Dezso Koenig was born in Budapest, Hungary, 1902. He 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.
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.
He died in Johannesburg, 1972.