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Hugo Gellert: History of a Controversy

By James Wechsler, CUNY Art History Department

Hugo Gellert was born in Hungary in 1892 and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1906. Gellert died in 1985. He was a very well-known artist in this country during the 1930s, yet he has essentially been forgotten. Today he is perhaps more infamous for his passionate commitment to leftist political agitation than for his contribution to American art, but Gellert strongly disavowed any distinction between the two. He professed that, for him, political agitation and art were the same thing.

Gellert's activities contributed greatly to the political tone of 1930s American art. He occupied a seminal position in organizing the Artist's Committee for Action and the Artists' Union, two pivotal institutions which greatly contributed to the instigation and perpetuation of the federally funded WPA art programs. He served on the editorial committee of Art Front, the Artists' Union's official publication.

Detail, Seymour Fogel's 1939 World's Fair Mural, New Deal Network.
A Gellert drawing adorned the masthead of the premier issue (a Stuart Davis drawing appeared on the cover). Later in the 1930s, Gellert helped organize the American Artists' Congress of February, 1936, at which he gave the keynote address. He spoke at the second American Artists' Congress in December, 1937 as well. Also in late 1937, Gellert became involved with the Artists' Coordination Committee for the National Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at the 1939 New York World's Fair. At the same time, heedful of artists' best interests, Gellert oversaw the formation of a labor union to protect the rights of muralists and their assistants as the World's Fair was being planned.

Gellert painted a spectacular mural imbued with the technological optimism that was so pervasive in 1930s modernism for the Communications Building at the Fair. He painted two other murals in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s as well. All have been destroyed. The earliest, painted for the Workers Party Cafeteria on Union Square, dates from 1928. Gellert had been invited to Moscow by the State Publishing House to design book jackets for Russian editions of Theodore Dreiser's books. The mural was the first project Gellert undertook upon his return to New York. Highly influenced by Russian Modernism of the 1920s, it is one of the first modernist murals in the United States, just predating the North American commissions of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. In November, 1928, shortly after the mural's unveiling, the New Yorker declared, "The Gellert murals are the only ones on this continent except those of Rivera in Mexico City that are really contemporary." [1] Eight feet high, Gellert's mural covered one entire wall, eighty feet long, and a facing wall, thirty feet long. The long wall included a frieze of monumental, brightly colored, sculpturally rendered, industrial workers standing before precisionist factories and mine structures. The mural was destroyed when the building was demolished in 1954.

The Seward Park murals are by no means the only work by Gellert to have caused controversy. He excelled at making trouble with his art. In 1932 Gellert captured headlines in New York through an incident involving a mural study that he was invited to submit to the Museum of Modern Art's Murals by Painters and Photographers exhibition. Gellert's painting, Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together (Collection of The Wolfsonian, Miami Beach, FL), along with Ben Shahn's famous The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY) and a painting by William Gropper, was rejected for the exhibition because it featured unflattering portraits of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (whose wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, essentially founded the museum in 1929), J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford and President Herbert Hoover.

Gellert produced this painting during a time when the Rockefeller family was under attack for commissioning no work by American artists for the Rockefeller Center project. In February, 1932, The Art Digest reported:

The rumor that the murals for Radio City, the Rockefeller project in the heart of New York, were to be commissioned to (Diego) Rivera, (Jose Maria) Sert and other foreign artists (Frank Brangwyn) has stirred up a tempest. [2]

In an article published in New Masses, Gellert himself explained that:

upon the heels of this upheaval, the Museum of Modern Art, of which Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. is treasurer, invited artists to participate in an exhibition of mural decorations. [3]

Gellert's Us Fellas was clearly meant to add insult to injury to the Rockefellers. The situation threatened to become embarrassing for the museum when a number of other artists in the exhibition declared that they would withdraw their works if the offending paintings by Gellert, Gropper and Shahn were not hung. Wishing to avoid a scandal, the museum quickly conceded and agreed to include the three works in the exhibition (but not to reproduce them in the catalog). However, the press nonetheless received word of the story. The day before the exhibition opened the New York Daily World Telegram announced:

Insurgent Art Stirs Up Storm Among Society

Murals for Modern Museum Rejected as Offensive, Then Accepted

Linked Hoover to Al Capone

Since the Murals by Painters and Photographers exhibition was hastily conceived of to address the accusations regarding the Rockefeller Center commissions, one would think that Gellert's activities would have placed him way outside the running for such a commission. Indeed, Helen Appleton Read, a critic for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, observed:

It suffices to say that the panels sent in by Gellert, Shahn and Gropper had no place in an exhibition purporting to discover material with which to "enrich the walls of modern building." [4]

But not everyone agreed with Read. Shortly after the Murals by Painters and Photographers show closed, Gellert was contacted by Eugene Schoen, an interior designer hired by the Rockefeller Center Corporation. Schoen informed Gellert that Wallace Harrison, one of the architects of Rockefeller Center, had seen Gellert's cafeteria mural and wanted Gellert to paint a mural for the Center Theater, a movie theater within the Rockefeller Center complex.

Detail, Rivera's Man at the Crossroads mural. Lucienne Block, photographer.

Because his mural was in a movie theater, Gellert used the motif of a film strip, complete with perforated edges. The walls of the theater were covered with silver paper which he toned down except for a strip that went from floor to ceiling—across the ceiling—and down the other wall. On the two side walls he simply depicted laborers with building tools. On the ceiling Gellert painted a moon which looked like a silver dollar. A man was tied to the moon, his hands bound behind him with ticker tape. Another man was reaching up for the largest of the great red stars which dominated the background. Unlike Diego Rivera's Man at the Crossroads fresco (which was demolished in 1934 for including a portrait of Lenin), Gellert's less prominent mural survived for a number of years before it was destroyed in the late 1940s when the Center Theater, which could not compete with Radio City, was torn down to build more office space.

Detail, Gellert's Seward Park mural. Judy Kahn, photographer.

In Gellert's Seward Park mural cycle there are no Lenin portraits, no scathing caricatures of prominent members of society. Although Gellert did not make a secret of his politics, this particular mural is in no way subversive. It celebrates great Americans who are recognized as national heroes. In the Thomas Jefferson panel, the British redcoats lay down their swords in surrender. Words from the Declaration of Independence appear prominently. The Abraham Lincoln panel features portraits of John Brown and Frederick Douglass in addition to the slain President. Children of different races play together in harmony. Franklin Roosevelt's contributions and ideals are displayed in the Roosevelt panel. It would be ludicrous to obliterate this homage to FDR after an enormous national monument to him has been dedicated (joining those of Jefferson and Lincoln) in Washington, DC. Finally, Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of our century whose contributions to physics paved the way for the space age, is the subject of the fourth panel. Not only does Einstein symbolize our scientific achievements, but as a refugee from Nazi Germany, the Einstein portrait represents the role the United States played in saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people fortunate enough to escape Nazi Europe. One can be sure that some of them were among the original tenants of the Seward Park Houses.

Gellert's Seward Park mural cycle has historical, social and artistic value. It is a memorial to the intellectual, cultural and political history of the Lower East Side. It would be a tragedy to destroy Gellert's murals, a tragedy similar to the destruction of Rivera's Man at the Crossroads (one of the all-time greatest blunders in the history of American patronage of the arts). Ownership of a work of art should not give the owner the right to destroy it. The destruction of a work of art is just wrong. It is brutal. Even if one disagrees with the ideas or considers the forms dated, these murals are history. To destroy the past is an arrogant act. Preserve the murals and let posterity decide.

Perhaps, in a few generations, as the reverberations from the Cold War become quieter, it will be possible to view the Gellert murals with fresh eyes. Instead of seeing something threatening, something that needs to be wiped away, one will simply see a work of art produced during a specific moment in American history by an artist whose contributions should be remembered.

Sincerely,

James Wechsler
CUNY Art History Department
33 W. 42nd Street
NY, NY 10036

_____________________

1. The New Yorker, November 10, 1928.

2. "The Mural Tempest," The Art Digest, February 15, 1932.

3. Hugo Gellert, "We Capture the Walls," New Masses, June 1932.

4. Helen Appleton Read, "Murals at Modern Museum Fail to Reveal potential Talent," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday, May 8, 1932.

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