The Artist Who Painted the Struggles We Face

LAGUNA BEACH, California — Alissa Anderson Campbell, the guest curator of Striking Figures: Francis De Erdely at the Laguna Art Museum, first discovered the once-renowned artist in 2006 while doing research for Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, California. Intrigued by the power of his extant works, Campbell made De Erdely the subject of her PhD dissertation and has continued her research ever since. She has spent the last 16 years locating and assembling the compelling group of paintings and works on paper now on view in the show. As Striking Figures demonstrates, De Erdely’s subjects — the human condition and the struggles faced by immigrants and other systemically and socially marginalized people — have retained their magnetism. “The work is still resonant,” Campbell offers, “and his topics are still with us.”  

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1904, De Erdely was the son of a major general in the Austro-Hungarian army who was taken prisoner during World War I. Against his father’s wishes he entered the Royal Academy of Arts, covertly supported by his mother. He later studied art in Paris and Madrid and traveled in The Netherlands, Egypt, and China. By the late 1930s De Erdely was making antiwar art and speaking out against Nazism and Fascism: this soon led to the Gestapo banishing him from Hungary. He arrived on the East Coast of the United States in 1939 carrying the personal conviction that his art could “emphasize the reality and drama of war” and “reveal the barbarism of the dictators.” 

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Francis De Erdely with his painting “Sevastapol” in 1950 (photo courtesy Alissa Anderson Campbell)
Francis De Erdely, “Matador with Cape” (1951), charcoal on paper, 30 x 24 inches. Collection of the Laguna Art Museum, Promised Gift of Nancy Dustin Wall Moure (photo by Chris Bliss)

After teaching and exhibiting in Detroit, Michigan, De Erdely moved to California in 1944, where he supported himself by teaching first in Pasadena and then at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He gained recognition as one of a number of artists who blended modernist and regionalist approaches to painting California subjects. As he developed a dramatic chiaroscuro style, underpinned by his virtuoso drafting skills, he found his primary subjects in the working poor, immigrants, and people of color. He had an intuitive grasp of the inner worlds of outsiders: people who were coping with a sense of displacement in their daily lives. Also a painter of refined still lifes and nudes, De Erdely’s art — and that of many of his California peers — was eclipsed by the rise of Abstract Expressionism and Pop. The artist’s death from cancer in 1959, at the age of 55, soon followed by that of his wife, Edith, also contributed to the fading of his reputation. 

The 28 oils and 10 works on paper in Striking Figures comprise the first significant show of De Erdely’s work since his 1960 memorial exhibition. Seen together they offer a potent and poignant view into the life and career of an artist who once stated that “The purpose of my paintings is to answer the problems of the times….” In the context of today’s tumultuous and divisive social dynamics, his art and values are as relevant as they were during his lifetime, and are wonderfully conveyed by this moving and beautiful show.

Francis De Erdely, “Pancho” (1945), oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. Collection of Chaffey Community College Museum of Art (photo by Cindy Dillingham)

Striking Figures: Francis De Erdely continues at the Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, California) through October 23. The exhibition was curated by Alissa Anderson Campbell.


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