Peter’s work deals with an immense range of subject matter, but most of his images can be grouped into a few easily recognizable categories. Most common, perhaps, are individual figures or faces, character studies that he, using Italian, called tipi (types) or caratteri (characters). Young and old, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, fortunate and unfortunate, they constitute an extended survey of human experience as revealed in both the enduring structures of character and transient emotional states. Several of the images already considered fall into this category: Mermaid Combing her Hair, Old Man with Folded Hands , and Happiness. Peter also sought to reveal the workings of human nature in the many images of two figures interacting with each other that he classified as coppie (couples). These range from the amusing to the heartwarming, but also explore the darker themes of emotional dependency, domination, submission, and abuse. An example already mentioned is Old Man Struggling with Death, others are discussed in what follows. He also illustrated scenes involving larger groups of figures, landscapes, townscapes, plants, and animals, bringing his distinctive vision and skill to all of them.
As one would expect of someone trained in the classics, themes from ancient mythology, history, and philosophy figure importantly in Peter’s work. He depicted many of the well-known characters and stories: they were living things to him, absolutely essential points of reference in any attempt to make sense of the world, and he tended to see echoes of ancient personalities and situations in the people and events around him. He often treated them in a comical way. Modern art contains many parodies of ancient themes: one thinks, for instance, of Honoré Daumier’s hilarious series of prints, L’Histoire Ancienne (Ancient History), in which Greek and Roman stories are enacted by modern Parisians. Peter was aware of such images and his humor is sometimes similar, but it is usually more subtle, more truly ironic. However funny Antiquity can be made to seem in light of modern life, it also offers us things that the modern world cannot; it remains a touchstone of the good, the beautiful, and the true. The perspective it offers us is an antidote to the banality of our day-to-day existence, and a crucial resource in our struggle for spiritual survival.
The Cupid who aims his bow upward indicates that though he is small, he has great power: in the words of the Greek poet Moschus, “His hands are tiny but they shoot a great distance.” The image of Pandora evokes the old idea, present in Greco-Roman myth as in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, that women are the source of all human misery.
The Roman emperor Nero, vain as well as cruel, was not content with power, but desperately wanted to be admired for his skill as a singer and actor. In Peter’s image, the tyrant stares in frustration at a comic mask, symbolizing the theater, which seems to glare back at him in vengeful mockery. Even emperors cannot have everything they want, and success in art may be more desirable and difficult to achieve than all other forms of worldly success.
Pygmalion was a sculptor who made a statue of an ideally beautiful woman and fell in love with it; he prayed to Aphrodite, goddess of love, to bring it to life, and his wish was granted. Peter’s version, which began as a stamped print but was refined in photocopied form, is one of his most brilliant inventions, capturing the spirit of Greek vase painting even while transforming it in a modern way. The individual figures are vividly characterized but the expressive magic lies in their relation to one another, the manner in which even the space between them seems charged with sexual energy, so that the image as a whole expresses the astonishment of instantaneous mutual attraction.
The dark side of desire, on the other hand, is represented by Revenge, in which a haggard looking man prepares to clip the wings of a harpy. As brilliant a graphic design as the Pygmalion, it bristles with rage and fear, capturing the especially bitter and violent intensity of emotions associated with erotic vulnerability.
One of Peter’s most beautiful creations depicts The Worship of Venus. The goddess is placed atop a column, high above her devotees and the city behind them, standing on an orb to symbolize her universal power. The composition derives from Renaissance depictions of the same theme, but while the style has all the humor of Peter’s other stamped images, its symmetry and hierarchical order give it a monumentality that looks back, past the Renaissance examples, to the magnificent opening lines of De Rerum Natura, the great philosophical poem of Lucretius. Most of the ambitious poems of antiquity begin with an invocation to one or more of the Muses, but Lucretius begins his with a prayer to the goddess of love herself, whom he regards as the source of all life:
Mother of Aeneas and his race, delight of gods and men,
Bountiful Venus . . .
. . . enthralled by thy charms,
All creatures gladly follow where thou steppest forth
To lead them . . .
For thou alone dost govern all things in nature . . .
Since, in these lines, Lucretius also pleads for the help of the goddess in composing his poem, Peter’s image should be understood as a similar plea on behalf of his art.
Peter made use of a late sixteenth-century artist’s handbook, Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, for his beautiful image of Imaginazione (Imagination): a woman standing with her hands crossed over her breast, wings at her head, and a crown with many tiny figures in various poses. Ripa explains that the wings and crown symbolize the volatility and abundance of the imagination, “whence arise a thousand thoughts and perturbations.” Peter follows the model closely, except that, where Ripa wants the woman to be looking upward toward heaven, Peter shows her with her eyes closed: the effect of blissful, exalted concentration on her inner world, of the quiet strength necessary to quell those thousand perturbations, says a great deal about Peter’s experience of his own imagination and what he thought it means to be an artist.
A work of Hungarian literature seems to have inspired a pair of delightful pencil and marker drawings, Old Woman Ironing and Old Tailor. In Son of William Tell, a photocopy on colored paper reworked with marker and correction fluid, Peter illustrates a Swiss legend also of special significance to Hungarians, and draws upon his own experience as a victim of both fascism and communism to produce an image that brilliantly juxtaposes humor and terror in perfect ironic reciprocity.