Hugo Gellert (1892-1985, Hungary/U.S.)
Racism Chains Both, 1970-79
Poster, 62 x 44 cm.
Gift of Edward T. Pollack ’55 in honor of Chester LeRoy Dexheimer, Class of 1955, in recognition of his lifelong commitment to social justice
The son of a tailor, Hugo Gellert was born on March 3, 1892, in Budapest, Hungary. He came to the United States with his family in 1907, and was soon at work in New York, first in a machine shop, then in a lithography shop printing movie posters. Gellert enrolled at the National Academy of Design in 1909, and he also took classes at Cooper Union. As a student, he designed theater posters and stained-glass windows, the latter for Tiffany Studios. In 1914 he studied at the Acadamie Julian in Paris. In 1915, Gellert rooted his personal and professional life in his leftist political convictions. He created antiwar cartoons and lithographed posters, and contributed to the Hungarian workers’ paper, Elore. Magazine illustration soon became Gellert’s primary activity. In 1916 his work began to appear in The Masses, and in 1918 he joined the editorial board of The Liberator. Through membership in the American Communist party, the artist became a friend of activist leaders John Reed. Louise Bryant, and Michael Gold. After traveling to Mexico in 1919, Gellert moved to the commune of the Modern School in Stelton, New jersey, where he taught art to children.
Beginning in the late 1920s Gellert became more politically active. In 1928 he co-founded the Anti-Horthy League, the first American antifascist group. In 1936 the artist led the famous protest against the destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center. Gellert was also chairman of the Artists Committee of Action, and a founding member of the American Artists Congress. From 1920 to 1923 Gellert was on the staff of Pearsons Magazine and contributed to a score of other periodicals. He had his first one-man exhibition at the Kevorkian Gallery in New York in 1923. In 1926 Gellert became a contributing editor to The New Masses. Late in the decade, he gravitated toward mural painting, creating murals for the Workers’ Cafeteria at Union Square in 1928 and a fresco in the Center Theater at Rockefeller Center in 1932. His murals created a controversy when they were exhibited at the museum of Modern At in 1931 and 1932. Gellert joined the National Society of Mural Painters, and in 1934 he helped form the Mural Artists Guild of the United Scenic Painters of the AFL-CIO in order to insure that wall paintings for the World’s Fair would be contracted through the union. Working in the FAP mural division in 1938, the artist painted a fresco in the Communications Building of the World’s Fair.
In 1950 Gellert traveled throughout Australia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. During the next two decades, he continued to use his art for political means, designing many posters, banners, and murals in protest of racism and militarism. Until the end of his life Gellert remained active in labor and political organizations and in the Hungarian community. Retrospective exhibition of his work were held at the Marx-Lenin Institute in Moscow in 1967 and at the National Gallery in Budapest in 1968. The artist painted his last mural at Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, New York. He died on December 6, 1985, in Freehold, New Jersey.
From David Acton’s A Spectrum of Innovation: Color in American Printmaking 1890-1960, Worcester Art Museum, 1990
From World War I to the Popular Front: The Art and Activism of Hugo Gellert. By: Wechsler, James. Journal of Decorative & Propaganda Arts, 1999, Vol. 24, p198-229, 32p