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Orban, Desiderius (Dezso) (1884–1986)

by Attila Urmenyhazi

Desiderius Orban, with a pupil, 1961

Desiderius Orban, with a pupil, 1961

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L40214

Desiderius Orban was a renowned Hungarian-born Australian painter, textile designer and art teacher who started off in Australia as a humble, unknown artist. Born Dezsõ Orbán in Györ, Hungary in 1884, in keeping with family expectation (he was from a long line of public servants) he graduated from Péter Pázmány University of Budapest in philosophy, physics and mathematics. His real passion, though, was art. He was at times tutored by János Pentelei-Molnár but, overall, became mainly a self taught artist painter. In 1905, he commenced compulsory military service with the Austro-Hungarian army.

A year later, following early success as a young and promising painter in Budapest, he moved to Paris where he studied briefly at the Académie Julien but after two short weeks gave it up, finding it irreconcilable with his concept of artistic development. He acquired a studio and became a regular member of a close knit circle of well known artists that included Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Their philosophical exchange and collaborative exploration of perception and pictorial representation later resulted in analytic Cubism. No doubt under their esoteric influence, his individual style developed as Postimpressionist inspired with distinct flat primary colours seeking decorative effect in landscape, still life and compositions of religious nature.

In 1909 Orban founded a group of artists known as Keresõk (The Seekers), bringing cotemporary painting to Hungary. In 1912-13 he was again called up for military service in the Balkan War. In 1915 he married Alice Vajda, a doctor serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army. In 1931, he founded the Arts & Crafts Academy in Budapest, Atelier. In 1937 his painting, Cathedral of Eger (1928), was seized by the Nazis from Nuremberg Museum collection, and was never recovered.

In 1939, he fled Budapest and arrived in Australia as a 55-year-old migrant, settling in Sydney and enlisting in the Australian Army as a private. In 1942, following his release, he worked as a textile designer-printmaker in a Sydney factory and, a year later, began his own Art School and held his first solo exhibition of paintings with thirty works, the bulk of which were European subjects. In 1944, the Art Gallery of NSW purchased one of his paintings, sealing his formal entry, recognition and acceptance by the elite of the Sydney art world. An exceptional art teacher he wrote A Layman’s Guide to Creative Art (1968), Understanding Art (1968), and What Is Art All About (1975).

From 1946 to 1949, Orban was President of the NSW branch of the Contemporary Art Society of Australia; in 1953 he was elected Chairman of the UNESCO National Committee of Visual Arts and from 1957 to 1967 he conducted summer art schools at the University of New England, Armidale. He was also a judge for the 1960 Sulman Prize. Among his accumulated awards was the 1929 Gold Medal-International Exhibition in Barcelona, the 1957 Wagga Wagga Art Prize, the 1967 Muswellbrook Art Prize, the 1967 & 1971 Blake Prize for Religious Art and the 1971 Wollongong Art Prize. In 1974 he won the International Co-operation Art Award and in 1975 was honoured with the OBE for his services to the arts. In 1982 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Order of the Hungarian Flag by the People’s Republic of Hungary. Still painting at age 100 he was conferred the honorific title: Doctor of Letters (in Art) by the University of New England in 1984.

Orban's work is represented in the collections of the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest; the Nuremberg Museum, Germany; the Harold Mertz Collection, Uni.of Texas, USA; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and in all of the state art gallery of Australia, as well as regional art galleries and in private and institutional collections.

Aged 101, Desiderius Orban died in 1986. His passing virtually closed the Postimpressionist era in the universal art world.

Original publication

  • unpublished, 2011

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Attila Urmenyhazi, 'Orban, Desiderius (Dezso) (1884–1986)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/orban-desiderius-dezso-14658/text25793, accessed 24 November 2017.

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