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Erdeli, Adal’bert/Erdelyi, Bela

Erdeli, Adal’bert/Erdelyi, Bela (b. May 25, 1891, Zahattia [Hungarian Kingdom], Ukraine; d. September 19, 1955, Uzhhorod [USSR], Ukraine) — painter, pedagogue, and cultural activist in Subcarpathian Rus’. Educated at the Academy of Art in Budapest (1911-1915), Erdeli was one of the founders of the *Subcarpathian School of Painting. After returning home from study in Budapest Erdeli spent the rest of the World War I years living in Mukachevo, where in 1921 he became a member of the short-lived union of painters created by Iulii *Virag. Between 1922 and 1926 Erdeli worked in Munich, where his first personal exhibition abroad was held in the Glass Palace (1923). With the knowledge and experience he had gained, Erdeli decided to apply his talents to help carry out the moral and cultural regeneration of his homeland and its people.

Returning to *Subcarpathian Rus’, Erdeli together with Iosyf *Bokshai founded in Uzhhorod the Public School for Painting (1927), but within two years he left home again, this time for Paris, where he worked (1929-1931) among a circle of artists that included the post-Impressionists Henri Matisse, Max Vlaminck, and Andre Derain. The greatest influence on Erdeli, however, was the artistic legacy of Paul Cezanne. It was his experience in Paris that transformed Erdeli into a European artist of post-Impressionism who became a master of portraiture (Avtoportret/Self-Portrait, 1930; Portret Andersa Osterlanda/Portrait of Anders Osterland, 1930; Dvatsiatyi vik/The 20th Century, 1931; Portret A.S./A Portrait of A.S., 1930s), of landscapes (Mukachivs’kyi zamok/The Mukachevo Castle, 1930s; Litnyi kraievyd/A Summer Landscape, 1930s), and of still lifes (Natiurmort z pliashkoiu i fruktamy/Still-Life with a Bottle and Fruit, 1930s). Upon his return to Uzhhorod, Erdeli took an active part in the establishment (1931) of the Society of Fine Arts in Subcarpathian Rus’/Obshchestvo dieiatelei izobrazitel’nykh iskusstv na Podkarpatskii Rusi, which became in effect the organizational basis of the Subcarpathian School of Painting. For many years he served as the society’s chairman, organizing for its members numerous exhibitions throughout Subcarpathian Rus’ and other parts of Czechoslovakia (Presov, Brno, Bratislava, Prague). His own works during the interwar decades were exhibited in Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, Milan, Brussels, Vienna, Munich, Warsaw, L’viv, and Budapest. Erdeli was also a pedagogue who, during the 1920s and 1930s, when he was not abroad, taught painting and the history of art at the gymnasium in Mukachevo and at the *Uzhhorod Greek Catholic Teachers’ College and the Public School of Painting.

World War II had a negative as well as a positive impact on Erdeli. On the one hand, the wartime disruptions in communication greatly restricted the contacts he had previously enjoyed with centers of world culture in other parts of Europe. On the other hand, the enforced isolation gave him the opportunity to become more deeply familiar with life in his native Subcarpathian Rus’. As a result it was during the war years that he created some of his best paintings, in particular portraitures (Verkhovynky/The Highlanders, 1940; Rusyns’ka para/A Rusyn Couple, 1942; Selianky/Villagers, 1942; Staryi hutsul/The Old Hutsul, 1942; Staryi koniukh/The Old Stable-Hand, 1942) and a series of landscapes (Karpaty/The Carpathians, 1940; Rakhiv, 1940; Hirs’kyi peizazh/A Mountain Landscape, 1942; Pid radvans’kym lisom/In the Radvanyi Forest, 1942; and Karpats’kyi osin’/A Carpathian Autumn, 1943).

Under the new post-World War II Soviet regime Erdeli taught at Uzhhorod’s School of Applied Art (1945-1955), but these last ten years of his life in “reunited Transcarpathia” became a time of personal tragedy. Erdeli was mocked for wanting to transform Uzhhorod’s Public School of Painting into an academy of arts on the model of those in western and central Europe. The voluntary association of Subcarpathian artists he had created and headed just after the war was abolished and replaced by a standard Soviet-style Transcarpathian Branch of the Union of Artists of Soviet Ukraine. This Communist-inspired body immediately began a sharp propagandistic campaign against “formalism,” “cosmopolitanism,” and “kowtowing before the West” that allegedly were characteristic of Erdeli’s corpus, and it set out to educate this European artist about the “principles of Socialist Realism.”

Pressured by the Union of Artists and the Soviet authorities, Erdeli painted a few canvases in the spirit of Socialist Realism, but these must be considered works that were forced from his brush and that carried banal titles like Liknep (The End of Illiteracy, 1947), Komsomolka (The Girl in the Communist Youth League, 1949), Molot’ba (Threshing in the Fields, 1950), and Zarucheni molodi kolhospnyky (The Betrothed Young Collective Farmers, 1954). Typical of the Soviet regime, these works marked a deliberate effort to camouflage his artistic originality, which at the time could only be expressed in his still-lifes and genre scenes (Peizazh z rikoiu/Landscape with a River, 1947; Okolytsia Uzhhoroda/Near Uzhhorod, 1948; Khata v Stavnomu/A Peasant Hut in Stavne, 1951; Osin’ v horakh/Autumn in the Mountains, 1954). In effect, Erdeli remained alienated from the Soviet system, as it was alienated from him. As evident from several self-portraits complete during the 1950s, Erdeli was completely isolated from the world around him and was remain so until his death in 1955 at the height of his creative power.

Bibliography: Grigorii Ostrovskii, Adal’bert Mikhailovich Erdeli (Moscow, 1966); V. Pavlov, Adal’bert Erdeli (Kiev, 1972); Hryhorii Ostrovs’kyi, Tvorets’ nezbahnennoho prekrasnoho svita: do storichchia z dnia narodzhennia A.M. Erdeli (Uzhhorod, 1992); Laszlo Balla, Erdelyi Bela es kortarsai: Karpatalja kepzomuveszeinek harom nemzedeke (Uzhhorod and Budapest, 1994).

Ivan Pop

Entry courtesy of Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture.
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