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George Thomas Noszlopy: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Aug 31, 2011

Adrian Hicken, a professor at Bath Spa University in England, is the author of Apollinaire, Cubism, and Orphism (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002).

George Thomas Noszlopy

George Thomas Noszlopy

The sudden death of George Thomas Noszlopy on June 5, 2011, age 78, removes a singular and memorable personality from the ranks of British art historians. A longtime member of CAA and a foundation member of the Association of Art Historians, he made notable contributions to the teaching and dissemination of art history in England for almost fifty years.

For more than a decade at Birmingham Polytechnic, Noszlopy served as course director of an ambitious and challenging master’s degree program of which he had been a principal instigator and architect in the early 1970s. At its height and under his aegis, this department was, perhaps, the largest and one of the most successful for postgraduate study of history of art and design in the country. To this achievement may be added his years of service as a regional convenor and tutor for the Open University and his supervision of many doctoral research candidates, an activity he continued as emeritus professor at Birmingham City University.

Born and educated in Budapest, Noszlopy belonged to a generation formed under two successive regimes: first the right-wing, pseudoparliamentarianism of Admiral Miklós Horthy and then the postwar Stalinism of Mátyás Rákosi and the tragic Imre Nagy. During these years black humor became the language of criticism, if not a technique of survival. Noszlopy was not alone in developing a somewhat wry, sardonic attitude. This was to become mollified later in life with an appreciative embrace of the ironic.

Noszlopy published some poetry while still attending gymnasium, but recognizing these efforts to be too derivative, he turned increasingly to the writing of art criticism and the study of art history. His early work matured in direct contact with major figures such as George Lukács and Robert Berény. Noszlopy shared their desire to search for radical alternatives to the then-dominant Stalinist orthodoxy, an attitude epitomized by his slightly older contemporary at university, the writer, poet, and activist István Eörsi, with whom Noszlopy served in the army.

Noszlopy took his first degree in museology (art history and subsidiary subjects) from Eötvös Lóránd University in 1956. His earliest academic experiences were blighted by his family’s “class alien” designation and the constant investigation of his alleged Trotskyist views. The decision to debar him from all universities and colleges in the country was repealed only after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953.

During the revolutionary fervor of October 1956, Noszlopy was elected to the Revolutionary Committee of the Hungarian Artists’ Association but was soon arrested following the second Soviet military intervention later that year. He escaped from custody and left Hungary, thanks to the sympathetic assistance of an influential friend. Adopting the transitory existence of a stateless individual, he first lived in Vienna, then had a short sojourn in Paris. Noszlopy later remembered this relatively short period, when a single suitcase held his few possessions, as the most intense sense of freedom he had ever experienced.

After Paris, where he was introduced to a circle of scholars around André Chastel, Noszlopy settled in London, having accepted a grant from the Courtauld Institute of Art. He joined the expatriate intelligentsia gathered around the Irodalmi Ujság (Literary Gazette), the organ of the Hungarian Writers’ Union in exile, becoming a regular contributor until 1961 when the editorial office moved from London to Paris. Thus for some five years Noszlopy was an active participant in this cultural milieu, presided over by such established figures as the essayist and editor Béla Szász, the poet and essayist László Cs. Szabó, the poet György Faludy, and the novelist Tamás Aczél. When Gyula Illyés, the pioneer of surrealist and expressionistic leftist poetry from the interwar years and the leading socialist spokesman for the oppressed peasant class, visited England, Noszlopy acted as his guide.

By this time Noszlopy was a student at the Courtauld, where the renowned Hungarian scholar Johannes Wilde was then coming to the close of his tenure as deputy director. Three years after graduating in 1960, and with the support of Leopold Ettlinger at the Warburg Institute, Noszlopy secured a full-time teaching post at Coventry College of Art. Shortly afterward, he moved to a similar position at Birmingham College of Art and remained in Birmingham throughout his subsequent career.

As an art historian, Noszlopy was quick to embrace the methods of Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky. Controversially, while still at the Courtauld, he had extended this methodology to the examination of the iconography of Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, to the displeasure of Anthony Blunt. This approach to early-twentieth-century art became evident in Noszlopy’s subsequent studies and seminars on Guillaume Apollinaire and on allegorical imagery in Cubism. The manuscript of a book, “Robert Delaunay’s ‘La Ville de Paris’ and the origins of Orphic Cubism…,” rested in the hands of a publisher for some time but fell victim to an economic downturn. It never appeared. Had a book been published then (1973) it would surely have secured Noszlopy a deserved position among the early, postformalist revisionist historians of Cubism and Orphism.

In 1991 Noszlopy received a DPhil summa cum laude from his alma mater, Eötvös Lóránd University, in recognition of his research on Apollinaire and art in Paris before 1914. This event was emblematic of the scholar’s emotional and physical reconnection with Hungary and his intellectual roots. After years of enforced absence from the country, the thawing of East–West relations offered opportunities for visits, for renewing old friendships, and for reclaiming treasured family possessions. These rediscoveries catalyzed an essay on Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry and two short monographs: the first on an older contemporary, the painter György Gordon, was followed by one devoted to Gordon’s first wife, the caricaturist Edma (Márta Edinger).

While devoting much time to Renaissance and early-twentieth-century European art, Noszlopy was highly responsive to, and enthusiastic about, aspects of British art and crafts hitherto ignored, undervalued, or maligned by local populations and professionals. His study of the painter Bryan Pearce in 1964 was the first monograph devoted to the artist. This was followed by a “Note on West’s ‘Apotheosis of Nelson’” and essays and lectures on the iconography of Britannia. The four volumes in the series Public Sculpture of Britain, surveying the entire West Midlands of England, which Noszlopy had brought to press since 1998, make a fitting memorial to the humanity and humanistic breadth of a scholar who lived and worked in the region for most of his life.

Filed under: Obituaries