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Hugo Gellert

Hugo Gellert (b. 1892, Budapest, Hungary – d. 1985, Freehold Township, NJ) was a distinguished force in the history of modern art. Known for his robust and distinct style as a painter and illustrator, Gellert was critical to America’s earliest mural movement. He is considered one of the most influential political artists of the first half of the 20th Century. Well known for his graphic work of the 1930s-40s and his radical acts combining art and activism, Gellert was a successful illustrator working for such publications as The New Yorker, Masses, The Liberator, and New Masses.

Mary Ryan Gallery is the exclusive representative of the Hugo Gellert estate.

Born in Budapest, Gellert immigrated to New York in 1906 with his family. After studying at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, his interest in politics was sparked by the outbreak of WWI and the death of his brother. He began making drawings and illustrations for radical political journals, and in 1916, he published his first anti-war art in the leftist periodical, The Masses. He subsequently served on the editorial board of The Liberator and helped to found The New Masses. Gellert was a staff artist for The New Yorker from its inception in 1925 through 1946, and his portraits and illustrations populate many of the magazine’s pages. His last major museum exhibition was in Hungary in 1968 at the National Gallery in Budapest. Throughout his life, Gellert was known for his involvement in Hungarian-American art and activism. In 1927, he was appointed head of the first anti-Fascist organization in America.

Although Gellert initially began his artistic career as an easel painter, he abandoned this so-called “elitist” medium by 1928 and decided to favor media that was more widely accessible to the masses. By focusing his attention on murals, posters and newspaper prints, Gellert hoped to better disseminate the word of the Communist Party. By the early 1930s, Gellert had embraced the left-winged tradition of Mexican muralists, many of whom he had met in 1927 during the Tenth Anniversary Celebration of the October Revolution in Moscow. Attracted to murals’ potential as a political vehicle, Gellert went on to paint politically agitating murals for New York City’s Workers Party’s Union Square cafeteria, the Center Theater in the Rockefeller Center complex, the Communications Building for the 1939 World's Fair, and the Seward Park Housing Corporation in 1961. In 1932, Gellert submitted contentious murals for the Museum of Modern Art’s Murals by American Painters and Photographers exhibition. His works, which included deliberately offensive depictions of the country’s most powerful men at the time, proved so controversial they were not included in the catalogue.

Passionately political in content, Gellert’s works display stream-lined, machine-age imagery and bold, planar forms. Among his most famous works are “Karl Marx’s ‘Capitol’ in Lithographs,” “Comrade Gulliver,” and “Aesop Said So.” In 1939, Gellert helped organize the group, “Artists for Defense,” and later became the Chairman for “Artists for Victory,” an organization that included over 10,000 members. In 1943, at the height of the Second World War, Gellert experimented with the process of silkscreen to create “Century of The Common Man,” a portfolio of 19 prints illustrating two speeches by Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Already acknowledged for his command over lithographic techniques, Gellert chose the relatively new medium of silkscreen, exploring to the fullest its inherent qualities of producing large, flat areas of bold color.

Gellert’s work was the subject of a solo show at Mary Ryan Gallery in 1986. The gallery later exhibited his work in 2012, showing important paintings, many of which were on view for the first time since 1928. In 2016, the gallery also hosted a solo exhibition entitled “Hugo Gellert: ADAA The Art Show.”

Mary Ryan Gallery published an illustrated catalog of Gellert’s prints and drawings, with an introduction by Jeff Kisseloff and James Wechsler, in 1986.

Currently, Gellert's work is included in Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s, a group exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art focused on artwork of the 1930s. In 2020, his work was featured in Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, an exhibition on social realism at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His work has previously been featured in solo and group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (2019); Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (2019); Flint Institute of Arts (2017); Whitney Museum of American Art (2015); British Museum (2008); National Gallery, Budapest, HU (1968) and the Marx-Lenin Institute, Moscow, Russia (1967).

Gellert’s work is in numerous prominent museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; British Museum, London, UK; Columbus Museum of Art, OH; Flint Institute of Arts, MI; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Spencer Museum of Art, KS; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY and the Wolfsonian Museum, Florida International University, FL.
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