CR Muse: Judit Reigl and the Pursuit of Expression

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

In March of 1950, abstract Surrealist painter Judit Reigl made a daring escape from her native Hungary, which had fallen under the Iron Curtain. Her plan was to head to France. She had no passport—her original one was confiscated two years prior, and applications for a new one were turned down. It took her nine illegal attempts, but she finally succeeded in leaving. “I crossed Europe mostly on foot, or I took my chances by hitchhiking,” she later explained. “At times, I relied on newfound friends who offered me train tickets. I always had fortune in my misfortune!” She finally arrived in Paris in June of that year.

It was not the first time Reigl had left the country. In 1946, as a student of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, she and three friends studied art in Italy on a scholarship. But by the time they returned, a new government regime had stifled creative expression. “They started to commission works from us in the Socialist Realist style,” she said. Anyone familiar with Reigl’s oeuvre of abstracted works can see how far her creative sensibilities were from what the Hungarian government wanted.

Reigl spent her early years in Paris running in Surrealist circles, her work heavily involving the practice of automatic writing and photo collages. Simon Hantaï, a fellow Hungarian artist who met her in Paris when she arrived, eventually introduced her to French writer André Breton, who penned the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. Breton was immediately impressed with Reigl—especially her seminal work “They Have an Insatiable Thirst for Infinity”from 1950—and gave her her first solo show in 1954. But pure Surrealism didn’t fully suit her interests. Soon after the show, she moved toward abstraction and began producing works that injected aspects of physicality.

In the late 1950s, her brushstrokes became more gestural and aggressive. She began using objects—in some cases, even her own body—to paint. Meanwhile, her interests continued to change. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, she shifted her subject matter to the human form, abstracting it by isolating the torso. Throughout the next decade, she explored blocks of color and patterns. In the ’90s, she reverted back to the human form, this time rendering her figures as ghostly outlines devoid of identifying features.

Over the course of her prolific career, Reigl’s work has been featured in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the Tate in London and the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Reigl’s legacy is defined by her refusal to creatively pigeonhole herself: She has never needed anyone else to define her, instead producing work based on her interests and her curiosity. No fascist government nor influential art movement could stifle Reigl’s evolution as a painter.

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