Istvan Banyai to speak at Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge


STOCKBRIDGE -- In one drawing by Istvan Banyai, a Hungarian-born illustrator whose work is now being shown at the Norman Rockwell Museum, a red-headed young lady with a rakish straw hat looks out to sea where a sailboat drifts off in the distance. Oddly, though, she leans forward, resting her hands on the horizon of the water as though she were leaning on a table.

This bit of whimsy, a first draft of a cover drawing for the New Yorker magazine, is typical of the wry and witty drawings that have made Banyai a favorite in the pages of sophisticated publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Playboy and the Atlantic Monthly.

The dozen covers Banyai has done for The New Yorker magazine demonstrate his ability to combine graceful imagery with subtle yet provocative narratives. One cover drawing shows a young man carrying his sweetheart out into a lake for a moonlight swim. At the edge of the beach is a hand written "No Trespassing" sign, which suggests that romance trumps the silly, arbitrary rules that constrict society.

The clarity, simplicity and humor of Norman Rockwell's artwork has had a powerful impact on Banyai.

Banyai knew about and admired Rockwell when he was in college in Hungary. Defying the dictates of the repressive Communist regime, a professor brought a book of Rockwell's art into class. Banyai was intrigued by the painting "Going and Coming," which showed an American family going both ways on a car-trip vacation -- happy and anticipatory going out and weary and dejected coming home.

"I have goosebumps," Banyai said at the opening of his solo show, "Stranger in a Strange Land," at the Norman Rockwell Museum. "It's truly bizarre to think I'm now hanging in this museum with the great Norman Rockwell's paintings hanging on the other side of the wall."

Though he now lives and works in a comfortable rural home in Connecticut with serene woodland views out his studio window, Banyai's journey from his native Hungary to the Norman Rockwell Museum has been a rough road.

After the failed "uprising" in Hungary in 1956, the Communist government crushed the country's dissident art community and forced the country's rebellious artists to go underground. As a 1973 graduate of the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, Banyai had the skills and ambition to create his own brand of art.

Not surprisingly, the Soviets didn't like what Banyai drew. So he made a run for freedom and resumed his career in Paris. Unable to get citizenship in France, he then traveled to the United States in the mid-1980s and worked in Los Angeles and New York City, where he developed his distinctive style and found his niche in the world of visual commentary.

The title curator Martin Mahoney gave the exhibition -- "Stranger in a Strange Land" -- reflects Banyai's itinerant history and his role as an outsider in the artistic sense.

"Coming by way of Budapest and Paris," Mahoney said, "Banyai could see the United States and its pop culture, politics and national identity with a somewhat removed, bemused and sarcastic gaze."

Banyai's work crackles with energy and soars with imagination. Steven Heller, a New York City art director and author of art books, described Banyai as "perpetually in a state of creative lunacy that only a gifted artist can achieve."

And in this state Banyai takes liberties with time, space, point of view and perspective. In Banyai's world, nothing is what it seems.

He describes his work as "an organic combination of turn of the century Viennese retro, interjected with American pop, some European absurdity added for flavor, served on a cartoon-style color palette."

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However his art is described, it clearly reaches beyond commercial illustration and moves him into the territory of fine art.

Banyai's illustrations often make sharp commentaries on issues that are changing the contemporary world. In a cover for Atlantic Fiction Magazine, a man stands by his fireplace reading his Kindle while his books go up in flames. The piece dramatizes Banyai's feeling that people are making books irrelevant in a world where endless information is available electronically in the palm of the hand.

Banyai reinforced the meaning of his drawing when he said at his show's opening, "wait until they pull the plug on electricity .. and the books are all gone."

If you go ...

What: 'Evening with Istvan Banyai'

Where: Norman Rockwell Museum, Route 183, Stockbridge

When: Saturday, 5:30 p.m.

Information: (413) 298-4100,

What: 'Stranger in a Strange Land,'

solo show of work by Istvan Banyai

Where Norman Rockwell Museum.

When: Through May 5

Museum open daily, weekdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.



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