Vibrant colours, recurring motifs: The illustrious career of Ilona Keserü 

Ilona Keserü, Kossuth and Munkácsy Prize-winning painter and graphic artist, an inevitable figure of Hungarian contemporary art, celebrated her 90th birthday in 2023. She is the artist who continues to influence generations of painters to this day. Her work has been recognised not only in Hungary but also internationally. The MNB collection also has several of her important works. 

Ilona Keserü at the MNB Arts and Culture exhibition “Colour power”

The creations of Ilona Keserü at the MNB Arts and Culture exhibition “Colour power”

This year several exhibitions commemorated Ilona Keserü’s career spanning seventy years. In the spring, the Q Contemporary museum presented a retrospective exhibition titled ALL, which included a loan from the collection of Central Bank of Hungary also. Two exhibition venues, the Hungarian National Gallery and the Kisterem Gallery, have timed the opening of an exhibition of the artist’s works to coincide with her birthday, 29 November. The MNG (Hungarian National Gallery) presented an exhibition of her graphic oeuvre – works on paper, drawings and reproductions of her prints – while the gallery representing the artist presented a photographic exhibition commemorating the life and work of Ilona Keserü. This year, we have hardly had a day without an exhibition of Keserü. 

The outstanding creator of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde, the only female artist in the Iparterv exhibitions, she was born in Pécs in 1933 and, according to the family legend, she has been drawing ever since she picked up a pencil at the age of one. She graduated from the Secondary School of Visual Arts (“Kisképző” as commonly called) in Budapest, but her most important master was always Ferenc Martyn, the influential artist of major stature from Pécs. She started taking drawing lessons from Martyn at the age of 13, stayed in contact with him throughout and gained a lot from his teaching, his way of thinking, his observational and constructive approach. She began her studies at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in 1952, first being accepted into the painting class of László Bencze, then after three years she transferred to István Szőnyi, who taught her fresco painting at the Epreskert, finally graduating in 1958.

A creation of Ilona Keserü at the MNB Arts and Culture exhibition titled Image-writing in Abu-Dhabi

In the early sixties, she was part of an inspiring intellectual community, she belonged to a group of friends that included the Hungarian literary figures Géza Ottlik and Dezső Tandori. From 1962, she spent a year in Rome, again with the help of friends, but in the end, she also received an Italian state scholarship. She was very much influenced by Italian culture, recording her impressions in drawings instead of photographs. Rome synthesised her experiences and helped her find her own artistic voice. Surprisingly, her first solo exhibition was not even in Hungary but in Rome, in 1963.

In the 1960s, Keserü’s process of observing and capturing the environment transformed her vision into an intuitive painting of colour and signs that expressed inner feelings. Her drawings during her first stay in Rome were still about capturing the visible world, but from the 1960s onwards she gradually turned her attention to abstraction. Her works soon began to show the wave lines that were so characteristic of her, which became fully developed in 1967. In that year she found a small Baroque-era cemetery in Balatonudvari, and the heart-shaped gravestones she saw there inspired perhaps the most distinctive motif of her oeuvre. The curved gravestone shape became a recurring iconic motif in her career, reappearing again and again in paintings, prints and, in the 1970s, in the form of embossed canvases. These lines became internal, and at the right moment the movement that created them was set in motion, as a kind of basic “Keserü-gesture”. The gravestone motif has travelled a grand journey, in the realistic and symbolic sense at the same time, from the cemetery at Balatonudvari to New York. In 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a four-metre-wide hand-stitched tapestry inspired by the gravestones of Balatonudvari from Ilona Keserü.

The creations of Ilona Keserü at the MNB Arts and Culture exhibition titled “Folded – Unfolded”

In 1965 she began to create gesture paintings, which she numbered, and it was in the second half of the sixties that the colours began to take on a life of their own in her work. Eventually, structure and elementary movement appeared in the images, and all was transformed into some kind of symbolic system. In her diary, she mentioned that someone brought her eight types of red paint from Paris, and this is when her series of red paintings began, the first of which were praised by Lajos Kassák at the legendary Studio ’66 exhibition.

The creations of Ilona Keserü at the MNB Arts and Culture exhibition titled “Liquid Slices of Time”

The research of colours, which began in the late sixties, became Keserü’s artistic programme, but to this day it is an ongoing period her art, hence an integral part of the creative process. Ilona Keserü’s name is inextricably linked with the use of bright, vibrant colours, but there is a scientific, artistic experimentation behind this. Since the 1980s, she has been curious about the maximum colour intensity that can be extracted from paint, the spectral locus and the shades of rainbow colours, as well as the pure colours of refraction. The research of colour has branched out in many directions in recent decades, launching new chapters in her oeuvre. One of these directions is the eight-colour form creating a Möbius strip in space. Keserü combined the eternally intertwining Möbius strip with the infinite range of colours and used this colour-Möbius as a demonstration object in her teachings. Later she noticed the resonance between the colours of human skin and the colours of the rainbow when she watched her own hand holding the brush as she painted.

Ilona Keserü’s work at the Q Contemporary retrospective exhibition titled “MIND”

Later, she was interested in the so-called afterimages. The phenomenon we all know, the sight of light and shadow behind the closed eyelids, so named by the artist, is what we perceive when we close our eyes after the strong light effect. The visual illusions created by the sunshine, the experience of colour created by the afterimages, resulted in new beautiful paintings.

The culmination of colour research was the 1997 Scientific Conference on Art in Pécs, organised by Ilona Keserü and physicist György Grüner.

At the end of the seventies, she became a permanent collaborator in the Szentendre graphic workshop, where she made numerous silkscreen prints. Keserü learned screen-printing from András Mengyán, they were both members of the Pesti Műhely.

The creations of Ilona Keserü at the MNB Arts and Culture travelling exhibition titled “The Journey – János Fajó and the Pesti Műhely” in Beijing

Travel has always played an important role in Ilona Keserü’s life, and despite her extended stay in the 1960s, she did not return to Rome until 2001, but on her second visit she had another important experience. In the changed „Eternal City”, in search of her memories of nearly forty years ago, the newly restored Sistine Chapel had the strongest impact on her: the bright colours of the cangiante painting style set her off in a new direction. This renaissance technique of leaps between colours was the subject of several exhibitions in Keserü’s work in the 2000s. 

The creations of Ilona Keserü at the MNB Arts and Culture travelling exhibition titled “The Journey – János Fajó and the Pesti Műhely” in Shanghai and Chongqing

Since the 2010s, she has been exploring the nature of the sound body, seeking to capture the mystical experience of musical sounds and to depict them as a visual artist, in the form of floating colours. At this point her life’s work is intertwined with that of her husband, László Vidovszky, composer and pianist. She was a music lover herself, spending almost every evening of her college years at concerts.

Ilona Keserü is still actively working today, and in the last two years she has included mathematics in the creation of her series of silkscreen prints at the Papírmalom graphic design workshop in Orfű. Her life’s work is not linear, but rather spiral, returning again and again to the artistic problems that hold her interest, rethinking but also retaining her earlier discoveries.

Ilona Keserü’ with her students András Ernszt and Bea Kusovszky (left) and Julia Fabényi (right), Director of the Ludwig Museum

Her teaching and training activities are also significant. She started teaching drawing at the Janus Pannonius University of Pécs in 1983, and in 1991 she became one of the founders of the Master School and Doctoral School of the Faculty of Arts in Pécs. She has also been a guest lecturer in England and France. When she gave her students assignments, she made it compulsory for herself to do them as well, so that she could show them alternative solutions, and so she knew exactly what creative process they were going through, and also to ease their anxiety.

Although she still has ties to Pécs, she has lived in the same apartment overlooking the Danube on the Belgrade quay for sixty years, looking at the view of the river the Gellért Hill on the opposite side.

Happy birthday, Ilona Keserü!