György Kepes

Bird and Mastodon


Not on display

György Kepes 1906–2001
Gouache, graphite and engraving on paper
Support: 669 × 546 mm
Presented by Michael and Jane Wilson in honour of Sir Nicholas Serota (Tate Americas Foundation) 2017
On long term loan


Bird and Mastodon is a small scale gouache on paper made by Kepes in the early 1940s. The work depicts a vibrantly coloured bird perched on a curving branch above the skeleton of a mastodon. The mastodon, an extinct species native to Central and North America, is enclosed in a glass cabinet similar to that used in the display of scientific natural history specimens and fossils in a museum. Kepes often took nature as his starting point, highlighting its fragility, however this study also shows his ongoing fascination with the relationship between art, nature and science (see also, Green Leaves and Geometry c.1940s [Tate L03978]). This combination of subject matter can be seen throughout his early practice across different media, including his photograms, camera-less photographic studies in which he used objects from nature such as twigs, leaves and organic forms alongside prisms and mechanical instruments (see Tate P80540, P80542P80544, P80552P80554 for examples).

These works highlight Kepes’s dedication to cross-disciplinary practice in his early career, which continued throughout his lifetime. Born in Hungary in 1906, he began his artistic practice in Budapest and Berlin, where he met and began working alongside László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946). Known as a painter, sculptor, designer, photographer and educator, with a keen interest in the crossover between and innovation of art and science, Kepes was invited in 1937 by Moholy-Nagy to head the light department at the New Bauhaus (later the Institute of Design) in Chicago and then went on to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here his cross-disciplinary practice culminated in the foundation of the Centre for Advance Visual Studies which he conceived and directed until his retirement.

Further reading
Judith Wechsler, Gyorgy Kepes, The MIT Years: 1945–1977, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1978.

Shoair Mavlian
August 2013

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