Peter László Peri

Workers and Soldiers Unite!


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Not on display

Peter László Peri 1899–1967
Etching on paper
Image: 201 × 150 mm
Presented by Peter Peri 2018


This is one of a group of etchings in Tate’s collection in which Peter Peri expressed his acute observation of people on the streets of London (as seen in his early relief sculptures such as Rush Hour 1937, Tate T15116), as well as his active involvement with socialist politics in the war years and their immediate aftermath (Tate P14971P14976). Workers and Soldiers Unite! 1943 (Tate P14971) combines a line of marching soldiers’ boots with a woman and child raising their arms in celebration; workers bearing shovels and pickaxes are seen in the background. The composition is structured by two sets of bold diagonals – the marching feet of the soldiers at the upper edge and the raised arms of the woman and child below. The composition of Workers and Soldiers Unite! echoes Soviet photomontage poster design of the period in its diagonal lines of force and juxtaposition of cropped images of marching military forces and celebrating civilians. Peri’s work was strongly influenced by Soviet ideology: he had been a member of the German Communist Party (KPD) and socialist art organisations when he lived in Berlin from 1923 to 1933 and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain on gaining British citizenship in 1939.

War and Peace 1943 (Tate P14972) is an etching that consists of three images in a triptych format. On the left a British soldier runs to attack a German soldier who has fallen to the ground and holds his arms up to defend himself; in the centre a monumental female figure stands with legs apart raising a young child above her head in a gesture of celebration, with a background of playing children and couples; on the right a young girl’s arms are held by figures who pull her in different directions as she steps over a recumbent figure. The scenes on the left and in the centre clearly represent war and peace respectively, but the image on the right is more ambiguous, perhaps representing an allegory of struggle towards peace with different choices and paths to achieve it. 1943, when this etching and Workers and Soldiers Unite! were made, was a significant year for the Soviet war effort: in February Soviet troops defeated German forces in the battle of Stalingrad, marking a turning point in the battle on the Eastern Front, and these events may have inspired Peri’s etchings.

In Class System 1946 (Tate P14973) Peri used close observation of social difference to make a political point about reconstruction and inequality after the end of the Second World War. On the left a man dressed in a suit and hat stands on the pavement, his hand on his hip, leaning on his umbrella. On the right the same pose is adopted by a man standing in the road, wearing a flat cap, shirt-sleeves and heavy boots, but he leans on a pneumatic drill. The figures are clearly identified as upper class and working class by their clothing, and the composition juxtaposes the idleness of the man standing on the pavement with the active manual labourer ready to begin work, implying their relative contribution to the reconstruction of Britain in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Street Scene 1947 (Tate P14974) depicts a couple walking down the street in lively conversation; the woman carrying a handbag gestures and turns towards the man as she expresses an opinion while the man, dressed in a jacket and flat cap with his hands thrust into his pockets, suggests indifference. A woman leaning against a lamppost with folded arms observes the scene. This etching shows the type of quickly-sketched observations of street life on which Peri’s ‘Little People’ sculpture series was based (see Woman with Arm Folded c.1950, Tate T15117, and Woman with Arms Clasped c.1950, Tate T15118).

Selling the Daily Worker c.1947 (Tate P14975) is an etching that depicts a woman selling the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker with the headline ‘The British Turn to Socialism’. She is standing in front of a factory wall, her baby in its pram temporarily ignored. The Daily Worker reached its peak circulation in the years after the Second World War, when concerns about workers’ rights and inequality inspired many to turn to socialism.

The etching Tyranny 1959 (Tate P14976) depicts three figures tied to a construction of diagonal beams; a fourth has been hanged. The composition combines political statement expressed by figurative means with the abstract architectural constructivist forms that Peri had employed at the start of his career. Although the precise nature of the tyranny is unspecified, it is unlikely that the work is a critique of communism. Peri remained committed to the ideology and actuality of communism as practised in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and this view was unshaken by the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (email correspondence from the artist’s grandson, Peter Peri, to Tate curator Emma Chambers, 10 August 2018). The etching’s combination of architectural forms and figures also relates to the artist’s work in public sculpture in the 1950s, when he received many commissions for schools and public housing in which he combined large-scale figures with architectural settings using unconventional perspectives and viewpoints.

Further reading
London Life in Concrete, exhibition catalogue, 36 Soho Square, London 1938.
Peter Peri: Memorial Exhibition Sculptures and Graphic Work, exhibition catalogue, Central Library, Swiss Cottage, London 1968.
Ray Watkinson, Fighting Spirits: Peter Peri and Cliff Rowe, exhibition catalogue, Camden Arts Centre, London 1987.

Emma Chambers
August 2018

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