György Gordon

Sombre painter who excelled at self-portraiture
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The Independent Online

The painter György Gordon was one of the many artists, musicians and writers from central Europe who sought asylum in England during the 20th century, and remained to enrich British culture immeasurably.

György Gordon, artist and teacher: born Budapest 13 June 1924; Lecturer, Wakefield College of Art 1964-86; married 1945 Márta Ediger (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1961 Marianne Mózes (one son); died Wakefield, West Yorkshire 5 March 2005.

The painter György Gordon was one of the many artists, musicians and writers from central Europe who sought asylum in England during the 20th century, and remained to enrich British culture immeasurably.

He was born in Budapest in 1924, but, following the 1956 Hungarian uprising, came to live and work first in London, and then, from 1964, in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Gordon's art, which was honoured by a 70th birthday retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in 1995, explored not only portraiture and self-portraiture, but still-life, landscape, figure groups and a moving set of linocuts interpreting Frigyes Karinthy's short story "The Circus". This story of a boy who longed to perform his violin at the circus had affected Gordon since his youth, and stands as his allegory of the artist struggling to attain expression and recognition.

Gordon's beginnings were reflected at his end, for his last major work was a group portrait of the Lindsay Quartet in performance, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in 2003.

The initial direction of his expression was determined during the Second World War. While still a teenager, he became a part-time ancillary ambulanceman in Budapest, where he witnessed profoundly shocking events. His biographer George Noszlopy recounts how Gordon's most persistent and terrifying image was of a German army truck-driver who had been crushed by his own vehicle, but was still alive when carried to the ambulance. The memory of his flattened ribs and exposed shoulder-blades re-emerged in the 1960s to form the core of a series of visceral torso paintings, such as Refugees (1964-65) and Crawling, Wounded Torso (1969).

Gordon's mother died, meanwhile, during the Hungarian uprising, and her portrait on her deathbed is a savage expression of disorientation and loss, painted in the depths of anxiety and grief.

György Gordon, the son of a solicitor, received his first art training before the war in private academies in Budapest. In 1948 he won a place at the National Academy of Fine Arts, where he was taught by the one-time avant-garde artists János Kmetty, Jenö Barcsay and Robert Berény. Years later, Gordon reflected:

While we have acquired the tricks of the trade, the prevailing academic mentality got into our nervous systems, and in my case, this delayed the process of my self-realisation.

Gordon had married the cartoonist Márta Ediger ("Edma") during the war, and to help support his wife and daughter Anna, born during his studentship, he worked as a newspaper illustrator and graphic designer, and for a monthly salary supplied a stream of landscape and still-life paintings to sell in Communist Party shops.

After the death of his mother and the crushing of the uprising, Gordon felt that there was nothing left for him in Hungary. Márta being in Australia covering the Melbourne Olympics as a caricaturist, he and Anna left Hungary for Salzburg, where they joined a plane-load of Hungarian refugees seeking admission to the United States. When interviewed by immigration, Gordon admitted that he had been a member of the Communist Party, believing that the US authorities would appreciate his frankness. They did. They sent him to an internment camp, interrogated him, and put him and Anna on a ship back to Europe, where he was imprisoned for 30 days in Salzburg. Anna was sent to an orphanage.

In this uncertain and frightening situation Gordon was duped by a couple who vanished into Germany with Anna. Seeking Márta, and frantic at Anna's disappearance, Gordon travelled on his release from prison to London. There he rediscovered his wife; but the marriage was over. With the help of the police and the Red Cross, Gordon traced Anna in Germany, where the child had been abandoned.

Such a painful crossing from the Communist to the free world forged in György Gordon an attitude of calm reflection, and a watchfulness that belied the sombre mood of his art. The anger he needed to express found its way, entirely perhaps, into his painting and drawing. In London, Gordon found work as a graphic artist, and gradually discovered other émigré Hungarian artists and intellectuals who were repositioning their lives in Britain. Among these were the pianist Peter Frankl, the psychologist Vera Förster and the actress and art historian Erna Weiss. Among them too was the young musician Marianne Mózes, who was training as a concert pianist at the Royal Academy of Music. She and György were married in 1961; their son, Adam, was born in 1963.

György and Marianne Gordon became naturalised British subjects in 1964, the year György was appointed to the post of Lecturer in Graphic Design at Wakefield Art College, while Marianne gave piano lessons. The move from London to the industrial West Riding of Yorkshire was the active intervention that transformed Gordon's career. It soon became clear that he was a natural teacher, being modest enough to discover that teaching was a two-way process, and that he could learn from his pupils.

Gordon now had to restrict his own painting to vacations, while drawing at weekends. This generated periods of intense productivity, in which he made groups of drawings and paintings of faceless human figures with rounded, doll-like, pallid bodies. His experience as a prisoner under interrogation is an undercurrent in these works, but one which he never acknowledged openly. Yet others, inspired by Honoré Daumier and Chaim Soutine, allow Gordon's mastery of creamy paint to suggest emotion and mood in a group of imaginary portraits that typify his method of work - for all his portraits, even the self-portraits, have their imaginary core:

I can't paint from looking at the actual object or person. I never paint my portraits by asking the person to sit for me. I start with several quick random sketches from the model and then shut the door behind me. That is when I am at my happiest. A sitter can't

ever sit the way your vision develops for that painting.

Although he doggedly retained a Hungarian accent, Gordon's English was by now fluent, and he allowed his name to be gently anglicised to "George". Nevertheless, his home town remained "Vakefielt" to the end. From a terraced house in the town centre, the Gordons moved in the late 1970s to the fresher air and clearer perspectives of Heath, on high ground overlooking Wakefield. In the former village joiner's shop, which George and Marianne transformed from a ruin into a home and studio, they welcomed friends and acquaintances by the score. Conversation was free-flowing and serpentine; supper generally came late. George in his blue denim boiler-suit made coffee as carefully as he would mix a particular tint of rose pink on his palette, and poured it slowly and with profound concentration, his head on one side, his eyes narrowed against tobacco smoke.

At Heath, Gordon became gradually more circumspect and reflective, and in painting he looked now to lyrical landscape subjects, to emotive portraits of Marianne's elderly parents. While he was light-hearted and loquacious in talk, relishing verbal imagery and playing with English like a new and ever-unfamiliar toy, in his self-portraits Gordon confronts the states of isolation and aloneness with a clear, unsentimental eye. Not for him the nine-to-five in front of the easel, but long nights, on his own, under a light bulb, into the small dark hours confronting himself and his image in the mirror.

It is through the self-portraits that Gordon achieved his most resonant expression. In some he presented himself as asleep, or dead; out-of-body paintings in which he achieves the ultimate detachment from the subject. But Gordon did not repine; instead, his apartness, and his acceptance of the long inevitable wait, bred a body of work in which psychological insight is run through with lyricism, and personal likeness with the tough surface presence of paint.

James Hamilton

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