A Look Back at the Sweeping Oeuvre of Pierre Székely, Labor Camp Survivor and Surrealist Sculptor

Nov 23, 2016 2:59AM

“Time passes, for it can hardly do otherwise. My sculptures are timeless human signs, whose only reason for existing is to give pleasure.” So wrote the artist Pierre Székely a few years before his death.

He had lived a long life. Born in Budapest in 1923, he died in Paris in 2001. But his life, and his artistic career, were very nearly cut short. In 1944, during World War II, he was detained at a labor camp. He was able to escape—many of his peers, like his mentor, the Hungarian artist Hanna Dallos, were not as lucky—and went on to marry the ceramic artist Vera Harsány and settle in Paris, where he began his career as an artist.

In the first chapter of his new life in France, Székely worked as an artist and poster engraver. Shortly after, he started in sculpture, particularly in stone, but also in wood and metal. He was inspired by Surrealism, a fact that’s evident in early work such as Free standing bar (circa 1950), one of several works on display at Magen H Gallery in New York.

But, as the gallery’s collection shows, the Surrealist period was just the beginning. Székely was an unusually prolific artist whose practice ran the range from ceramics and furniture to public sculpture and interior décor. He insisted that his art existed for the viewer’s enjoyment, and it was his oft-stated opinion that art should be integrated into modern life; indeed, some of his granite sculptures are located in a park in Pécs, Hungary.

It’s impossible to measure exactly how an early brush with death influenced Székely’s life and practice. Yet reminders of that reality—his wartime imprisonment and his enthusiastic reclaiming of life—seem to reverberate throughout his extensive body of work.

Sculpture (circa 1960), an egg-shaped marble sculpture on display at Magen H Gallery, exemplifies Székely’s shifting interests from Surrealism to organic forms. It’s no mistake that it symbolizes birth and life, evoking, for many viewers, a sense of harmony or inner peace. It is, to use the artist’s own words, a timeless human sign.

—Bridget Gleeson

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