The papers of graphic artist, muralist, and activist Hugo Gellert measure 6.9 linear feet and date from 1916 to 1986. They document his career as an artist and organizer for the radical political left through an interview, legal papers, financial records, family papers, artifacts, correspondence, writings, organizational records, extensive printed materials (many of them illustrated by Gellert), photographs, and artwork.
Scope and Content Note:
The papers of graphic artist, muralist, and activist Hugo Gellert measure 6.9 linear feet and date from 1916 to 1986. They document his career as an artist and organizer for the radical left through an oral interview conducted by Sofia Sequenzia, legal papers, financial records, family papers, artifacts, correspondence, writings, organizational records, clippings, exhibition catalogs, various printed materials illustrated by Gellert, pamphlets, periodicals, mass mailings, photographs, and artwork.
Biographical Material includes an audio interview with Gellert; official documents related to memberships, property, and legal matters; financial documents that include bills, receipts, and contracts related to professional activities; papers of Gellert's brothers, Lawrence and Ernest; and artifacts. Correspondence is with other artists, writers, publishers, activists, friends, and family, including Ernest Fiene, Rockwell Kent, Harry Gottlieb, William Gropper, Philip Evergood, Howard Fast, and Jonas Lie. Writings include essays, book projects, notes, and notebooks written by Gellert; and stories and articles by other authors, including typescripts of early twentieth-century Hungarian short stories collected by Gellert.
Organizational Records are related to political and art organizations in which Gellert was an active organizer, officer, and in some cases, a founder. Because of his central role in many of these organizations, records often contain unique documentation of their activities. Records are found for the American Artists Congress, the Art of Today Gallery, the Artists Committee of Action, the Artists Coordination Committee, the Artists Council, Artists for Victory, Inc., the Committee to Defend V.J. Jerome, Hungarian Word, Inc., the National Society of Mural Painters, and other organizations.
Printed materials include a variety of political publications and periodicals with illustrations by Gellert, including New Masses, Art Front, Magyar Szo, and American Dialog; clippings related to his career, exhibition catalogs, political pamphlets, Hungarian literature, and mass mailings received from political organizations. Photographs contain a few personal photographs but are mostly news and publicity photographs, many of which depict prominent Communists and other newsmakers. Artwork includes sketches, drawings, designs, prints, and production elements for Gellert's artwork, as well as prints and drawings by Philip Reisman, Gyula Derkovits, and Anton Refregier.
The collection is arranged into 7 series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1917-1982 (Box 1 and OV 9; 0.5 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, circa 1920-1986 (Boxes 1-2, 8; 0.8 linear feet)
Series 3: Writings, circa 1916-1970 (Boxes 2 and 8; 0.7 linear feet)
Series 4: Organizational Records, circa 1920-1977 (Boxes 3, 8, and OV 9; 1 linear foot)
Series 5: Printed Materials, circa 1920-1986 (Boxes 4-6, 8, and OV 9; 3 linear feet)
Series 6: Photographs, circa 1920-1959 (Boxes 6-7; 0.5 linear feet)
Series 7: Artwork, 1927-1981 (Box 7, OV 10; 0.4 linear feet)
Graphic artist, muralist, and activist Hugo Gellert was born Hugo Grünbaum in Budapest, Hungary in 1892, the oldest of six children. His family immigrated to New York City in 1906, eventually changing their family name to Gellert.
Gellert attended art school at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. As a student, he designed posters for movies and theater, and also worked for Tiffany Studios. A number of student art prizes with cash awards enabled him to travel to Europe in the summer of 1914, where he witnessed the outbreak of World War I, an experience which helped shape his political beliefs. Aesthetically, he was also influenced by a folk revival among Hungarian artists at the time of his trip, and was more impressed, he later said, with the street advertising in Paris than he was with the cubism he saw in the Louvre.
Returning to the United States, Gellert became involved in the Hungarian-American workers' movement, and contributed drawings to its newspaper, Elöre (Forward). He remained involved in Hungarian-American art and activism throughout his life, including membership in the anti-fascist group, the Anti-Horthy League. When members of the fascist Horthy government unveiled a statue of a Hungarian hero in New York in 1928, Gellert hired a pilot and dropped leaflets on the group, a stunt for which he was arrested. In the 1950s, Gellert served as director of Hungarian Word, Inc., a Hungarian-language publisher in New York.
Gellert's political commitment and art remained deeply intertwined throughout his life, as he continually sought to integrate his commitment to Communism, his hatred of fascism, and his dedication to civil liberties. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, he contributed artwork to several magazines of the radical left, including Masses and its successors Liberator and New Masses, both of which featured Gellert's artwork on their inaugural issue. Through Masses, he came to know other radicals such as Mike Gold, John Reed, Louise Bryant, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Anton Refregier, William Gropper, Harry Gottlieb, Bob Minor, and Art Young, and with them he followed the events of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia with sympathy and growing political fervor.
His brother, Ernest Gellert, also a socialist and activist, was drafted into the military but refused to serve. He died of a gunshot wound under suspicious circumstances while imprisoned at Fort Hancock, New Jersey, as a conscientious objector. Traumatized by this event, Gellert fled to Mexico to avoid conscription. In 1920 to 1922, he taught art at the Stelton School in New Jersey, a radical, utopian community school. He participated in the cultural scene of Greenwich Village, working on set designs, publications, and graphic art for political productions. He founded the first John Reed Club in 1929 with a group of Communist artists and writers including Anton Refregier, Louis Lozowick, and William Gropper. Initially, the group held classes and exhibitions, and provided services for strikes and other working-class activism. Later, John Reed Clubs formed around the country and became a formal arm of the United States Communist Party (CPUSA).
In the late 1920s, Gellert became a member of the National Society of Mural Painters (which, partly due to Gellert's activism in the group, became the Mural Artists' Guild local 829 of the United Scenic Artists Union of the AFL-CIO in 1937. Other members included Rockwell Kent, Anton Refregier, Arshile Gorky, and Marion Greenwood). In 1928, he created a mural for the Worker's Cafeteria in Union Square, NY. Later murals include the Center Theater in Rockefeller Center, the National Maritime Union Headquarters, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union Building, NYC, the interior of the Communications Building at the 1939 World's Fair, and the Seward Park Housing Project in 1961.
In 1932, Gellert was invited to participate in a mural exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and submitted a political mural about the robber barons of contemporary American politics and industry called Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together - Al Capone. The museum attempted to censor the mural, along with the murals of William Gropper and Ben Shahn. Other artists threatened to boycott the exhibition over the censorship and were successful in restoring them to the show.
The cooperation of artists in this controversy foreshadowed a larger protest in 1934, organized by Gellert, Saul Belman, Stuart Davis, and Zoltan Hecht, when Diego Rivera's pro-labor mural was destroyed at Rockefeller Center. After the incident, the group formed the Artists' Committee of Action and continued to fight censorship and advocate for artists' interests and welfare. They also co-published the magazine Art Front with the Artists' Union, a labor organization. Gellert served for a time as editor of Art Front, and chairman of the Artists' Committee of Action.
Gellert was active in producing both art and strategic policy for the cultural arm of the CPUSA, and he worked to mobilize the non-communist left, often referred to as the Popular Front. In 1933 he illustrated Karl Marx's Capital in Lithographs, and in 1935, he wrote a Marxist, illustrated satire called Comrade Gulliver, An Illustrated Account of Travel into that Strange Country the United States of America. Other published graphic works include Aesop Said So (1936) and a portfolio of silkscreen prints entitled Century of the Common Man (1943).
Other artist groups he helped to found and/or run include the American Artist's Congress, a Communist organization founded with Max Weber, Margaret Bourke-White, Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Harry Sternberg, and others, which held symposia and exhibitions between 1936 and 1942; the Artists' Coordination Committee, an umbrella group of national organizations which sought protections for federally-employed and unionized artists; Artists for Victory, Inc., which formed in 1942 to mobilize artists in support of the war effort; and the Artists' Council, formed after the war to advocate for artists' welfare and employment.
Gellert maintained his loyalty to the Communist party throughout the post-war period despite growing disillusionment in the Popular Front over the actions of Josef Stalin, and despite the intense anti-communist crusades in the late 1940s and 1950s. He was investigated by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was nearly deported. He spent a number of years during this period in his wife's native Australia. Returning to the United States in the early 1950s, he threw his efforts into the defense of others who faced prison, deportation, and the blacklist following the HUAC hearings. He established The Committee to Defend V.J. Jerome in 1951 when Jerome, the cultural commissioner of CPUSA, was convicted under the Smith Act. The writer Dorothy Parker was the group's treasurer.
In 1954, Gellert established the Art of Today Gallery in New York City with Rockwell Kent and Charles White to provide an exhibition venue for blacklisted artists. Exhibitions included Maurice Becker, Henry Glintenkamp, Harry Gottlieb, Kay Harris, and Rockwell Kent. Gellert served as the gallery's secretary until it closed in 1957.
In the 1960s until his death in 1985, Gellert continued his activism through involvement in grassroots political organizations. Unlike many of his radical contemporaries, Gellert lived to see the revival of some of the ideas of the progressive era of the thirties in the countercultural years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were retrospectives of his work in Moscow in 1967 and in his native Budapest in 1968, and he appeared in Warren Beatty's film Reds in 1981.
Sources used for this essay include James Wechsler's 2003 dissertation "The Art and Activism of Hugo Gellert: Embracing the Spectre of Communism," his essay "From World War I to the Popular Front: The Art and Activism of Hugo Gellert," ( Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts number 24, Spring 2002), and Jeff Kisseloff's biographical essay for the 1986 Hugo Gellert exhibition at the Mary Ryan Gallery.
Among the holdings of the Archives of American Art are an oral history with Hugo Gellert from 1984, a recording of a lecture Gellert gave at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1985, and additional records of Artists for Victory, Inc., 1942-1946.
The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University holds additional papers of Hugo Gellert.
A portion of the papers were donated in 1970 by Hugo Gellert. Additional papers were donated by Gellert and his wife, Livia Cinquegrana, in 1983 and 1986.
The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website.
This series contains the correspondence of Hugo Gellert. Most of the correspondence is of a professional nature, related to Gellert's activities as an artist, political organizer, and activist. Correspondents include artists, friends, family members, Communist Party and Popular Front leaders, labor union leaders, federal art programs personnel, writers, historians, publishers, Hungarian cultural and political figures, and fellow activists. Significant correspondents in this series include Maurice Becker, William Patterson, Floyd Dell, Philip Evergood, Howard Fast, Mike Gold, Robert Gwathmey, and Rockwell Kent.
Letters from individuals involved in leftist political organizations and activities are common throughout the series. In addition to Gellert's fellow Communists and Socialists, a wide variety of political groups are represented, including those concerned with artists' employment and welfare issues, anti-fascist organizations, organized labor, watchdog groups and defense committees for civil liberties during the McCarthy era, advocates for jailed Mexican artist David Siqueiros, and American civil rights groups. Also found is correspondence with editors of publications for which Gellert supplied illustrations, and letters concerning exhibitions and murals.
Noteworthy items found in correspondence include a lengthy letter written by John Dos Passos enclosed with a circa 1930s letter from Carlo Tresca, a draft of an essay by Carl Sandburg with a 1942 letter, and an original New Year's card by Gellert for 1951. Drafts of outgoing letters from 1946 contain a number of sketches of Australian landscapes by Gellert.
See Appendix for names of selected individuals, organizations, and publications found in Series 2.
Letters received are interfiled with drafts of outgoing letters in chronological order. Undated correspondence that can be estimated within a decade is filed at the end of each decade with "circa" dates. Additional undated correspondence is filed at the end of the series. Outgoing drafts are common in correspondence and often have estimated dates.
Additional correspondence is found in the Organizational Records series. Additional cards made by Gellert are filed with Artwork. See series description for further details.
Appendix: Selected Individuals, Organizations, and Publications in Series 2:
The following is an index to selected individuals, publications, and organizations represented in the Correspondence in Series 2. This index is not comprehensive.
Additional correspondence is found with Series 4, Organizational Records, and is described in the container listing for that series. Letters which were mass mailings from dozens of political organizations can also be found in Series 5, Printed Materials.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): 1935 (Lucille Milner)
American Committee Against Fascist Oppression in Germany: 1934 (Louis Gibarti)
American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born: 1962 (Annette Provinzano)
American League against War and Fascism: 1937 (Albert Prentis)
American Magazine -- : 1935
American Russian Institute: 1952 (Irene Miller, Holland Roberts)
Americans for Democratic Action: 1956 (Edward D. Hollander)
An American Group: 1940 (to Clifton Woodrum)
Aptheker, Herbert: 1959
Arms, John Taylor: 1952 (see also Series 4)
Artists Conference of the Americas: 1939
Artists League of America: 1942 (Dan Koerner)
Artists' Cooperative Group: 1943 (B. Nuno)
Association des Ecrivants et Artistes Revolutionnaries: 1933 (R. Ginsburger)
Balch, Earle: 1932
Bauch, Solomon "Stan": 1941
Becker, Maurice: 1951-1953, 1961, undated
Berkowitz, Harry: 1954
Bonnett, Clarence E.: 1937
Bramer, Nan: 1952
Breines, Simon: 1947, 1971
Bromsen, Archibald: 1940 (labor lawyer)
Brook, Alex: 1939
Buck, Pearl: 1953
Caswell, Edward: 1960
Chiostergi, Alessandro L.: 1937
Citizen's Committee for Constitutional Liberties: 1962 (Miriam Friedlander)
Granich, Mike (a.k.a. Mike Gold, born Irving Granich): 1956
Greenbaum, Dorothea: 1940 (Sculptor's Guild)
Gropper, William: 1951
Gwathmey, Robert: 1959, undated
Hall, Rob: 1952
Hardy, Lewis: 1955
Harris, Marguerite Tjader: 1942
Hars, Laszlo: 1953, 1955
Hartley, Paul: 1944 (National Art Foundation)
Hecht, Rosa: 1955
Henri Barbusse Memorial Committee: 1937
Hollander, Edward D.: 1956
International Bureau of Revolutionary Artists: 1935-1936 (Alfred Durus, a.k.a. Alfred Kemeny)
Joint Committee to Defend WPA Workers: 1941, 1942 (Ronald Shilen)
Jones, Alec: 1955, 1958
Kantor, Sam: 1953
Karolyi, Michael, Count: 1941, 1946
Kauffer, Edward McKnight: 1945
Kent, Rockwell: 1937, 1944, 1952-1953 (See also Series 4)
Klonsky, Bob: 1955
Koerner, Dan: 1942
Kohn, Robert D.: 1935 (architect)
Kovalski, Stanislaw: 1955 (Polish embassy)
Ksnyik, Andras: 1978
Laffitte, Jean: 1955
Lie, Jonas: 1939
Lorber, Dr. Herman "Harry": circa 1930s
Mabry, Thomas D.: 1942 (Graphics Div, Office of War Information)
Macagy, Jermayne: 1955
Magyar Jövo -- (Hungarian Daily Journal): 1952 (Alex Rosner), 1953
Mainstream -- : 1962
Maldonado, R.: 1978 (Smithsonian Labor History Project)
Manship, Paul: 1939, undated
Marceau, Henri: 1946
Marquardt, Virginia: 1978
Maruki, Toshiko and Iri: 1960
Masses and Mainstream -- : 1952 (Samuel Sillen), 1954 (Joe)
McNeil, Alan D: 1955
Michelson, Herman: 1934
Milner, Lucile: 1935
Moore, Sam: 1953
Nagy, Janos: 1956
National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors: 1940 (Bianca Todd)
National Council of American Soviet Friendship: 1943 (Hannah Dorner)
National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions: 1952 (Nan Bramer)
National Maritime Union: 1944 (Louis Oguss, M. Hedley Stone)
New Masses -- : 1934 (Sean, Herman Michelson)
New World Review -- : 1952 (Jessica Smith)
New York Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born: 1955 (Alec Jones)
Nuno, B.: 1943
Oguss, Louis: 1944
Oldham, John and Ray: circa 1930s
Ottley, Roi: 1943 (National CIO Committee)
Patrás, Pal: 1955
Patterson, William L.: 1953-1954
People's World -- : 1956 (W.J. Decker)
Perlo, Ellen: 1984
Perrot, Paul: 1960 (Corning Museum)
Philadelphia Forum of Social Sciences: 1955 (Bob Klonsky)
Popper, Lilly: 1953-1954
Prentis, Albert: 1937
Provisional Workers and People's Committee for May Day: 1955 (Morris Gainer), 1960 (Max Rosen)
Putnam and Sons: 1935 (Quintin Rossi)
Reed, Alman: 1955
Reisman, Philip: 1962, circa 1960s
Rickey, George: 1937
Rosen, Max: 1955
Rosner, A.: 1952, 1959
Rosner, Deak: 1955
Rossen, John: 1955
Rossi, Quintin: 1935
Royce, Edward: 1955
Sandburg, Carl: 1942
Sapiro, Aaron: 1932
Schappes Defense Committee: 1941 (Morris U. Shappes)
Schoen, Eugene: 1932, 1934
Schwartz, Morris: 1951
Sequenzia, Sofia: 1983
Shields, T.A. "Art": 1959
Shillen, Ronald: 1942
Siegelbaum, Portia: 1978
Sillen, Samuel: 1952
Smith, Jessica: 1952
Soglow, Otto: 1942
Solomon: Dave: 1954 (New Talents Gallery), 1956
Starobin, Joseph: 1955
Steffens, Lincoln: 1934 (journalist)
Stone, M. Hedley: 1944
Street, Julian Jr.: 1940
Tandy, W. Lou: 1953
Time -- : 192-
Todd, Bianca: 1940 (See also Series 4)
Tresca, Carlo: circa 1930s (anarchist)
Turner, Jeannette S.: 1957-1960
Tyler, Hugh: 1939 (WPA)
Vallon, Jose: 1934
Van Rensselaer, Sylvia: 1944 ("Portrait of America Competition" report)
Weber, Max: 1953 (See also Series 4)
Weyhe Gallery: 1947
Wilson, Steve: 1959 (Progressive Lithographers)
The Worker -- : 1952 (Rob Hall)
World Council of Peace: 1955 (Jean Laffitte)
World -- : 1925
Zigrosser, Carl: 1937
Zorach, Bill: 1942
Zundel, Eugenia: 1957, 1959
Zurier, Rebecca: 1984, circa 1980s
The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website.
Hugo Gellert papers, 1916-1986. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art