The exhibition presents a special side of art historian Peter Meller (1923–2008) that is familiar for only a few people. Besides his scientific career, Meller was a passionate draughtsman and made prints with a technique he invented himself. The show displays his most beautiful graphic works, a selection of some seventy pieces from his estate and from private collections.
Peter Meller was born in a Budapest family of intellectuals. His uncle Simon Meller was also an art historian. Peter studied classical philology and art history at the university of Budapest. Following his graduation he was awarded scholarships in Zurich and in Rome, afterwards he briefly worked at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Department of Classical Antiquities in 1948. He was curator of the museum’s Sculpture Collection from 1949 until 1957, when he emigrated with his family. After living in Vienna and Florence for about a decade, he accepted professorship at the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1968 and moved to the USA. Meller became an internationally recognised scholar of Italian Renaissance art, he taught art history at the renowned institution until his retirement.
Meller regularly created prints and drawings but only had them exhibited on a few occasions during his lifetime – he did not aspire to make a name for himself as a graphic artist. His artistic œuvre comprising several thousand pieces was only catalogued after his death. His graphics were exhibited in 2012 in Santa Barbara and in 2013 in London; this is the first time that they are shown to the Hungarian public.
Peter Meller’s graphic works attest to his multi-faceted erudition and complex personality. He was deeply familiar with antique culture, Renaissance art and humanist literature. In his graphic pieces he frequently gave a contemporary rendition of mythological themes and artistic depictions, placing them in a modern context and lending them a peculiar irony. He shows antique gods and heroes as fallible and everyday people, drawn as caricatures; despite quoting antique verses under some of these images, they exuded a rather ’prosaic’ character. His wide-ranging knowledge enabled him to use obscure sources for his themes at times. However, his works can be readily understood by anyone, without any knowledge of art history, which is due to their ironic tone and simple rendering of human relationships well-known from everyday life.
Meller often turned to Hungarian subjects for inspiration as well: he illustrated the English language edition of Sándor Petőfi’s János vitéz (John the Valiant), and designed images for Gyula Krúdy’s Álmoskönyv (Book of Dreams); a selection of these can be viewed at the exhibition.
While in Budapest, he worked in a conservation studio for four months, to which he largely owes his pragmatic approach. He developed novel graphic techniques using the tools available to him. For example, he carved stamps from rubber and printed them in red, alluding to the motifs of antique Greek red-figure vases.
Curator of the exhibition: Professor Robert Williams, Department of History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara
Contributors: art historians Miriam Szőcs and Andrea Rózsavölgyi, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest