the new studios and lived there for about a year before his death.
Peri went on working at his small figures but it became increasingly difficult to find any way of getting them shown, let alone sold. Between us and Berlin-proper was a huge area of allotments, started during the war so that people could grow their own vegetables. As more and more people became unemployed they built themselves shacks on their plots, and went to live there, because, of course, it was cheaper. There was no lighting or roads just tracks between the gardens. The flat-living Germans were very frightened of these people and kept well away, but we had many friends there. Many of them were Siemens workers and Peri used to help with drawings for their works paper and with their anti-Nazi campaigns; there were many Nazis there, too, of course.
Peri's divorce came through in 1931 and we got married. Ann was born early in 1932. Things went on getting worse and in 1933 after the burning of the Reichstag, when the first violent attacks on Socialists and Communists began I was caught with some old Communist literature which I was taking to friends in the allotments to burn because we had no means of doing it ourselves. I was arrested but Peri got me out next day because of his Hungarian nationality and because I was British born; but he was in grave danger because of his political work and we decided to leave. We left everything behind all Peter's drawings and sculpture. Some of them were rescued by friends and sent to us in England, but much was lost.
We were relieved to be in England but it was an anti-climax. No one seemed to be aware of the danger of the Nazis or that anything special was happening in Germany. Peri tried to interest people in his work, but realism was unfashionable and he wasn't always tactful in his approach. Galleries weren't interested.
Mary, Peri and their son William, Hampstead, c. 1937