Géza Kende (Hungarian-American, 1889-1952) painter and sculptor primarily known for his portraits and figures including religious and Native American subjects, as well as landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, interiors and sculpted busts. Kende was born in Nagybekcskerek, Torontál, Kingdom of Hungary on January 5, 1889 (now Zrenjanin, Serbia) to father Frank Kende and mother Ilona (née Szabo) Kende. From 1904-05, he studied painting at the Hungarian National Royal School of Applied Arts (now Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design), and then at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, both in Budapest, as well as in Vienna, Munich, Rome and Paris. Early in his career, he exhibited at the Art Hall and also the National Salon (Since 1908), also in Budapest. From circa 1908-1914, Kende maintained a studio in Paris where he made an early name for himself as a portrait painter, until he was recalled to Hungary at the outbreak of WWI.
During WWI, Kende served as an officer in the Hungarian Army, but after the war ended in 1918, he renounced his allegiance to his native country believing that the atmosphere of the new republic wasn’t conducive to good art. In 1919, at the age of thirty, Kende married Emma Kende (1891-1977). In 1921 he immigrated to the U.S and settled in Buffalo, NY, with his wife following the next year. Kende believed Buffalo would be a ‘good art city’ and stated, “The time is coming, when love of art will be universal, and American people will have their portraits painted as now they have their photographs taken.” The couple resided at 732 Jefferson Avenue and he maintained his studio at 800 Genesee Street in Buffalo.
Kende specialized in portraits, and his paintings were sought after by many wealthy patrons, prominent citizens and civic leaders. A portrait of former Buffalo Mayor, George Sturgess Buck (1875-1931, served 1918-1922) is in the City Hall portrait collection. Kende was a member of and exhibited regularly with the Buffalo Society of Artists at the Albright Art Gallery in their annual and ‘Thumb Box’ exhibitions (1922-27, Honorable Mention 1924 & 1926), and was also a member of the Arts Club of Buffalo. In 1927, Kende exhibited with a group of artists at the newly built Town Club of Buffalo in their theater, ballroom and drawing room, under the direction of fellow Buffalo artist Florence Julia Bach (American, 1887-1979). At the time, it was said that it was the first gallery to be maintained by any club in Buffalo for the benefit of local artists.
Kende was active in Hungarian community, as well as a distinguished member of the Hungarian League of Buffalo and Hungarian Culture Club of Buffalo. In 1924, he was commissioned to sculpt a portrait bust of Hungary’s “National Poet” Sándor (Alexander) Petofi (Hungarian, 1823-1849). Kende offered his services free of charge and the bust was installed in Buffalo’s Riverside Park with a pedestal base designed by architect Frank A. Spangenberg (American, 1888-1932). Unfortunately in 1989, the bust was stolen and was replaced in 1992 with a new sculpture by noted painter and sculptor Gabriella F. Koszorus-Varsa (Hungarian-American, 1916-2007).
Other paintings by Kende could be found in many Buffalo buildings and churches, including the altar painting titled, “The Ascension”, which was painted for St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at 285 Hickory Street in Buffalo (hung November, 1924). On October 23, 1927, Kende was honored with a ‘Silver Service’ presentation by the First Hungarian Educational Society of Black Rock in Buffalo, NY, which held a dinner and farewell reception before his departure to Los Angeles, CA to work for a film company. Kende and his wife visited Buffalo frequently and also continued to maintain a home and studio on Bidwell Parkway in Buffalo during the mid 1930’s, as well as in Los Angeles, CA, at 340 N. Beachwood Dr. (1937-1938), and later 1123 N. El Centro Avenue.
Kende was also a member of and exhibited with: The California Art Club (1943-44, 1946-47, and Memorial 1952), Society for Sanity in Art (LA Chapter, Prizes 1943-45), American Artists Professional League (Prize 1945), Los Angeles Painters & Sculptors (Medal 1945), the Society of Western Artists, and the American Artists Professional League (Prize 1945). Other exhibitions included: The Ebell Salon (1944), the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (1945), the Oakland Art Gallery (Medal 1946), Santa Cruz Art League, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Kende’s work is in numerous private, public and museum collections including: The Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY, the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, Hungary (two still lifes and “The Christ” c.1932), located in the Midnight Mission Chapel, Los Angeles, CA, and “St. Stephen among the Gentiles”, in St. Stephen’s Church also in Los Angeles. In 1942, During WWII, Kende was registered for the draft, but it is unknown if he served. Kende died suddenly at his home from a heart attack at the age of sixty-three on February 2, 1952 and is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA. His wife Emma passed away on December 1, 1977, at the age of eighty-six and is also buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA.
Kende’s most-famous portrait was that of legendary film star and fellow Hungarian, Bela Lugosi (Hungarian-American, 1882-1956), famous for playing the iconic Dracula in the 1931 film. Lugosi and Kende were friends, and Lugosi commissioned the large full-length portrait (61” x 47”, oil on canvas) in 1932 at the height of his fame, and it hung proudly in his home until his death in 1956. That painting sold in 2004 for $82,250 and is currently in the personal collection of famous rock musician Kirk Hammett, guitarist for the rock band Metallic. Lugosi also owned another painting by Kende, an ‘infamous nude’ that Lugosi had commissioned of the famous silent film star Clara Gordon Bow (American, 1905-1965), with whom he had a brief affair. Their relationship made headlines in November 1929, as Lugosi’s third wife Beatrice Weeks had told a reporter about the affair after filing for divorce. The painting of Clara Bow was purportedly painted from Lugosi’s memory of Clara, as it wasn’t thought that she had modeled nude for Kende. The potent memories Lugosi had of Clara were enough to keep the painting hung in his home, even during his next two marriages. That infamous painting of Clara recently sold at auction for $30,000 in 2013. Other well known portraits include the famous American actress and comedian, Lucille Ball (1911-1989) in 1939, one of actress, singer and Broadway star Mary Martin (1913-1990), which was used in her 1941 film New York Town, and General Douglas MacArthur (1942) which was also reproduced as an art print.
(Written & compiled by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, Inc., 478 Main Street, East Aurora, NY 14052, meibohmfinearts.com, sources: Too long to list and are furnished upon request.)