Peter László Peri

Building Job


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Not on display

Peter László Peri 1899–1967
Concrete and steel
Object: 870 × 510 × 190 mm
Purchased 1988

Display caption

During the 1930s Peri made a number of sculptures of labouring men, based on sketches he’d made in London. This relief shows two workmen supervising the lowering of an I-beam metal girder. The man in the foreground is signalling to the man in the distance to show how the girder should be lowered.

Peri moved to England from Budapest in 1933 and began to exhibit with the Artists International Association. He wrote that his interest was ‘in people, the way they live and their relationships’.  

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T05035 Building Job 1937

Coloured cement and concrete 870 × 510 × 190 (34 1/4 × 20 1/16 × 7 1/2)
Inscribed ‘Peri 37’ b.r. edge of surface of ledge
Purchased from the artist's estate through John Lloyd (Grant-in-Aid) 1988
Exh: Sculpture in Concrete by Laszlo Peri, 36 Soho Square, June 1938 (9, as ‘Building Job’); Laszlo Peri 1899–1967: Arbeiten in Beton. Reliefs, Skulpturen, Graphik, Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin, Jan.–Feb. 1982 (no number, listed p.61 as ‘Lowering the Steel Bar’, repr. p.83); Fighting Spirits: Peter Peri and Cliff Rowe, Camden Arts Centre, Jan.–Feb. 1987 (12, as ‘Lowering the Girder’, repr. p.45)
Lit: Alex Potts, ‘Peter Peri: A Communist Artist in Exile’, Interlink, no.2, April–May 1987, p.27 as ‘Lowering the Girder’; ‘Two Peris for Tate’, The Friend, vol.146, no.4, Jan. 1988, p.106; John Lloyd, ‘Peter Peri Wins Tate Gallery Approval’, Reactor, (house journal of Scott Bader Co. Ltd), March 1988, p.10

‘Building Job’ is a coloured cement and concrete relief. It depicts two workmen supervising the lowering of an I-beam metal girder. The two figures, the tied girder, and the lower ledge are terracotta-coloured cement and the part of a building on which the figure in the background stands is terracotta-coloured concrete. The background sky is grey cement. The pitted texture of the sky contrasts with the surface of the building which is heavily embedded with tiny stones. The two figures and the metal bar, although rough in texture, are much smoother than the background. The modelling of the figures is simplified; the distant figure looks up towards the girder while the figure in the foreground appears to be signalling with his raised hand how the girder should be lowered.

Peter Peri was born Laszlo Weisz in Budapest in 1899. When he was a teenager his family changed their name from Weisz to Peri. Between 1916 and 1917 Peri worked as an apprentice to a stonemason. Around this time he began to move in avant-garde revolutionary circles and to play an active role in seeking social and political changes. In 1920 he travelled to Vienna and then to Paris. Later that year, after being expelled from France for political activities, he settled in Berlin. There he joined a group of exiled left-wing Hungarian avantgarde artists, the most prominent of whom was Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Peri recalled in a short biographical note titled ‘It's the People Who Matter’, written on the occasion of an exhibition of his work held at Lloyd's Gallery, Wimbledon in April–May 1965 [p.1]: ‘I lived at that time in Berlin and started as an expressionist painter and sculptor. Later, I was among the first artists who developed and propagated constructivist art’. In February 1922 Peri and Moholy-Nagy held a joint exhibition at the Der Sturm Galerie in Berlin. Peri showed what he called his ‘Raumkonstruktionen’ (‘space constructions’) and a series of prints. The ‘Raumkonstruktionen’ were abstract, irregularly-shaped reliefs, many of which were made from concrete. Peri also remembered (Lloyd's Gallery exh. cat., 1965), ‘I started in 1920 to use concrete, not casting but modelling direct in the wet concrete, figures, coloured reliefs and painting’. Peri worked in an abstract style until 1924 when he turned his attention to architecture and joined the Berlin City Architect's Department. ‘I believed that the results and experiments of constructivism could best be used and developed in architecture’, he wrote (ibid.). However, by 1929 he had returned to sculpture. ‘My interest in people, the way they live and their relationships to each other was so strong that architecture did not satisfy me and since 1929, I have returned to representational art. The significance of my representational painting and sculpture is, that it follows constructivism, i.e. using all the knowledge I gained through abstract art.’

Owing to the political situation in Germany, Peri fled to England in 1933, leaving behind most of his early work. He rented a flat in Ladbroke Grove, London and then a maisonette at 10 Willow Road, Hampstead. Here he continued to work on his concrete sculptures. F.D. Klingender wrote in an artice entitled ‘Abstraction and Realism’ (Left Review, vol.2, no.9, June 1936, p.473), ‘Since settling in London in 1933 Peri has produced a whole series of groups, figures and bas-reliefs of ordinary men and women and of children directly observed in the various activities of their lives’. In 1938 Peri rented a studio at 28b Camden Street where he worked until about 1966. In 1939 he became a naturalised British subject and changed his name to Peter.

‘Building Job’ was made in 1937 at Willow Road. It is one of a series of relief sculptures in coloured cement and concrete which Peri executed between 1933 and 1938. He showed sixteen of these at his fourth one-man exhibition of sculpture held in an empty building at 36 Soho Square during June 1938. The exhibition was sponsored by the Cement and Concrete Association to publicise the use of coloured cements. The works shown depicted daily life and leisure in London. As the anonymous preface to the catalogue stated, ‘Road workers, builders, charwomen and the street crowds of London are his models’ [p.1].

Peri was not specific about the titles of his works. He believed that the content of his sculptures would be obvious and appeal to the spectator in a general rather than a particular way. In a statement printed on a handout to accompany his exhibition at the Artists International Association Gallery in 1948, Peri wrote, ‘I have not given any titles to the exhibits, as I do not think that it is necessary. I hope the exhibited works explain themselves, without titles’. Nevertheless, Peri often exhibited his sculptures with titles which were usually descriptive. The title of T05035 has been established by reference to an installation photograph of Peri's 1938 Soho Square exhibition. The untitled photograph, which is in the Tate Gallery Archive (TGA 704.1), has been identified as being of this exhibition by reference to the catalogue numbers which are visible on the exhibits in the photograph and which correspond to the works listed in the catalogue. The title ‘Building Job’ also appears on the back of a photograph of the work in the Peri Estate, Brighton. Peri signed and dated the photograph on the reverse below the inscribed title which is in another hand. When first acquired by the Tate Gallery, T05035 was called ‘Lowering the Girder’. This title was allocated by John Lloyd and Heather Peri, Peri's third wife, sometime after Peri's death in 1967 and before the Memorial exhibition held at the Central Library, Swiss Cottage in 1968, at which time the correct title of the relief was unknown.

Peri was in the habit of making swiftly executed black ink sketches of scenes of London life and occasionally used these drawings as the basis for his sculptures. Furthermore, Peri often seems to have planned the design of his reliefs in sketches. There are three preparatory sketches for ‘Building Job’ executed in black ink on one sheet of paper (Hove Museum and Art Gallery, no.P183). These show the design of the relief including the lower ledge and the arrangement of the figures and the girder.

‘Building Job’ is made from coloured cement and concrete. A short description of Peri's working methods is found in the anonymous catalogue introduction to Peri's Soho Square exhibition 1938: ‘Using a mixture of two parts river sand and one part Portland cement, with a small trowel he builds up his figures rapidly and nimbly on their bare wire framework, half-modelling, half-carving to achieve the finer details’. Peri termed his special mixture ‘Pericrete’. In the 1930s Peri used commercially available coloured cements. Thus, the colour was an integral part of the medium, and not a later addition. Peri may also have mixed in additional colour to achieve the particular hue he required. His second wife, Mary, recalled that while working with the cement, it was necessary to keep the material wet, ‘by spraying it with water. He used to have a milk bottle full of water handy and used his mouth as a spray’ (Mary Peri, ‘Between the Wars’, Peter Peri: 1899–1967, exh. cat., The Minories, Colchester 1970, [p.12]). At night Peri would cover the sculpture with a wet sheet. His wife remembered that ‘all this water was not very good for the floor’ at their home in Willow Road (Camden Arts Centre exh. cat., 1987, p.26).

Peri used coloured cement as the medium for his sculpture for a number of related reasons. In 1958 he wrote: ‘My object was to find a medium which hardened during the process of modelling, so that the work kept its original freshness of feeling and revealed the tension of the working process. I therefore discarded clay models and casting and evolved a method of building up figures around a metal structure’ (Peter Peri 1899–1967: Memorial Exhibition - Sculptures and Graphic Work, exh. cat., Central Library, Swiss Cottage 1968, p.15). Furthermore, Anthony Blunt, who knew Peri in the 1930s and was one of the first in England to write about him in a supportive manner, emphasised the modernity of Peri's chosen material and the link between Peri's sculpture and architecture:

Group sculpture is primarily suited either to public monuments or to use in combination with architecture. Further it was this desire to re-establish the proper connexion between sculpture and architecture that led Peri to experiment with the most important new building material as a medium for sculpture. The result has many advantages. Concrete is very cheap; it can be modelled as easily as clay; and it is as hard as stone.

(‘The New Realism in Sculpture’,
The Cambridge Review, 23 April 1937, p.336)

During the 1930s Peri executed a number of other related coloured concrete and cement reliefs of labouring men. These include a work of 1936 also currently titled ‘Building Job’. (The back of a photograph of the work in the Peri Estate is inscribed in another hand with this title, although it is possible that this relief is the work listed in the 1937 Gordon Fraser Gallery, Cambridge catalogue, The New Realism in Sculpture, as ‘Building Workers’.) This relief has a similar vertical composition and depicts two labourers, overseeing the moving of a large container suspended from a crane. ‘The Concrete Mixers’, 1936 (repr. Peter Peri 1899–1967: A Retrospective Exhibition of Sculpture, Prints and Drawings, exh. cat., Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery 1991, fig.1) is a horizontal relief with six workers mixing and moving concrete. ‘Railway Track Repairs’, 1939 (Colchester exh. cat., 1970, [p.18]) has a vertical format with two workers in the foreground laying rail track, two figures watching them from a bridge and a fifth figure walking down the rail track.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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