LITTLE FALLS - Bela Petheo has always turned an honest, discerning eye on his subjects. But the oil painter can get away with what he calls "brutally frank assessments" because he turns that same eye on himself.
Scattered among the 77 paintings in his career retrospective, "Themes and Variations," at the Great River Arts Center are a handful of self-portraits. The roughly chronological tour around the gallery begins with a young Petheo and concludes with the present-day incarnation.
"Here, the stops are pulled out. This is somebody who is a mature woman who is just facing you and saying, 'OK, here I am, everything is on the table, now you have to move in and see whether I approve of you or not."
"I am 18 here; I am 118 here," joked the St. Cloud-based artist, who is actually a weather-worn but energetic 73, as he completed a tour Oct. 25. "So what happens is you see yourself entirely differently. Still, there is some mileage or compression left in the engine, but by far it's not that situation (of being 18). So we come full circle."
The exhibit includes paintings from 1954 to today, tracing Petheo's life and career from a lad in Budapest, Hungary, to a retired professor who still teaches occasional classes at the GRAA Center.
"She's every-body's sister, a sweet girl who's having her morning coffee."
"In '59, I arrived (in the United States) and became a houseman in Poughkeepsie in upstate New York," Petheo said, his Hungarian accent still obvious. "You have to realize I didn't speak English - quite a few people maintain I still don't - and of course the life of a houseman is not really too glamorous, to say the least."
A short way into the exhibit, he came upon a portrait of himself wearing Marcus Aurelius's armor.
"I was getting desperate and I painted this. Marcus Aurelius was a powerful Roman emperor. You'd think he could have everything - riches, girls, you name it. And he was a philosopher and said, 'Let's face it, life is a rotten proposition no matter who you are. The only thing that you can do is grin and bear it.'"
St. Cloud oil painter Bela Petheo hung a self-portrait with Heidi Steadman, program director of the Great River Arts Association, Oct. 25 at the GRAA Center in Little Falls. An exhibit of his work, "Themes and Variations," opens Thursday. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
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In his early 20s, Petheo departed Soviet-occupied Hungary and blossomed as a graduate student in Vienna, Austria. But when he got to Poughkeepsie, he had to start from scratch.
"I was down in the dumps," he said. "What is the chance for a houseman to continue graduate studies? I made $120 a month. The yearly tuition at Yale, which was practically next door, was $3,000. A Cadillac was $900 a month. I said forget about it. In 10 years, you are going to be the head houseman and be happy with it. Well, things turned out a bit little differently."
At every opportunity, Petheo took a train to New York City and painted people he saw on the street.
Among Bela Petheo's work on display at the GRAA Center's "Themes and Variations" is a portrait of Petheo's friend, Little Falls artist Charles Kapsner (second portrait from left). Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
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"Basically, they are compassionate cartoons," he said of his early portraits. "I just drew everybody I found interesting."
In 1963, he earned his master of fine arts degree from the University of Chicago. He taught at the University of Northern Iowa and later became a professor at St. John's University in Collegeville, where he taught for more than 30 years. He has lived in St. Cloud with his wife, Kathy, since 1972; the couple has two adult daughters.
Bela Petheo's daughters, Kristine and Elizabeth, were among his subjects when they were growing up in St. Cloud. Here are two 1980s-era portraits of Elizabeth.
Petheo also paints still life and landscapes - stuff people can put on their living-room walls - but during a 90-minute conversation, it's clear that his passion is for what he calls "character studies."
If you go
What: "Themes and Variations" by Bela Petheo.
When: Through Dec. 29.
Where: Great River Arts Center, downtown Little Falls.
Events: Opening reception, 6:30-8 p.m. Saturday. Guided tour by Petheo, 3 p.m. Nov. 10.
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays.
Web sites: www.greatart.org, www.belapetheo.com.
Petheo has always been interested in what makes people different, not what makes them similar. He has sometimes angered clients who argue, "You are not a photographer. I came because I don't want to look like my high school photo."
But Minnesotans have come to recognize the artist's talent for painting the truth - for emphasizing details that reveal what a subject is thinking and feeling.
"Yes, you can tell from my portraits if this woman is pretty or not. Certainly if someone looks like the Wicked Witch of the East, she is not coming out like Raquel Welch. There are painters who do this, and this is how they make their money, but it's falsification.
"So a pretty woman is a basic fact, but then the question is this: Would you like to date this one? Then you say, 'Gee, I don't know. She's not so innocent. I better go with the plain Jane.' (The pretty woman) is fantastic, but you'll lose your shirt, you know.
"A lot of people are very embarrassed because they don't want to talk about this. They want to be affirmed in their own self-images, which are 80 percent (inaccurate). I don't tell this to my clients, you know, but they sense it."
JOHN HANSEN may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5863.
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