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Francis De Erdely’s Striking Figures strikes a resonant chord at the Laguna Art Museum

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Emma Lazarus wrote this iconic stanza – etched in bronze and mounted on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal – in 1883. An advocate for European immigrants, Lazarus crafted these words of comfort for refugees arriving at Ellis Island, calling the statue the “Mother of Exiles.” 

In the 140 years since Lazarus penned the poem, the United States has maintained a fraught and ambivalent relationship with its immigrants. Politicians on both sides of the debate often cite these lines as our nation grapples with waves of crisis at our borders. In 2019, Ken Cuccinelli (then acting Director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services office) said Lazarus’s words should be rewritten to say, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

This evergreen issue is on poignant display in Francis De Erdely’s Striking Figures exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum (LAM). Curated by art scholar Alissa Anderson Campbell, the installation spans two floors (appearing in the California Gallery on the main floor, as well as upstairs in the Thomas T. and Elizabeth C. Tierney Gallery) and is accompanied by a 120-page catalog containing Campbell’s in-depth exploration of De Erdely’s life and work, including color-printed plates of each painting. 

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Francis De Erdely’s “Striking Figures” will be on display at the Laguna Art Museum through October 23

Though the Hungarian immigrant died in 1959 and painted much of this work in Los Angeles during the 1940s and ‘50s, De Erdely’s pieces could not feel more contemporary. His subjects may hold newspapers instead of iPads, but their despair feels both immediate and immutable. 

“[De Erdely’s] work remains poignant today, as Southern California continues to face issues relating to immigration, labor and racial prejudice,” wrote Campbell in her essay. “The anonymous individuals in his work could just as well be portraits of contemporary outsiders….There is a timeless relevance to De Erdely paintings that continues to address issues facing California and the contemporary world.”

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Untitled, (portrait of a worker in hard hat and gloves), (oil on canvas, 1945)

Politics, however, didn’t seem to be foremost in De Erdely’s mind as he portrayed the intimacies of the human condition – exhaustion, anguish, addiction and the largely invisible lives led by the American immigrant. More than one man lies face down on a table, gripping an empty wine glass. More than one woman looks hopeless holding her infant. In an undated gouache painting entitled “WWII,” three shrouded women carry the weight of war on their faces as they hold tight to their children. Even when engaged in play (many of De Erdely’s figures are musicians), their expressions look mournful and morose. 

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“Huey the Clown” (oil on canvas, 1946-47)

“His social commentaries were done in a subtle yet critical manner,” Campbell said. “Although his paintings were sympathetic to outsiders and immigrants, they were never overtly political.”

Born in Hungary in 1904 – and trained in Budapest, Madrid and Paris – De Erdely immigrated to the United States in 1939. A witness to two world wars, he pivoted his classical training to focus on the tragedies of the contemporary human condition. One reviewer of De Erdely’s 1953 exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco observed, “These works are not only magnificent in their technique but also in the tragic, lyric and epic insights which they provide.” Tragic lyricism is an apt description as De Erdely places the viewer inside his subjects’ quiet despair – those private moments usually experienced in solitude. Looking at some of his paintings can even feel a little intrusive.

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“Pancho” (oil on canvas, 1945) 

To me, one of the striking things about Striking Figures are the subjects’ eyes. Take a casual stroll through the canon of western portraiture – from da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring to Grant Wood’s American Gothic to self-portraits by Van Gogh and Rembrandt – and note their gaze. Maybe they’re not always looking at you straight on (though often they are), but it’s easy enough to see their eyes. There’s usually an authority in their expression. I belong here, many of them seem to say. I’ve earned my place on these museum walls

Not De Erdely’s. For the most part, his subjects are looking down and away, or covering their heads with their hands, actively avoiding our stares. They either ask us not to look at them, or they’re too preoccupied with their own hardship to notice us. Which is why, of course, it’s important to look. De Erdely doesn’t let us privileged museumgoers off the hook to dismiss a class of individuals as the “other.” Instead, he invites us inside their intimate rooms to sit beside them and witness their grief, even when they won’t acknowledge our presence.

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“Daily Bread” (oil on canvas, undated)

One notable work in this regard is De Erdely’s 1947 painting Day’s End. Set in a dimly lit, claustrophobic Los Angeles dwelling, a young couple contemplates their sleeping child – a child, it appears, they can scarcely afford. Wrinkled laundry hangs on an indoor line above their heads. A sparse array of misshapen yams and an overturned apple are scattered across the table, as though neither of them has the time nor energy to make a meal. The man’s back is to us, his weathered hands holding his head in a show of exhausted resignation. His wife, breasts exposed, looks equally worn out. This is life, they seem to say. Nothing but dismal days like this stretch ahead of us.

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“Day’s End” (oil on canvas, 1947)

That’s the strength of Striking Figures. Each vignette suggests fully realized worlds, complicated lives, tragic circumstances set inside universal themes. These aren’t just any alcoholics, The Drinkers seems to tell us. These are alcoholics broken by the American dream which faded as soon as they crossed our border.

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“The Drinkers” (oil on canvas, undated) 

An Art News critic praised De Erdely’s work in a 1944 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art saying, “Above all it is the directness, the forthrightness with which he approaches his subjects and the poignant emotion with which each is packed which makes his work especially notable.”

Growing up as a witness to war had a profound impact on De Erdely. His father was taken as a Russian prisoner in WWI, eventually returned to his family.

“When World War I broke out, I was at the impressionable age of 10,” De Erdely is quoted as saying in Campbell’s essay. “Ever since that holocaust, the history of much of the world, particularly Central Europe, has been a series of armed conflicts and social upheavals and dislocations. The great actor in this drama has been the human being. Therefore...man should be a more fascinating subject of study to me than landscape, still life, or ivory tower l’art pour l’art.”

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“The Great Betrayal” (oil on board, undated) 

What has changed, we might ask ourselves, in those many intervening decades?

To answer this question, LAM’s Curatorial Fellow Rochelle Steiner set out to put De Erdely’s 75-year-old work into modern context. A fan of contemporary artist John Sonsini, Steiner noticed some stunning similarities in their work. Like De Erdely, Sonsini’s portraits largely depict Southern California’s day laborers. While Sonsini focuses exclusively on men (his own partner, Gabriel Barajas, appears as a frequent model), he paints subjects mostly unknown to him and compensates them for their time.

Steiner chose two of Sonsini’s portraits to appear in the lobby before entering the California Gallery where De Erdely’s Striking Figures are shown. Francisco & Raul (2009) and Byron (2014) set the stage for De Erdely’s exhibition. 

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John Sonsini’s “Byron” (2014) 

“I wanted to pull the thread and think about this idea of the portrait, the painter and the sitter – particularly here in Southern California,” said Steiner. “De Erdely came from Europe to Southern California, and here we have John Sonsini as a Southern California portrait artist. That felt resonant and worth exploring. How can we look at this artist through the lens of another artist? The portrait was the entry point. The idea of painting people that, by and large, Sonsini doesn’t know. Both artists sought out mostly men, but both also painted still lifes which stood in for the people, but also stood in for the time. I felt this interesting correspondence between these two. Of course, they never met and had nothing to do with each other, but the connection point was that continuation of a genre.”

Like De Erdely, most of Sonsini’s subjects are Mexican immigrants who represent the common, everyday man. “One of the biggest differences between De Erdely and Sonsini,” said Steiner, “is that De Erdely’s subjects are often anonymous. We don’t know, from the titles, who these people are. In Sonsini’s work, the paintings are named – Guillermo, Pedro, Raul. These are portraits of particular people, and they often recur, so the paintings become very intimate. Sonsini formed relationships with them over time.” 

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“The Drummer” (oil on masonite, 1945)

The other big difference between De Erdely and Sonsini, of course, are the emotional tones. Sonsini’s men are open and accessible. Though not universally content, they don’t hide from the viewer’s gaze. This could be as much a statement about the artists as their subjects – one an early-20th century immigrant escaping world war and the other a contemporary gay native Angeleno. 

While De Erdely expressed interest in exploring human suffering, Sonsini’s subjects don’t appear so desperate. And, unlike De Erdely who didn’t overtly denounce political issues, Sonsini has no interest in his work being interpreted as political, even if his audience chooses to view it that way. “I definitely am not trying to make statements,” he said. De Erdely, Campbell argued in her essay, definitely did. 

“De Erdely’s decision to move to California was well suited to the artist’s radical political views and interest in social issues,” Campbell wrote in her essay. “It was here that his own position as an outsider would instigate his most insightful period of work.”

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“News seller” (oil on canvas, 1942) 

After viewing De Erdely’s paintings in the museum’s main California Gallery, do not miss his charcoal drawings upstairs. Dimly lit to protect the integrity of the art, the Tierney Gallery provides a hauntingly beautiful deep dive into De Erdely’s process. From figurative nudes to expressive and highly detailed portraits, it’s an amazing study of De Erdely’s wide range – from classics to cubism, from portraiture to still lifes. 

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The Tierney Gallery upstairs contains a significant holding of De Erdely’s charcoal drawings

“Whether relating to war, immigration, labor, or class, the purpose behind De Erdely’s art was to capture the universal struggles of the human condition,” wrote Campbell. “It was through his superior artistic insight that he was able to successfully explore such themes in a manner that stood out from the artists around him. The artist’s own experience with war, personal identification as an outsider and his artistic ingenuity allowed his timeless narratives to resonate beyond his own lifetime.”

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“Sorrow” (Self-Portrait), (oil on canvas, undated) 

Francis De Erdely’s Striking Figures (alongside John Sonsini’s portraits) will be on display at the Laguna Art Museum through October 23. For more information on the exhibition or to purchase tickets, visit the LAM website at www.lagunaartmuseum.org. Striking Figures: Francis De Erdely’s Catalog is available for purchase in the LAM gift shop ($35). For more information on De Erdely, visit Alissa Anderson Campbell's website here.

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