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To leaf through the books that Willy Pogány illustrated is to journey through his style and development as an artist. Few commercial illustrators could have been as adaptive, or as willing to work with a composite of new tasks set before them. Willy Pogány met each assignment and artistic challenge head-on, without feeling hampered by self-imposed restrictions. It is fairly safe to say, after examining the length and depth of Pogány's career, that what he was most comfortable with was change, and no creative endeavor was beyond his reach.
Willy Pogány was born August 24, 1882, in Szeged, Hungary, into a farming family. When he was still a boy, his parents moved the family to Budapest, where Willy attended his earliest schooling before studying at the Budapest Technical School for Engineering. After less than a year, Pogány changed his pursuit to one that came more naturally to him—art. After a short stint in an art school in Budapest, Willy was off to find more challenges—first a brief stay in Munich, and then some study in Paris, where he would live for the next few years. Later, he did some steady caricature work for the French publication, Le Rire. Pogány caught a solid break when, in 1905, he landed work for the British publisher, Dean & Son, to do an illustrated book project entitled The Romance of Lohengrin. Though this book is generally accepted as being Pogány's first featured edition, it is actually found under the name Sarcadi Pogány. However, the name does not ever surface again. Soon after, Pogány would receive more book work, and the logical place for him to pursue this was in London, the publishing capital of Europe. When Pogány arrived there in 1904, the book publishing industry was really taking off, and British publishers were looking for additional talent to illustrate a variety of reprinted children's classics. The material was much to his liking, and he was certainly in the right place at the right time. London became Pogány's home for the next ten years.
The decade that Willy Pogány spent in London is considered by many to be his finest years in regard to book illustration. They are—without opinion—the most productive years he spent doing book illustration and design. During this period, Pogány worked on an astounding sixty-five separate published works, many containing nearly one hundred illustrations, or more. On a personal level, it was in England that Pogány met and married Lillian Rose Doris, and within a few years, his first son, John, was born. The good life that Pogány had found in London was to be temporary, though. Pogány worked tirelessly, and there was plenty of work to be had; the circumstances would not be the same after the outbreak of World War I.
When the war broke out, publishing—like many other industries—changed dramatically, and the work that had been so plentiful was greatly reduced. There was also some difficulty being a Hungarian national living in London. America's policy of "absolute neutrality" at the advent of the war made it the right time to explore business connections across the Atlantic, in New York.
Upon his arrival in New York, Pogány had already found a niche for himself, and he was warmly welcomed by American publishers. One of the first major works he tackled in the United States was More Tales from the Arabian Nights by Frances Jenkins Olcott. The volume has a distinctly different look to it, most likely due as much to the different publishing environment as it was to Pogány's new surroundings.
Professionally, Pogány found even greater prospects in New York than he had abroad. Entirely new avenues of creative work opened up, and he took every opportunity to explore them. His family would grow as well, with a second son, Peter, being born in New York. In 1917 Pogány began working for the Metropolitan Opera, and he would be part of their design team for the next five years. This led to more design work for other theaters as well. Pogány was in high demand as a set designer, art director, and muralist. Some of Pogány's murals are still in existence today, but many have fallen to the ravages of time. From the early 1920s, Pogány created wall and ceiling pieces for a long list of clients, many of whom were at the highest end of society. Some of the more significant mural pieces that Willy Pogány designed and created were executed for the Heckscher Children's Theater in 1922, the Niagara Falls Power Company and the Ritz Tower in 1926, and the Ziegfeld Theater in 1927. The privileged circles that Pogány worked within also brought him personal clients of great wealth—he would create murals at the residences of John and Mable Ringling—of circus fame—in Sarasota, Florida, and for William Randolph Hearst's summer compound in Mt. Shasta, California.
While these grand-scale projects became a larger part of Pogány's creative output, he had also continued to produce illustrations for books, magazines, and advertising. In America, as in Europe, the publishing industry had shifted as a result of the Great War, and the extravagant production expenses that had been allowed in the years leading up to the war were not to be seen again. As entertainment for adults began to turn to radio and film, the illustrated book became primarily relegated to the children's section. Serious book projects were fewer, and the material became more limited.
The interest that Pogány had in large-scale works made it a natural progression for him to go from stage design in the 1920s to film sets, and then on to Hollywood. Again, he met with success as a designer and art director, at first with musicals, and then with films of a wide range, including Boris Karloff's The Mummy, in 1932. Pogány worked in and around Hollywood until the late '30s, eventually working for most of the major studios, even doing some animation. After divorcing his first wife in 1933, he married writer Elaine Cox, with whom he would later co-write Peterkin in 1940.
In Pogány's later years, he worked on books less frequently, spending his creative time with a wider variety of projects. A long-standing run with the Hearst publication, American Weekly, emerged in the 1940s, giving him weekly painting assignments on some inspiring subjects—a series titled "Ten Tales from the Kalevala," another on the "Temptations of Ulysses," and yet another on the "Beauties of Shakespeare." He worked steadily for the weekly publication up until 1949.
The last creative turn that Pogány's work was to take was toward portraiture. It is evident in some of the figurative work that he did forAmerican Weekly that he was enjoying this type of expression. In all of the years that Pogány had worked in theater and movies, he had accrued an extensive resume full of high-profile figures who thought well of him and his work. He did portraits of many of Hollywood's elite, such as John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Carole Lombard. Back in New York, he did at least three of the official portraits of the city's mayors, among them, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Vincent R. Impellitteri, and Robert F Wagner, Jr.
In 1944, Pogány and Philadelphia publisher David McKay reminisced on what Pogány had accomplished in his career, and how he had done it. Though there is no record that Pogány ever taught in a formal manner, McKay helped him compile a very solid book on drawing instruction. It discusses a constructive approach to anatomy and touches on perspective. Its later editions feature a gallery of Pogány's studies from various points in his career. The book is still in print some sixty years later. It was also successful enough that two other volumes followed, Water-Color Lessons, in 1950, and Oil Painting Lessons, in 1954.
Pogány and his wife were living back in New York in the 1950s, and the artist had little interest in retirement of any kind. Mere hours before his passing in 1955, he was still working on stage sets for several Broadway productions.
The incredibly prolific output that Pogány managed in his long career, and the degree of success that he achieved in the various directions he explored, helped Willy Pogány become one of the most successful commercial illustrators of the twentieth century
Jeff A. Menges May 2009
Excerpted from Willy Pogány Rediscovered by Jeff A. Menges. Copyright © 2009 Jeff A. Menges. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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