She was born in Kiskunhalas on 5 May in 1932 and went to elementary school there. Her family is regarded as an ancient family of Halas, consisting of clerks and lawyers mainly, but they had kinship with painter János Thorma on her father’s side. The love of art was typical in the whole family; even her father had wanted to become a painter, but his drawing teacher had thought that he had not had any sense of colour. His father’s land in Kötönypuszta provided them with a worriless life. Her parents did not resent that the little Viola is busy in the farm. In this – almost idyllic – environment, they thought that she did not need education, and let her personality develop. These momenta related to rural life appeared in her childhood drawings, but she was also interested in India and Brehm’s Life of Animals, from which she loved copying. Her talent was noticed that time.
After the Second World War, her family became class-alien and their land was taken away. Her parents wanted her to study art – no matter how poor they were -, thus she took an entrance exam at the Szépmíves Líceum of Budapest (former art lyceum). According to her recollections, she had no idea about perspective then, so you can imagine how her cube drawing looked like at the exam, even so she was admitted. She finished the lyceum in 1951 and then took an entrance exam at the Art College. On the first week, they had to draw heads, on the second week nudes, and she was already admitted after the head drawings. Social screening came afterwards. All the students were interrogated about their origins, family backgrounds. Berki hid her real origin and said she was from a peasant family with a casual labourer father. Why did not they doubt it? Her rural accent and clothes – she always wore boots – did not give any reason for a discredit.
She got into Géza Fónyi’s class where they just drew for two years. She was in third term, when they found out her secret; her disciplinary trial was during the examination period and she waited for the judgement with books in the hands. Only Aurél Bernáth, the senior lecturer then, backed her up saying “but how much effort one does in order to become a painter”. Finally, she was dismissed for one year, but her ordeal did not end. At the end of the term, she was informed in a letter that she was sent down from all the institutions of higher education. Thus, she went to Főkert as a gardener, but her vocation did not flag. Her colleagues often sat for a portrait for her. Owing to her former teacher painter László Bencze’s intervention, she was taken back, but she did not get scholarship as a punishment. She finished school in 1958, but her diploma work was not accepted due to her senior master Géza Fónyi’s suggestion, who wrote about her, “I could not get to know her during six years. I look on her as a depicting painter. She can solve studies at a high artistic level. She is incapable of cultural development, she does not read books.” He realised how much he misknew her just after the college, after Berki’s first successes.
“I have always tried to paint what is inside me”
She worked at Dezső Korniss’s atelier in Szentendre during the summers between 1961 and 1966. The milieu of Szentendre urged her development and she got in a closer relationship with Jenő Barcsay, Pál Miháltz, Piroska Szántó and Erzsébet Vaszkó there. In 1961, she received the corner tower mansard at 1 Bécsi Street for an atelier. She made friendship with Béla Kondor, who was the owner of the neighbouring atelier, and she frequented the artist companionship that gathered in his atelier. She remembered this way: “Kondor’s work had a liberating effect; one received courage from it…” Her career started soaring afterwards. She organised a successful individual exhibition in Kiskunhalas, where the leader of the Studio Kálmán Bolgár appraised her painting with warm words. As of 1964, she gave drawings to ÉS regularly, and later publishing houses Helikon, Szépirodalmi and Móra entrusted her with illustrations of literary works and children’s books. In 1969, she won the mosaic tender of the dining room of the Tárnok Utcai Általános Iskola (Tárnok Street Elementary School) in Buda. During the following two decades, she made five more large murals, of which three were pulled down since.
According to the professional literature, her art shifted towards the instinctive naïve direction, distancing from the avant-garde. When depicting leaves, flowers and conventional figures she employed not only folk art, but also Persian miniatures and the beloved Indian art as resources. Berki’s monographer Zita Kovács thinks “even if this view is naïve, it is most of all in good faith. Regarding its colours, paint- and brush-work, composition solutions and image edition, it is professional.”
Berki Viola képíró művészete : önéletrajz, dokumentumok. Szerk.: Furkó Zoltán. Bp., 1997, Ajtósi Dürer Kiadó Bt.
Translated by Zita Aknai