Peter Meller made his career as a scholar, a professor of the history of art, and was well-known among his colleagues for his erudition and insight. He was also an artist. When he died in 2008, at the age of 85, he left behind thousands of drawings and prints, a graphic oeuvre of remarkable size, as well as of distinctive character, brilliance and charm. His work had been exhibited a few times in and around Santa Barbara, California, where he spent the last half of his life; he sold some prints and gave many away as gifts. Only his family and closest friends had any idea how much time and energy he devoted to his art, and his achievement can only now begin to be appreciated.
In introducing his work, this essay can do little more than hint at its range and depth of interest. Peter’s scholarly character is everywhere apparent in his images, and some of his more recondite subjects may require explanation, but no study of those images should burden the reader in such a way as to detract from their immediate visual appeal. This essay aims to be as succinct and, as it were, transparent as possible, to provide a brief overview of Peter’s life, his preferred techniques and his favourite themes, and thus to give the reader everything needed to begin a rewarding engagement with his work. The intrinsic quality of that work – its marvellous combination of simplicity and sophistication, acuity and lyricism, playfulness and depth – will continue to fascinate, edify and delight long after the first encounter.
Peter was born in Budapest in 1923. He belonged to a large, prosperous and cultivated family, Jewish on his father’s side, Catholic on his mother’s. His father, Dezső, was an architect and the friend of several of the city’s leading avant-garde artists; his paternal uncle, Simon, was an eminent art historian and collector who had served in the years around the First World War as the director of the department of prints and drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts. Peter attended a distinguished school, the Piarist Gymnasium, excelling at the study of Greek and Latin. He also drew and painted: a self-portrait, made with gouache at the age of fifteen, dated 22 August 1938, reveals an already highly developed artistic personality. The structure of the head is suggested with economy and assurance; at the same time, there is a restlessness and impatience in the handling of the paint. In addition to precocious skill, the picture attests a strong-willed commitment to spontaneity as an artistic value, a commitment that would be sustained through all his subsequent work.
At the University of Budapest, Peter continued his studies of classical literature as well as the history of art. Among his teachers was Károly Kerényi, the renowned scholar of ancient myth. Kerényi encouraged his students to think of myths in modern, existential terms, as representing archetypal characters and universal human dilemmas; his influence would have furthered whatever inclination Peter may already have possessed to see the world in terms of recurrent types and situations. Such an orientation is evident in Peter’s approach to the history of art, but also the way he looked at life in general and thus his practice as an artist. It sharpened and deepened his appreciation of the human comedy. Kerényi must have had a high regard for his student’s intellectual abilities: he invited Peter to participate in an exclusive discussion group that met on Friday evenings.
Civilised as it was, the world into which Peter was born was also full of deadly menace. Nazi sympathisers were numerous and became increasingly powerful in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. On his way to and from school, he remembered, he had to take care to avoid provocateurs of the Arrow Cross, the banned but aggressive Hungarian Nazi party. He was able to continue his studies during most of the war, but when the German occupation began in the spring of 1944, it became necessary to go into hiding. He and his immediate family escaped the deportations, but seventeen members of his father’s extended family perished in the Holocaust. His older brother, András, who had been pressed into military service, survived the war only to be picked up on the streets of Budapest by the Red Army shortly after the end of hostilities, then sent to Russia, where, condemned as a “fascist collaborator”, he died within a few years.
At the end of the war, Peter completed his studies and married Edina Stromer, whom he had met while in hiding from the Germans. He spent the academic year 1947–8 at the Hungarian Academy in Rome, engaged in art-historical research. After his return to Budapest, he took a position as a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, taught art history at the Academies of Fine Arts and Applied Arts, and learned to negotiate the sinister absurdities of a Communist regime he quickly grew to detest. Once ordered by his superiors to remove some pictures by El Greco from display because they represented decadent Western individualism, Peter successfully argued that they should remain on display precisely because they represented decadent Western individualism.
Edina gave birth to a daughter, Judit, in 1949. Partly motivated by the desire to make a little extra money, Peter started translating ancient literature into Hungarian: Greek lyric poetry, satyr plays and epigrams from the Greek Anthology, as well as Latin verse. He began the ambitious project of translating the great philosophical poem of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, but did not complete it. These translations are poetic achievements in their own right, adapting the lyrical potential of his native language to the various ancient metres with great skill and imagination. Peter would go on to compose Hungarian verse of his own, in the form of epigrams to his images, affectionate parodies of the ancient models he knew so well. Like a Renaissance humanist, he occasionally composed original verse in Latin. He was a poet, in other words, as well as a scholar and artist, and his literary habit of mind had a deep influence on both his scholarship and his art.
In his spare time, Peter sang in a choral group that specialised in the technically difficult music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. He also continued to draw and paint, and created designs for scarves, belts and jewellery. He and Edina enjoyed hosting dinners, and would do their best, even in the period of austerity that followed the war, to prepare memorably sumptuous meals.
Edina died in 1953. A couple of years later, Peter married Mária (Mári) Kálmán, also an art historian. Like many of their compatriots, they were devastated by the failure of the Revolution in 1956, and soon after the brutal Soviet suppression began, they made plans to escape. Attempting to cross over into Austria on foot in the middle of the night, they were captured and briefly imprisoned: released with a stern warning to return to Budapest, they simply made another – this time, successful – effort to flee. Judit, who was seven, always remembered the way her father pressed her hand as they lay side by side in a snowy ditch while a border patrol on skis scanned the surrounding woods with flashlights.
Having given all their money to the guides who helped them escape, Peter and his family arrived in Vienna with next to nothing. Sympathetic colleagues arranged for them to stay in some rooms of the Kunsthistorisches Museum for a few months until a more regular living situation could be found. He looked forward both to the possibility of unrestricted travel and to opportunities that would allow him to pursue his scholarship. Because permanent academic positions were hard to come by, however, and especially hard to get when one was an émigré, Peter had to take a series of temporary and part-time appointments, interspersed with research fellowships and grants. He moved his family to Florence in 1958, where they remained for a decade, although his academic commitments often involved long periods away.
In 1968, he was invited to the University of California, Santa Barbara, as a visiting professor; the following year he was offered a permanent position. He regretted having to leave Europe – and especially to give up on his dream of establishing a permanent home in Italy – but the prospect of financial security was welcome after years of living from one job to the next.
Something of an exile, therefore, always carefully dressed in jacket and tie, with a rather formal, old-world sense of courtesy and a charming accent, Peter began his adjustment to Southern California. His lectures were popular: students found them impressively learned, thought-provoking and entertaining. His classes attracted many adult members of the local community: mature auditors often detected a current of sly humour beneath the serious surface of the lectures and wondered whether most of it was not lost on students too young to appreciate it.
As a scholar, Peter specialised in the art of Renaissance Italy. His approach drew upon a range of methods prevalent at the time of his training: like many art historians of his generation, he was attracted to the work of Erwin Panofsky and his student, Edgar Wind. Their emphasis on recurrent themes in the art of the Renaissance, and especially on themes and ideas derived from ancient literature and thought, appealed to Peter’s training in the classics and resonated with Kerényi’s approach to myth. Yet Peter’s interests were wide ranging. He made his reputation with essays on especially complex, elusive figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione. He was fascinated by the transmission of forms and styles across cultures and in how, during the Renaissance, the graphic arts contributed to that process. Much of his best work is on portraiture. He seems to have inherited his interest in small-scale bronze sculpture from his uncle Simon, who published a book on German Renaissance bronzes: Peter eventually became a leading authority on the bronzes of Renaissance Italy, his expertise sought out by dealers and collectors until the very last days of his life. A good indication of th erange of his interests and erudition is the fact that one of his best-known essays – published after his retirement and only at the repeated urging of colleagues – is entitled “Manet in Italy”, and concerns the way in which a pioneering modernist responded to the art of Antiquityand the Renaissance. Beyond its insights into Manet, it offers a glimpse – revealing for the understanding of Peter’s own art – of what he thought a modern artist might learn from the art of the past.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Peter usually began by making small, very rapid drawings in pencil. These rarely depict persons or objects physically present in front of him; rather, they are imaginative projections, distillations of past experiences with a strong dose of fantasy. Working from the imagination made it easier for him to create a coherent graphic idea, to achieve clarity in the relation of form to content. The facile spontaneity evident in these drawings only comes with years of practice, and it reflects an understanding of drawing as a performing art. The great vase painters of ancient Greece were able to render forms freehand with a line of unerring precision and grace; the effect of lifelikeness that their figures achieve has as much to do with the innate vitality of the line as with its descriptive accuracy. During the Italian Renaissance, skill at drawing (disegno) was understood to involve not only the artist’s ability to copy what he saw but also to project his intellectual and emotional engagement with what he saw, and thus to endow the resulting image with something of his own life. For the Renaissance masters, as for the Ancients before them, the performative element is essential to art’s purpose and meaning, and it plays an equally important role in some forms of modern art. Peter had a deep understanding of this tradition, and its assumptions are implicit in his approach to all his work.
In his line drawings the texture of the individual lines show how quickly the pencil was moved over the sheet, and the way in which the lines relate to each other suggests a very rapid process of composition, with each line responding to the one put down just before. The result is a rhythmically animated whole, a complete and intrinsically graphic thought.
Peter also developed great facility in drawing with marking pens, sometimes using them to enhance pencil sketches. Happiness captures a moment of unselfconscious abandon to irresistible joy. The vitality and the humour of the sketch both have their source in the way such an amply-proportioned woman is shown romping so energetically: both its persuasiveness and its comic effect are emphasised by the necklace hovering in mid-air. The means involved are so simple that one recognises the line itself – thick where it describes the woman’s hips and breasts, but thinner in her face and hands – to be animated by what can only be described as an intrinsically comic energy.
A more dramatic example is a drawing of two male figures locked in hand-to- hand combat: the one on the left is black, defined by exposed areas of white paper surrounding it; the other, white, is set against a black field quickly created with a marker. The white figure is skeletal and seems to represent death: he attacks the other, who attempts to hold him off with a stiff right arm. The elemental graphic contrast between white and black is thus made to express the elemental existential struggle between death and the will to live.
A forest scene, an illustration of an episode in János vitéz, is an even more brilliant demonstration of marker technique. The trunks of the trees have been laid in with extremely quick, bold strokes, resulting in streaks suggestive of the rough texture of bark. A second marker was used to fill in some branches, as well as the tiny figure of János, disappearing behind a tree; a third, nearly dried-out, to fill in the ground around the path. To create leaves, Peter used rubber stamps he had made, but then also added leaves in thin-pointed black and silver marker. With its combination of power and delicacy, the image taps a deep, instinctive, lyrical response to nature; it suggests the fearsomeness of the forest but also its fascination and beauty.
Peter recorded many of his first ideas with brush and ink wash or watercolour; like markers, these materials allowed him to organise patterns of light and dark over an entire sheet with only a few movements of the hand, to set down a graphic idea as quickly as possible, with both boldness and nuance. A portrait of Béla Bartók, one of a series that Peter made of famous men and women, is more finished, yet it retains the freshness of something executed quickly. Copied from a well- known photograph of the composer, it brilliantly translates the pattern of light recorded in the photograph into a play of contrasts in paint. Something of the sheer intelligence with which this translation is made communicates itself even to viewers with no knowledge of watercolour technique, subtly enhancing the characterisation of an unusually intelligent man.
Drawing, whether with pencil, marker or brush, was only the beginning: Peter’s drawings served as points of departure for further graphic development. His usual practice was to photocopy the original, then rework the photocopy, making adjustments and additions. The reworked version would then be photocopied as the “definitive” form of the image, but the process of revision might be repeated many times before a satisfactory conclusion was reached. This method allowed the work to develop in stages, each rapid, thus to retain spontaneity while alsoproducing a provisionally “finished” result. It resembles the procedure of a musician who, over time, casually improvises a series of variations on his own original theme.
The obvious advantages of photocopying are that it is fast and easy. That Peter did not work in any of the traditional graphic media – engraving, etching, lithography – certainly has a great deal to do with the fact that they are slow and labour-intensive. Photocopying also allows for greater flexibility: the artist does not have to efface the first version of an image in the process of refining it, but can easily save each stage in the developmental process, so that each can potentially become the starting point for a new and different train of thought. Another attraction would have been its novelty, the fact that it was not a traditional graphic medium. The electrophotographic process on which it depends was invented in 1938, but photocopying did not become commercially viable or widespread until the 1960s. As a commonplace, déclassé form of graphic reproduction, it exists in a fundamentally ironic relation to traditional techniques; that relation becomes a source of meaning, and especially of humour, in many of Peter’s images. An ironic humour is also implicit in his frequent use of common correction fluid, together with its applicator, a miniature parody of an artist’s paintbrush.
Sometimes the transition from drawing to finished print was simple: the printed version of Béla Bartók, for instance, involved no change except addition of the label.
Usually, however, it was more complex. The original line drawing, in pen and ink, of a Dead Harpy is one of Peter’s most striking images: harpies are traditional symbols of predatory women – and figure as such frequently in Peter’s work – but in this instance, the harpy is a victim and object of pity. This design went through several stages, involving addition and correction. Broad-tipped black marker in the wings and tail gives weight and creates a stark contrast with the white sheet; at the same time, they are relieved by lines in white pencil articulating the feathers. A grey marker has been used to give the face the colour of death, while the breasts have been worked up with correction fluid, poignantly emphasising the nearness of voluptuousness to vulnerability. The exact configuration of the claws has been achieved through careful addition, but also by “whiting-out” unwanted parts before photocopying the definitive version. The reworked image may sacrifice something of the spontaneity and lyrical delicacy of the original ink sketch, but gains in the force and depth of the feelings it evokes.
Yet another favourite technique involved painting with correction fluid on black paper. These images are usually very small: Worship of the Golden Calf, at four and a half by six inches, is one of the largest. So concentrated are they that when photocopied in larger form they lose none of their impact, yet most were made small in order to be reproduced on a small scale. Again, a particular style was developed for them. The contrast of white and black possesses inherent graphic interest; it might even be described as the foundation of all graphic interest: the challenge of composing such pictures seems to have prompted Peter to strive for the exemplary graphic virtues of simplicity, concentration and balance. They thus have a strongly classical quality, close in spirit to Greek vase painting, even when their subject matter is not taken from ancient myth or history. Though energetically and spontaneously painted, they sometimes also show careful correction. In the Worship of the Golden Calf – a meticulously-calculated image of raucous abandon – many of the outlines and most of the details of the faces have been added over the white paint in fine-pointed black marker. The result is a design in which energy and humour have been combined with perfect clarity and formal discipline.
Another of Peter’s favourite media was stamps, which he designed and carved himself. The images he produced by this means constitute about half of his entire graphic output and represent a truly unique achievement, an artistic language as original as it is expressive and beautiful. Most of the stamps are made from plastic draughtsman’serasers, but he used other common objects, such as the corks of wine bottles and the wheels of toy cars. He preferred a reddish-brown ink, similar to the colour Italians call sanguigno, which also resembles the colour of Greek red- figure vases. The style, too, exemplified, for instance by Fortuna (or, to be more precise, Occasio), evokes ancient painting, yet it is also modern and informal, almost cartoonlike in its simplicity: it is at once an updatingand an affectionate parody of ancient style. Like Peter’s use of photocopying, it has an inherent humour, grounded perhaps in the classicist’s sense of there being a fundamentally ironic relation between past and present. Much of its appealderivesfromthewayinwhichitmodels such ironic consciousness – demonstrating both grace and wit – and thus its value as an outlook on life.
Terremoto (Earthquake) is a complex composition built up with a variety of small stamps, some of them simple geometric forms repeated so that their juxtaposition suggests real objects. In several places, such as the collapsing wall withwindows to the left, Peter has used the same stamp twice, simply turning it upside down to create variety; at the right, he has used another stamp, possibly a rough piece of cork, three times, turning it upside down once to make the repetition less obvious. Several variants of the composition among Peter’s papers indicate that he had a great deal of fun experimenting with different arrangements before arriving at the final composition.
Tibetan Monk Going Home is one of Peter’s most inspired works. The figure of the monk was made with a single flat plastic stamp, but the ropes of the ladder were produced using a thin circular object, probably an old typist’s eraser. Peter cut a simple pattern of grooves around the rim, then, using a hole in the middle through which he could put a slender shaft of some kind, a nail or a toothpick, created a little wheel. The rim of the wheel was rolled in ink, then rolled on the surface of the paper to produce the continuous pattern of the rope. The rungs of the ladder were then added like hyphens, using another simple little stamp. The distant mountains were made by first copying onto the sheet, in the same coloured ink but more faintly, a torn piece of brown paper from a shopping bag. The use of such humble materials is a source of humour in itself, but the humility also resonates with the subject in a way that is both amusing and deeply endearing. The trial versions of this print among Peter’s papers show him adjusting the position, angle and twist of the ladder, as well as the figure’s position on it, each option saying something slightly different about the monk’s degree of spiritual liberation from worldly cares.
Like the Renaissance artists he admired, but also like many modern artists, Peter was interested in the variety of human character types, and many of his drawings and prints, images of individuals, can be described as character studies. His own names for them were tipi (types) or caratteri (characters). Young and old, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, fortunate and unfortunate, they constitute an extended survey of human experience as revealed in both the enduring structures of character and transient emotional states. The idea that art should reflect a comprehensive knowledge of human nature was already well established in ancient times: such knowledge was thought to elevate the poet or painter to the intellectual level of the philosopher. In the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci wanted the painter to possess “universal” understanding, but a similar ideal, expressed with different words, is also evident in the open-minded receptivity to the world, the combination of “naïveté” and “cosmopolitanism” that the nineteenth-century poet Baudelaire admired in the work of his contemporary, the graphic artist Constantin Guys, and that others have seen at work in artists like Manet, Degas and Picasso.
Almost none of these images of Peter’s were made directly from life. Some may have their origin in specific memories, but most are imaginative inventions: Peter dreamt up characters based on the people he had encountered or read about, or states of being that he had experienced himself, and he sought to give the most vivid possible shape to them, so that his characterisations respond to the demands of graphic formulation. Sometimes they represent faces alone, but often they show the entire body: sensitive as he was to the nuances of facial expression, Peter was just as alert to the ways in which character and emotion are revealed in pose and gesture.
Two sheets, which seem to have been done at about the same time, representing an Old Woman Ironing and an Old Tailor, are among Peter’s most charming inventions and show how, in full- figure images, pose and gesture enhance the characterisation. Here too, he achieves perfect clarity in the relation of form to content: everything, down to the last detail, seems to be motivated by a single, consistent impulse, so that beyond presenting us with two personalities in a way that is both affectionate and parodical, they demonstrate an overarching intellectual poise, a sovereign comic perspective on life as a whole.
Peter’s interest in human nature is also evident in representations of the interaction between two individuals, images he classified as “couples” (coppie). These range from the amusing to the deeply heart-warming, but also explore the darker themes of emotional dependency, domination, submission and abuse. Some are illustrations of recognisable stories, but most are not. That they often suggest narratives of some kind is an indication that they engage our interest and speak to our experience, yet Peter frequently leaves crucial details unspecified, showing that he is generally less interested in telling stories than in concentrating our attention on their essential emotional content.
In the wash drawing Women at a Railing, the figures are rendered with a minimum of internal modelling, yet the poses of their bodies and their relation to each other are expressive of their ease in each others’ presence. We may not be able to overhear their conversation, but we get a clear sense of its intimacy and warmth.
As one would expect, themes from ancient literature, history and philosophy figure importantly in Peter’s work. He depicted many well-known characters and illustrated many myths and episodes from history, returning to his favourites several times over the course of his career. The classics were living things to him, absolutely essential points of reference in any attempt to make sense of the world, and he tended to see echoes of ancient personalities and stories in the people and events around him. That his classicism naturally overlapped his other interests is shown by the fact that many of his images could be described as classical tipi or classical coppie, and even when he is depicting a subject not taken from Antiquity, his approach to it may be structured by classical habits of thought. The ongoing dialogue in his mind between past and present was a source of serious reflection as well as of comic possibility; if his approach to graphic media was inherently ironic, so was his engagement with classical subject matter. Modern art contains many parodies of ancient themes: one thinks, for instance, of Honoré Daumier’s hilarious series of prints, L’Histoire ancienne (Ancient History), in which Greek and Roman stories are enacted by modern Parisians. Peter was aware of such images and his humour is sometimes similar, but it is usually more subtle, more truly ironic. However funny Antiquity can be made to seem in light of modern life, it also offers us things modernity cannot; it remains a touchstone of the good, the beautiful and the true. Even if we can only know it at a distance, we need it: the perspective it offers us is an antidote to banality and vulgarity, and crucial to our spiritual survival.
Sometimes classical themes are presented anachronistically, with figures dressed in modern clothing. A marker drawing of a man in what looks to be a rumpled business suit, straining to carry a rock, depicts Sisyphus.
Many of Peter’s most appealing images might be described as classical coppie.
Pygmalion was a sculptor, the story goes, who made a statue of an ideally beautiful woman and fell in love with it; he prayed to Aphrodite, goddess of love, to bring it to life, and his wish was granted. Peter’s version, which began with stamps but was refined in photocopied form, is one of his most brilliant inventions, capturing the spirit of Greek vase painting even while transforming it in a modern way. The individual figures are vividly characterised but, again, the expressive magic lies in their relation to one another, the manner in which even the space between them seems charged with sexual energy, so that the image as a whole expresses the astonishment of instantaneous mutual attraction.
Perhaps the most pervasive theme in Peter’s work is love, and as one might expect of a classicist, there are many images of Eros (or Cupid) and Aphrodite (or Venus). One of Peter’s most beautiful creations depicts The Worship of Venus. The goddess is placed atop a column, high above her devotees and the city behind them, standing on an orb to symbolise her universal power. The composition derives from Renaissance depictions of the same theme, but while the style has all the humour of Peter’s other stamped images, its symmetry and hierarchical order give it a monumentality that looks back, past the Renaissance examples, to the magnificent opening lines of De Rerum Natura, the great philosophical poem of Lucretius that Peter had begun to translate as a young man. Most of the ambitious poems of Antiquity begin with an invocation to one or more of the Muses, but Lucretius begins his with a prayer to the goddess of love herself, whom he regards as the source of all life:
Mother of Aeneas and his race, delight of gods and men,
Bountiful Venus …
… enthralled by thy charms,
All creatures gladly follow where thou steppest forth
To lead them …
For thou alone dost govern all things in nature …
Since, in these lines, Lucretius also pleads for the help of the goddess in composing his poem, Peter’s image should be understood as a similar plea on behalf of his art. One of Peter’s favourite sources was Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, an encyclopaedia of allegorical imagery, first published in 1593 and re-issued many times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Intended to help artists create personifications that would communicate abstract ideas more effectively, it provides descriptions of what such figures should look like; some of the later editions were partly illustrated. It was popular with artists for many generations but is now used mostly by art historians to figure out the meanings of old pictures. That beyond its usefulness for his scholarship, the book inspired Peter’s artistic production is an indication of the way in which, for him, abstract ideas were real and meaningful things, vital instruments of the imagination, representatives of a realm where everything is present in clearer, purer and more perfect form than our ordinary experience allows us to apprehend.
Perhaps the most beautiful of Peter’s Ripa’s images is Imaginazione (Imagination): a woman standing with her hands crossed over her breast, wings at her head, and a crown with many tiny figures in various poses. Ripa explains that the wings and crown symbolise the volatility and abundance of the imagination, “whence arise a thousand thoughts and perturbations”. Peter follows the model closely, except that, where Ripa wants the woman to be looking upward toward heaven, Peter shows her with her eyes closed: the effect of blissful, exalted concentration on her inner world, of the quiet strength necessary to quell those thousand perturbations, says a great deal about Peter’s experience of his own imagination and what he thought it means to be an artist.
Some of Peter’s work is devoted to specifically Hungarian themes. He provided illustrations for a translation of János vitéz prepared by his colleague at Santa Barbara, John Ridland, and published in 1999. He also composed what we would now call a graphic novel, Fasza Miska, a mock-epic about the sordid adventures of a coarse Hungarian rustic. It was never published, but Peter sent a copy to János Szilágyi, as a lowly diversion from all the lofty humanistic interests that they shared. He began to make a series of illustrations for Gyula Krúdy’s Álmoskönyv, a half-comical guide to the interpretation of dreams that sidesteps Freud’s monumental scientific study to draw instead upon folklore and fantasy. The image of an old woman ironing may have been made specifically for this project, since a printed version bears an inscription from Krúdy’s text, explaining that a dream about ironing a shirt means imminent engagement. But Peter also seems to have adapted images he had made independently. In Krúdy’s work, he seems to have found a way of looking at the world that answered to his own, a way of seeing the dimensions of possible meaning concealed in everyday things and of recognising the comic potential in the intuition that what we commonly call reality is but the raw material of an other reality. He may also have found a way of organising the vast range of experience – dreaming and waking – that he had, over the course of his life, sought to illustrate in his work.
We usually think of style as a consistent and distinctive appearance that sets the products of one artist apart from those of another. We value that consistency because it reflects a method of working, and beyond that, a way of thinking. Style seems to point beyond itself, or within itself, to something more fundamental. If we understand that it depends on purposeful selectivity – choosing certain things for inclusion and suppressing others in order to achieve a particular look or effect – then we can see that it is a direct extension of the processes involved in any kind of artistic production. That thing to which style points is, in the first place, art itself; style is art emphasising itself.
Since the decisions that any artist makes in the process of creating something are not just a matter of technical expertise, however, but also of an outlook on the world as a whole, those decisions also point beyond or within themselves to the artist’s character, to an internal poise achieved in the process of living. The interest and value of style is thus twofold: its significance as a residue of the work an artist does specifically in making art, on the one hand, and the work involved in reckoning with life and its challenges, on the other. If style is art emphasising itself, it is also character revealing and emphasising itself; as such, it has an inherent human interest and moral content.
Peter Meller’s work involves different styles, but is also animated by an underlying consistency, and our interest and pleasure in it has to do with our sense of that consistency being something he wanted us to notice, of its being the way his character emphasised itself, and thus testified to the moral significance of his experience. We have noted an ironic humour in his use of graphic techniques, but also in his relation to classical art and culture. We have glimpsed a sovereign comic outlook on life, most apparent in images that combine objectivity and sympathy. An unresolved tension is evident in his treatment of some erotic themes, and there is a preoccupation with the darker forces at work in human nature, yet even his unresolved tensions are unresolved in consistent ways: there is, we might say, a style to his irony, in which something fundamental about his character, his mode of being, also expresses itself. In some cases we have seen him working through ambivalence to moments of poise, to arrive at formulations in which he seems to get the better of his conflicted feelings, and we sense that the work of making art has helped him do so.
In the Son of William Tell, the touches of correction fluid in the eyes both enliven the image and enhance its comic quality. The story of William Tell is Swiss in origin, but it was popular in mid- to late-nineteenth-century Hungary, at a time when, like the Swiss before them, the Hungarians were struggling to free themselves from Austrian domination. The style of Peter’s image looks back to the popular prints of that era; the pleated collar, knickers and buckled shoes situate the image in the bourgeois world of Victorian children’s books. This child of privilege, however, has suddenly awakened to the realisation that life is dangerous. He knows that he has had a narrow escape, recalling Peter’s own narrow escapes, first from the fascists, then from the communists. To anyone familiar with Hungarian history, the arrow recalls the hated emblem of the Hungarian Nazis called “Arrow Cross”. Though he has been lucky, the boy seems just as nervous as he might have been before the arrow was shot. Perhaps he just now realises the danger he was in all along, or perhaps he is expecting to be shot at again: once traumatised, the anxiety never goes away. In him, Peter has given us a self-portrait, but also a modern everyman, a symbol of all who live under the threat of violent coercion. He may be a survivor, but he will always be haunted by the terror he has felt.
All the same, the image is comical. Terror and humour are set side by side in perfect ironic reciprocity: dwelling on one, we are never allowed to forget the other.
The history of Central and Eastern Europe in Peter’s time is especially rich in memorable examples of the ways in which humour can serve as an antidote to fear: an expression of the resilience and strength of character necessary to endure the unendurable, humour, too, even ironic humour, has inherent moral content. Peter’s capacity to objectify himself, his ability to find a source of amusement even in his own fear, reveals the hidden rigor of his comic outlook, but also something deeper still: a strength of character sufficient to recover an internal poise when – in the face of radically divergent, mutually exclusive emotions – any poise would seem to be impossible. Peter has used his art to get the better of his demons, and to model a style of being that may inspire and guide us in getting the better of ours.