Ilka Gedő – the drama of a sad human destiny

Ilka Gedő (1921 – 1985) is a Hungarian artist of Jewish descent who is not yet well known in international art circles and whose work has yet to be studied, analyzed and understood by art critics and art lovers.

She is a child of Hungarian family of clerks, from Jewish origin. Her parents lived modestly but had wealthy relatives. They tried their best to give good education to their three daughters.

Ilka showed her talent as an artist early on. She started drawing graphics initially (something not quite typical of a child) and took private painting lessons. During the holidays, he has often visited family relatives in the countryside and painted local neighbourhoods, villages and people.

The early graphics of Ilka from her first creative period before the war show an astonishing psychological maturity, observation talent and drawing perfection. Indisputable mastery of the work with perspective, to the extent that she can afford a freely distortion and expressionistic interpretation of the painted objects. The strokes are confident, fast, expressive. Her ability to synthesize what is seen into images is incredible. People, animals, houses are depicted exactly in the required detail. People’s postures are incredibly warm, human and soft. There is no unnecessary touch; Nothing can be added, nothing should be taken away. Her early works inspire comfort and confidence and betray the depth and maturity of an incredible artistic talent. They can be easily and without any exaggeration compared to the graphics of Leonardo and Rembrandt.

At the age of seventeen, Ilka and her family began making plans and exploring the possibility of continuing her studies at the Art Academy in Paris. Although, after consulting an artist, he was adamant that Ilka has reached a level of development that makes academic training unnecessary. According to him, she would prove to be more advanced than her teachers. Her first public artistic appearance was her participation in a common exhibition of the Hungarian Socialist Artists Group in 1942.

At that time her future as an artist seemed foreboding and promising. Then the war expanded and things changed dramatically.

Her family was forced to move to the ghetto in Budapest, and Ilka herself has been twice to be sent to a concentration camp. She was saved by miracle! Ilka spent long, agonizing months in the ghetto.

Her stay in the ghetto is her second creative period. During this time, she painted mostly graphic portraits and small still-life paintings with oil on canvas, due to lack of funds.

Most of the portraits of that time were self-portraits. We see a young, very young woman without a vitality, no body and no age, with deep, very dark eyes faded. As can be seen from her photographs, throughout her life, Ilka herself has been a very beautiful woman – slender, with graceful features and expressive eyes.

Self-portraits from her second creative period in the ghetto clearly show us the drama of a violently interrupted personal development and a highly stressed, frightened youth. Style is increasingly approaching graphic expressionism. The graphics of that time themselves are of very high artistic value, without any doubt.

The third creative period in Ilka Gedő’s life continued from the end of the war until 1949, when she suddenly stopped painting at all. Ilka has been creating nothing new, not a single graphic drawing, not a single painting for sixteen years.

In 1945, Ilka enrolled to study at the Budapest Fine Art Academy. Soon she met the young biochemist Endre Bíró and they married in 1946. Both have two sons – the first born in 1947 and the second born in 1953. Their friendly circle was artistic and intellectual – writers, artists, young scientists. Although Ilka was not very welcomed by her husband’s relatives, the young family did not appeared to be unhappy.

What then happened in the years immediately after the war that stopped Ilka from painting? There are different interpretations.

Some believe Ilka was pressed by the authorities and this was a form of protest. Others – that the circle of avant-garde artists in which she moved after the war did not perceive her style of drawing, which was highly individual and difficult to attribute to a particular style and flow in the visual arts.

Perhaps closest to the truth is the opinion of her son, David Biro, an English translator who reviews his mother’s work and life in a book devoted to her. In this book, David Biro analyzes Ilka’s life in the period after the war, and it seems from the book that her personal views on art and her creative pursuits were the reason for her to stop painting for so long.

In addition to being very talented, Ilka had a strong analytical talent. She was a woman more of logic and observation than of emotion and quick action. For several years, she has undergone so many changes, so profound, that it took her a long time to analyze and summarize them into a lean, consistent system, to “sort out” herself. Ilka gave herself as much time as she has felt necessary – sixteen years!

During these sixteen years, Ilka did not paint, but studied in detail theory and history of fine arts. She read a lot about colour theory, the lives of her beloved artists, and re-read and rethought not only their work, but their written notes and thoughts about art.

And she rosed, like the Phoenix bird, in 1965, when she made her first solo exhibition in a private studio. Ilka was at that time already forty-four years old. Three years earlier, at the recommendation of one of her avant-garde artist friends, the National Art Gallery of Hungary has purchased three of her paintings. The way Ilka returns to the art scene was atypical. The practice of private exhibitions then in Hungary was not common – all art activities have been planned, directed and approved in advance. Not what Ilka did. What she was doing is beyond styles, outside of schools, beyond the standard notions of that time about the way an artist should paint and act.

The last fourth creative period in Ilka Gedő’s life continued twenty years until her death in 1985.

She planned during that time every one of her new works very carefully, initially drawing a sketch in a simple notebook beforehand. She decided in advance what colours and colour combinations to use. Ilka documened  and recorded in detail her ideas for each work in development. Her notes are as valuable and talkative resource for the art critics as her paintings. Typical for her very individual style is that she did not not mix colours, but put them consistently on top of one another in thin layers, looking for the desired effect. The colour combinations she uses are very atypical and rare, her own art innovation.

The Ilka’s works from this period are mostly oil painting on canvas, portraits (mainly self-portraits), still life works, floral paintings. She drew several series of paintings, grouped thematically, such as dried flowers, rose paintings, circus motifs’ paintings, self portraits and some other. Stylistically, the paintings from the last period can be referred to as abstract expressionism.

Perhaps closest to her artistic views and stylistics of her recent years are Paul Klee and Egon Schiele.

What unites these three so different artists? Undoubtedly, the way the war went through them and the way they experienced the war.

It seems that very subtle and sensitive people were simply swept away not only in life, but also psychologically and intellectually by this greatest disaster on Earth. We can only imagine what cheerful motives, colours and moods would have been embodied in their works if the war had not stepped into their lives and had not interrupted their creative development. But this is typical for the art – it does could not exist separately from our common and personal life dramas.

I chose to show you perhaps Ilka Gedő’s latest work called “Double Self-Portrait”. On it we see a fine lady with a hat (sixty-two years old!). She observes with sad reconciliation her other self, her initial ego, her past intention for herself. Is it in the mirror or on a dissecting table? It is difficult to understand. Another one of hers, who was killed by the war.

Pictures of Ilka Gedő can be viewed in this private online resource and in Wikiart here.