First published: Fall 2010
Alexander Bogardy’s Catholic religion was a dominant theme of his life. He attended Mass every day and often did simple jobs around the parish house after services. Many of the paintings he completed in the 1960s and 1970s are painstaking, naive renderings of the decorative elements of church interiors with which he was familiar, and frequently combine worldly and sacred motifs in ways that evoke an ancient tradition in religious representation: the secular adornment of holy figures. Bogardy’s interpretations of simple Bible stories and his iconographic renderings of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and angels are marked by their intense colour, form and ornamentation – and often, too, by a fetching fondness for bouffant hair, pancake make-up and black eyeliner.
A Hungarian immigrant, Bogardy lived in Washington, DC. After retiring early on a government disability pension in the 1950s he learned to paint in oil by enrolling in extension art classes. He also studied cosmetology at various beauty schools in the early 1950s. Although it is not clear to what extent he actually practised for money in a bona fide beauty salon, he regularly cut and coloured the hair of several friends and acquaintances.
His painting The Clinic shows a young cosmetology instructor (perhaps Bogardy himself) leading a class in the comb-out technique. The domed Romanesque construction, a framing device which is also found in many of his Catholic paintings, often includes flanking columns reminiscent of the smaller side chapels of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Bogardy painted until the mid-1970s, filling his small apartment from floor to ceiling with his work. Many of his religious paintings were created for private devotion or possibly for atonement for past transgressions. Breaking with representational traditions of the past, few of Bogardy’s angels and Virgins look chaste. In fact, most have brightly coloured nails and toes and their coiffed hair frames dazzling, obviously made-up faces. In one oil painting from the early 1960s, Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread, now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, disembodied heads with unique hair colourings float around the firmament. Clearly, they are fanciful clones of the Clairol hair colour charts once found in every beauty shop in America.