Set Design for Georg Kaiser's Gas (1917-1920)

Gunther Gerzso - A New Vision
Gunther Gerzso was born on June 17, 1915 in Mexico City. Gerzso's Hungarian-born father, Oscar, had migrated to Mexico in the early 1890's along with his wife who was a singer and pianist. In 1927, Gerzso was sent to Switzerland to live with his Uncle, an art collector, dealer and art historian. This would be the only formal artistic education that he would receive.

"He had this house in [Lugano] Switzerland...I lived with them and I was surrounded by masterpieces. I wasn't interested but they drilled into me how to look at paintings and what a painting is, and so forth... I suppose during these five or six years that I was there I had to learn something."

"...If we traveled in Italy the first thing was always to go to the museum. You had to stand in front of the paintings and say what you thought and then they explained it to you. And all that was special training."*

While living at his Uncle's estate, he met Italian stage designer Nando Tamberlani, who encouraged Gerzso to become a set designer. His stay in Switzerland ended when his Uncle was forced to sell his estate during the Great Depression. Subsequently, Gunther returned to Mexico to complete his schooling.

In 1934, Gerzso was introduced to another thespian, Fernando Wagner, an actor, producer, and director who worked on productions by authors such as Moliere and Lope de Vega. Wagner was supportive of Gunther's talent and used his set designs for these productions. During the same year, Gerzso became acquainted with Arch Lauterer, a former set designer for the Cleveland Playhouse and professor of Drama at Bennington College, Vermont. Lauterer recognized Gunther's budding talent and recommended he study at the Cleveland Playhouse.

The following year, Gunther moved to Cleveland and began as the Playhouse's set and costume designer. He completed designs for more than 50 plays and it was there that he met two people that would impact his career. The first, was his wife Gene Rilla Cady who was his muse, his support and his lifelong partner. Gene was an actress at the Playhouse and appeared in many productions. Gerzso used Gene as a model for several of his early figure studies. The second was actor/director Thomas Ireland. Thomas greatly admired young Gunther's talent and encouraged him to continue to explore and expand his artistic vision. Thomas Ireland saved and protected over 350 drawings, paintings, watercolors, set and costume designs made by Gunther throughout his 5 years at the playhouse. Today this collection is known as the Colonel Thomas Ireland Collection. He acknolwedged of his friend Thomas as "My first collector".

Gerzso also was encouraged by his friend Bernard Pfriem, an art student in Cleveland, who gave him his first set of oil paints and advised him to dedicate himself full-time, to painting.

"...I never really considered being a painter. It was only later that I... became friends with a young man [the painter, Bernard Pfriem] who made my lunch every day in a delicatessen in Cleveland, Ohio, and he would say, "you should become a painter," and I would say "oh no, no, no" and he would say "oh yes."*

While he was unable to do this, Gerzso made excellent use of the gift by painting as often as possible while he designed for the Cleveland Playhouse. During the summers between the Playhouse's season, Gunther painted in Mexico and continued to develope his style.

Gerzso left Cleveland in 1941 and returned to Mexico City to become a "full-time" artist. He was introduced to Surrealist artists including Remedios Varo, Leonara Carrington, and Roberto Matta who were all living and working there at the time. They all shared admiration for the Paris Surrealist School of Painting and they frequented each other's studios, gathering and sharing their ideas and works.

Because of lack of support, Gerzso had to return to set design and he designed sets for Mexican, French and American Film companies, completing over 250 films.

"Well, I'm going to try to be a painter in Mexico," and I came here with my wife, and of course it was a disaster, because nobody was interested in what I was doing. And it was just by chance that somebody offered me the chance to design a film. So out of economic necessity I accepted this job in the Mexican motion picture industry and I stayed for 20 years."*

It wasn't until 1962 that he was able to retire from the film industry and finally devote himself to full-time painting.

Gerzso's vision was incredibly distinct from other Latin American artists. His European heritage mixed with his love and devotion to Mexico, the country he called home, set him apart from his contemporaries.

"Yes, but I live in Mexico and I'm a Mexican citizen, even though I'm not Mexican by blood, and there should be something that I can interpret about this country and everything that it offers visually and aesthetically, in a new way. Not like Diego Rivera, Orozco, or Siqueiros... There should be something else."*

Gerzso lived in Mexico City until his death on April 20, 2000. Survived by his wife Gene, two sons Michael and Andrew and a legacy of work that offered an independent interpretation of Mexico while creating an entirely new aesthetic vision for each generation to discover.

*Excerpts from a radio interview by Lotte Mendelsohn, Mexico City, January 1981, Transcribed and edited by Mary -Anne Martin, New York City, September 2000, and published by Mary-Ann Martin Fine Art for the exhibition "Gunther Gerzso: In His Memory".

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