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.