Dezso Koenig emigrated to South Africa from Hungary in 1931. After his training at the Hungarian Academy in Budapest he won a scholarship which allowed him to study further in Germany, France and Italy. Although he exhibited frequently in South Africa, as well as in New York, Paris, Milan, Israel and London, where he received glowing reviews in the British Press, his reputation has been obscured since his death in Johannesburg in 1972.
During the Second World War Koenig served in the South African Army Medical Corps. He started the first art therapy courses for wounded soldiers in Egypt and ran art and crafts courses for them during the desert campaign against the Germans in North Africa. After the war he continued running such therapy courses for convalescent soldiers back in Johannesburg. In 1948 he was a founder member of the Brush and Chisel Club and was also active in the Transvaal Art Society.
Koenig was determinedly a figurative painter, concentrating on figure studies, still life, landscape and especially the urban landscape. A few of his non-South African works reveal a nostalgia for his Eastern European origins and a flirtation with a modernist style vaguely reminiscent of Marc Chagall. His preference for figuration would account for his poor representation in South African art museum collections, since the period of his greatest activity here coincided with the belated arrival of Modernism, abstraction and formalist taste in official art circles. His painting would have been easily dismissed as merely ‘illustrative’ at this time, and would have fitted what Esmé Berman defined as ‘popular art’ in her book Art and Artists of South Africa, published a year after Koenig’s death in 1973; a publication from which he was completely omitted.
Next to the factory (plate 67) is a typical example of Koenig’s rendering of the urban South African scene. It is notable as a white artist working under apartheid that his vision did not exclude depicting the realities of ‘township’ life. His urban scenes showed not only the more prosperous areas of urban Johannesburg with a high proportion of black people on the streets, but also the cramped and impoverished conditions of the so-called ‘townships’. Such works depicting the life of black South Africans and described in local journals as ‘African’ or ‘native studies’ were the very ones which attracted most interest and commendation when exhibited abroad. Koenig’s vision has obvious affinities with the work of Gerard Sekoto (qv.) in the late 1940s and for that reason the work of this foreign-born white artist seems to find an appropriate place in the Campbell Smith Collection.
Born Budapest, Hungary, 1902; died Johannesburg, 1972. Training 1914 – 1917: Hungarian Royal Academy, Budapest. Exhibitions 1918 onwards: Group shows in Europe, Britain and Egypt. 1937: Durban Art Gallery (first of many solo Exhibitions in SA until 1972). 1955: Solo exhibition at the Imperial Institute, London. 1970: Marjorie Bowen Gallery Johannesburg. 1972: Garlicks Department Store, Carlton Centre, Johannesburg. Collections Pretoria Art Museum; Museum Afrika, Johannesburg; SA National Museum of Military History.
This recently-acquired portrait of a young black man by Koenig (plate 15) is now the second work by him in the Campbell Smith Collection (See ReVisions, plate 67, p. 111). Like many similar portraits painted by the likes of Neville Lewis and Emily Fern (see ReVisions, pp. 98-9, 116-17 respectively) and other white South African artists, the title of the work makes no reference to the sitter. Adding to the mystery of this portrait is also the item of ‘tribal’ beadwork worn by the sitter. It conforms to none of the known conventions of beadwork by any of the Southern African groupings. 1 As such, and for the time being, it must be assumed to have a non-South African origin. Within the tradition of the ‘native study’ in South African art (see entry on Constance Greaves in this catalogue on p. 16 and references elsewhere in ReVisions), it was often typical on the part of a white artist to dress a ‘native’ sitter with suitable beadwork with little or no understanding of the complex traditions from whence these objects derived. All of this was done to ‘exoticise’ and ‘other’ the black subject of the painting.
- This is the present opinion of both Carol Kauffmann and Nessa Leibhammer, respective curators of African art at the Iziko SA National Gallery and the Johannesburg Art Gallery.