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Pacific by Gabor Peterdi
Pacific, 1971. drypoint, edition 25, 30 x 40"

Peterdi: The American Landscape
The Washington Print Club Quarterly, 2012
By Jane Haslem

Gabor Peterdi (1915 - 2001) was an outstanding teacher, humanitarian, and artist - and one of the most important innovators in print- making after World War II. He was also a great friend, and I can still hear him talking. One time when we were look- ing at drawings in his studio he told me about the time Pablo Picasso came to one of his early exhibitions in Paris and said, "Young man you have the talent and now you must learn to draw." Gabor told the story with such intensity I knew he had thought of Picasso’s observation all of his life.

When the Quarterly asked me to select the cover art for this issue and write a brief article on it, I knew I wanted to select one of his great prints. But which one? The range of his work over his long, productive career is notably wide, and I know it well. But that compounded my problem. While the artistry and evolution of an artist’s work can, of course, be appreciated without intimate knowledge of the artist who produced it, its depth—that is, what the creation of that work meant to the artist—is not easily plumbed. This is not surprising, because it necessarily flows from the interior, quintessentially personal and so private, life of an artist. Not all artists are self-aware and far fewer reflect on this elusive matter. Gabor, however, was an artist who thought deeply about his subject and what he wanted to achieve. He mastered the media he used (drawing, etching, engraving, painting in watercolor and oils) so thoroughly that he often allowed the subject to determine the medium. I heard him say many times that he never had to think about using his tools or applying his marks to a surface: they were ground into his soul. So, I settled on a print that both exemplifies his intense preoccupation with his subject and mastery of drawing that made him one of America’s most important artists: his 1971 drypoint, Pacific, which captures the great contradiction that is the Pacific Ocean, its beauty, its destructive power, and its ever-changing rolling waves.

La Grande Bataille by Gabor Peterdi
La Grande Bataille, 1939. line engraving on copper, edition 50, 11 1/2 x 15 1/2"

His Life

Peterdi was born in Budapest. At the age of five he began painting little landscapes around his home in Hungary. When he was 15 he won a Prix de Rome. He went to Rome for a year and in 1932 he went to Paris. There, as he later wrote, "I was seventeen then, lost, scared, in the heart of the sizzling intellectual furnace of the world. For two years I went crazy, running back and forth from the leftbank galleries to the Louvre, trying to make sense of the turmoil. Then I met Arpad Szenes and his wife, Vieira de Silva, and suddenly, through them I was in the midst of the avant-garde movement."1 Peterdi became actively involved with the Polish printmaker, Kolos-Vari, and his prints from this period are mostly engravings. But he wanted to learn more about other forms of printmaking and began working at Atelier 17, the Paris workshop founded by William Stanley Hayter in 1927. Here, Gabor was greatly influenced by Hayter and other artists working at the atelier, including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Alberto Giacometti.

Then came the war. As Peterdi describes it, "The six-year interval between 1933 and 1939 was a violent, tragic period in the world. Our life in Paris was engulfed more in hatred, bitterness, and anguish for the future. I witnessed the rioting at the Place de la Concorde where over 200 persons died, and saw refugees stream into Paris, fleeing Nazi terror; then Spain and, finally, Munich."2 Prints from this period took on violent overtones that reflected his reaction to the brutalized world, such as Despair I through V and the Black Bull series, a portfolio of seven line engravings, published by Jeanne Bucher Editions, Paris, France in 1939.

In 1939 Peterdi immigrated to the United States and went to work on a farm in west Florida. "His career as an artist seemed utterly remote ... physical action was the only choice."3 In 1944, at Camp Blanding, Florida, he joined the U.S. Army and became a U.S. citizen; soon thereafter, he was reassigned from the Anti-Tank Infantry to the 6th Corps of the Seventh Army, where he served as a cartographer to U. S. Army Intelligence. After the war, in 1945, Peterdi worked again with Hayter, who, during the war, had moved his Atelier 17 to New York. He taught printmaking at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art (1948-1952), Hunter College (1952-1960), and at the Yale School of Art (1960-1987). In 1959, Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., printed his book, Printmaking Methods Old and New. Reprinted in 1971 and 1980, it is considered the quintessential book on the subject, has been and still is used in American printmaking departments throughout the country. During his lifetime, Peterdi created some 389 prints (which have all been catalogued), and hundreds of paintings and drawings. These works were exhibited in hundreds of solo shows in the United States and abroad throughout his career and they continue to be today. At this writing, the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, Indiana, has on view an exhibition of nearly 100 prints and drawings, "Gabor Peterdi: The Expression of Nature."

Germination 1 by Gabor Peterdi
Germination 1, 1952. line etching, soft-grounded etching, engraving, and aquatint on copper,
20 x 24", 8 stenciled colors, edition 30

His Prints

In the late 1940s Peterdi began exploration of the creative potential of a wide range of printmaking techniques and "plunged into a feverish experimentation."4 His first color print, Sign of the Lobster, 1947, was an etching, engraving, and aquatint on copper with eight colors stenciled on the plate. He eventually returned to his first love, the landscape, but with a new emotional interest brought about by his move from the city to the Connecticut countryside. Gabor once described to me how he had repaved his driveway with asphalt. In the spring he noticed tiny plants springing up through the pavement. These resilient plants sparked something in him and led to a series of Germination prints. Germination I is abstract. Peterdi said, "no matter how extensively abstracted the finished art work is from its original source if its concept is the result of personal involvement, it will have a truth that no clever designing, no coy juggling of materials, can convincingly approximate."5

Vertical Rocks by Gabor Peterdi
Vertical Rocks, 1959. etching, engraving, engraving,
and aquatint, edition 45, 32 11/16 x 23"

Peterdi received a Ford Grant that made it possible for him to travel through the American West. Later he went on to travel in Alaska and teach in Hawaii. His response to each experience was deeply personal. "How," he asked, "can one talk about light, space, color, texture, smell, heat and cold? You have to inhale it, taste it on your skin, and deep inside."6 In one of his early Western landscapes, Vertical Rocks (1959), in this image Peterdi piled monumental stones one on another. The stones are juxtaposed against a black, night background that emphasizes their mass. He rendered the stones’ interior by building up fragile elements like coral building on a reef. The result is a print that conveys massive weight and at the same time has textural richness and microscopic detail suggesting to the viewer the centuries of geological processes that had created it.

He went to Alaska, where he said he saw the "ice turn from blinding blue through saffron yellow into olive green, and heard it crack like thunder."7 His prints from this period are abstract, multi-plate landscapes that express the paradoxical deadly power of glacial ice, jagged and harsh, and its mesmerizing cold blues, blacks, yellows, and purples. He traveled to the Yucatan and other South American countries, and in the late 1960s and again in the early 1970s, taught printmaking at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Some of his Hawaiian prints are beautifully executed drypoints while others are etchings. The Alaskan and Hawaiian etchings reflect his reaction to the great contrast between the austerity of the Arctic and the lush tropical environment of Hawaii. The succulent vegetation of the latter heightened his color palette in his relief etchings, and he liberally applied complementary colors to simplified shapes. These prints are very rich and some glow, suggesting the intense heat of volcanoes.

By the 1990s his prints became monochromatic, complex linear drypoints, some very large, like his superb 1971 Pacific. Peterdi considered the drypoint the most difficult to execute of all print media. But with his assurance of line, he could simultaneously draw on the plate and coordinate the pressure and angle of the needle to achieve the variation he wanted in the burr. And it is impossible to look at Pacific without being instantly awestruck by the variation in dark and light tones, the soft modulated, velvety, texture of the line, and the richness of the image.

Red Lanikai by Gabor Peterdi
Red Lanikai, 1969. relief etching on zinc, three colors, edition 75, 20 x 24"

Peterdi was always creating. When he visited me and my family, he would get up early, put a large piece of paper on the kitchen table, and begin to draw, all the while singing scores from operas at the top of his lungs. He was always like that, ebullient and working. And he always printed his own editions. It was by his unique inking and wiping of the plates that he created many of his best images, as in Pacific. Once he showed me all the cuts on his hands from inking his plates. Peterdi said of himself: "I have all of this in me—the cold Arctic, and the hot desert, so similar in space and so different in color, light, and texture; the flowers of my garden and the arid rocks of the West; the sea, the sun, the wind, and the rain. All the miracles of nature and behind it all the lingering terror of the atomic age."8 For me, this is apparent in his prints.


1. Gabor Peterdi, "A Biography of My Landscape," Art in America, vol. 51, no. 3, June 1963, 39.
2. Peterdi, 39.
3. Una E. Johnson, "Introduction,"
Gabor Peterdi: Graphics 1934-1969, New York: Touchstone Publishers Ltd., 1970, unpaginated.
4. Janet Flint, [Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts curator], Foreword, Gabor Peterdi: Printmaking: Forty-five Years of Printmaking, exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979, unpaginated.
5. Peterdi, 41.
6. Peterdi, 41.
7. Peterdi, 41.
8. Peterdi, 41.

By Gabor Peterdi
Art In America, 1963 (when the magazine was published with a hard cover)

When I was two years old my parents decided to move out of the city to a hilltop overlooking Buda and the twisting, turning Danube. My childhood memories are related to nature, I remember the changing seasons, the delights of spring and summer, the glorious reds and oranges of fall, and the crisp white snow. I still remember the silvery mist that swallowed the Danube at horizon.

When I was five, I started to paint with watercolors. I had three colors: red, yellow and blue. My mother said she knew that I was going to be a painter when she made me cry by painting clouds into the sky in one of my landscapes.

For 10 years I diligently painted and drew the world that surrounded me, the trees, the bushes, the flowers, and the mysterious city below. I also started to paint a distant exotic country with dream landscapes that I covered with the plants and trees of our garden, but populated with fantastic animals concocted from the memories of one visit to the zoo. At fifteen I had a one-man show in Budapest, then off to Rome on a long journey to re-learn again many things that I knew so well when I was five.

After one year I left Rome, the churches, cats, and Mussolini, for Paris. I was seventeen then, lost, scared in the heart of the sizzling intellectual furnace of the world. For two years I went crazy, running back and forth from the left-bank galleries to the Louvre, trying to make some sense out of the turmoil. Then I met Szenes and his wife Vieira da Silva and, suddenly, through them I was in the midst of the avant-garde movement. For the first time in my life I learned the meaning of experimentation.

For a while I went back to landscape in my paintings but, deprived of the physical reality, I tried to reconstruct the essence, the concept, without direct reference to the object. I was interested in space itself. I was excited about the possibility of creating an "absolute" landscape without anything local, subjective or temporary. I followed the error of many artists who thought that one can start with a general idea and turn it into a unique personal experience. This can rarely be done. The history of art seems to confirm that most of the significant works of art originated the other way around - a personal experience made into a universal statement. The six year interval between 1933 and 1939 was a violent, tragic period in the world. Our life in Paris was engulfed more and more in hatred, bitterness and anguish for the future. I witnessed the rioting at the Place de la Concorde where over 200 persons died and saw refugees stream into Paris, fleeing the Nazi terror; then Spain and, finally, Munich. My work took on more and more violent fantastic overtones that reflected my reaction to the brutalized world.

In 1939, one month before World War II started, I arrived in New York and after a few months I left for Florida. This was an exciting encounter with a landscape totally unlike anything I had experienced before, The Florida I knew was not the tourist country of Miami and Palm Beach but the swamps of the Swanee river, some places thick and wild like the African bush. This was a country of exasperating sand, heat, redbugs, and rattlesnakes; there was also work on a farm, clearing palmettos, hunting, fishing. For the first time in my life I was more than a mere spectator of nature.

But it was a long time before my Florida experience manifested itself truly in my work. After Florida, I was in the war, with all its terror and stupidity. As a soldier I saw the continent I came from - France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Hungary - beat up, bloody submerged in misery, bitterness and hate, When you are a soldier nature is hostile. To the farmer, rain is life but to the soldier it is shivering at nights, soaking wet in a foxhole, The hills, the rocks became only shelter in which to take cover, or fortresses to attack. The landscape of Europe turned, for me, into an immense arid field covered with pulverized stones and bleached bones.

Despair, Gabor Peterdi Dark Visit, Gabor Peterdi
Despair I, 1938
engraving, edition 35
10 5/8 x 7 7/8"
Dark Visit, 1948
relief etching on zinc, edition 30
15 3/4 x 19 5/8"

Years later, surrounded by the gentle landscape of Connecticut, the drama and violence of my war years was slowly replaced by a poetic reality - an awareness of the eternal cycles of growing things. In Rowayton I started a series of prints and paintings to express the cycles: Germination, Seed and Rock and Triumph of Spring; these were all related to the struggle for survival of all organic life. The Spawning cycle is related to the struggle for survival in the ocean. These works had obvious symbolic intent but the fact that they came as the result of deep personal involvement saved them from sterility.

Although my impulse, as an artist, always came directly from nature, I never had any wish to be descriptive. The tangible things around me simply served as a visual and emotional stimulus that made things happen on the canvas. I am convinced that no matter how extensively abstracted the finished art work is from its original source. If its concept is the result of personal involvement, it will have a truth that no clever designing, not coy juggling of materials, can convincingly approximate. I was always more concerned and moved by the phenomena of nature - the wind, the sun, the light, the storm - than the objects on which they manifest themselves. Nevertheless the two are inseparably related, as the personal experience is tied to a specific event with specific objects existing in time and space.

I had wanted to go West ever since I saw it for the first time, at the age of seven, in a Tom Mix picture. This desire stayed with me although the motivation changed. The western landscape represented to me a light and scale totally different from anything I had experienced in Europe. Also, after living and working within the intimate, human scale of New England, I felt the need to see something drastically different.

A Ford Grant made it possible for me to take a trip through the states of Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico and Colorado. What could I say about this experience that wouldn't sound trite? How can one talk about light, space color, texture, smell, heat and cold? You have to inhale it, taste it on your skin, and deep inside. One moment this vast country can make you feel like a worm, the next like an eagle. What do you see when you walk down the Grand Canyon and look up? The purple and red rocks towering over your the blinding blue sky? And what do you see in the Mohave desert: the undulating horizon pulsating feverishly on the tiny plants under your feet surviving bravely in that bleached, burned sand?

As the result of my trip through the West I started to work on several cycles of prints and paintings. I had been fascinated by the textural richness, the infinite microscopical details that make up this giant world. Instead of using large monolithic volumes rendered in mass, I built them up with delicate, often fragile elements like coral building up a reef. Big things are not necessarily monumental and violence in not strength. The object, the physical presence, is just the beginning that can turn into a work of art only the revelation of its reality on a deeper level.

Vertical Rocks, Gabor Peterdi Arctic Bird, Gabor Peterdi
Vertical Rocks, 1959
etching, engraving, aquatint on zinc, edition 45
33 x 23"
Artic Bird II-A, 1965
combined technique, four colors,
edition 25
35 3/4 x 24 3/4"

After my experience with the West and my growing preoccupation with a monumental landscape, I couldn't resist an opportunity to see Alaska. The flight itself, from Seattle to Fairbanks, was an awesome visual experience. Rugged mountain peaks piecing through mother-of pearl cloud blankets, creeping glaciers reflecting the iridescent sky, and then the red glow of the sun. Finally, the twisting, turning Yukon looping around black green hills like a giant white snake.

In Alaska my main I;nterest was the Arctic region. After having completed a series of lectures in Fairbanks, I set out to Tigara, the Eskimo village on Point Hope. Now I know what cold is and I have seen the ice turn from blinding blue through saffron yellow into olive green, and I have seen it bloom. I also heard the ice "talk" under the pressures of the sea and the wind, then crack with thunder. I heard the blinding blizzard whine, and muskies howl into the white night. And I have seen the Arctic light fan out like a peacock's tail.

I have all of this in me. The cold Arctic, and the hot desert, so similar in space and so different in color, light and texture, The flowers of my garden and the arid rocks of the West. The sea, the sun, the wind and the rain. All the miracles of nature and behind it all the lingering terror of the atomic age. I want to paint all this, and say A man was here.

Hawaii, Gabor Peterdi Pacific, Gabor Peterdi
Hawaii, 1968
watercolor and oil pastel
22 x 30"
Pacific VI (the Message), 1989
oil on canvas
60 x 70"

All images in this article are in the Jane Haslem Gallery