The Hungarian painter Endre Szasz, who has died aged 77, was known for his surrealist-symbolic style and his astounding technique, which earned him a reputation as a Paganini of fine art. This was memorably illustrated in 1984 in Amman, when the paintings he was due to exhibit failed to turn up. Undeterred, he painted them again overnight, and the exhibition was opened by Jordan’s Queen Noor the next day.
Szasz’s initial reputation was as an illustrator, and for many years this work was his livelihood. His first commissions came in the early 1950s, when he was running a successful artists’ collective, producing anything from propaganda material to film posters. During the next decades, he illustrated several hundred books, including those of Chekhov, Gorky and Emily Bronte, as well as those of his fellow Hungarians, the poet Sandor Weores and the 19th-century playwright Imre Madach.
In 1959, he won the book illustrators’ gold medal at the Leipzig Fair, and his etchings for Omar Khayyam’s Ruba’iyat were included in the 1964 British Museum exhibition and catalogue, The Thirty Most Beautiful Books Of The Twentieth Century. The following year, he was awarded the Munkacsy Mihaly prize in Hungary.
Born into a Transylvanian Hungarian family in Csikszereda (now Miercurea Ciuc in Romania), Szasz started to draw after recovering from meningitis, contracted at the age of four. Sketching became his passion, and at 15 – thanks to the patronage of the painter András Bordy – he held his first exhibition in Marosvasarhely. By 1946, he had moved to Hungary and, after more than three years at the Academy of Fine Arts, he started work in the arts section of the Hungarian-Soviet Society.
He was, however, soon jailed for "illegal possession of firearms", a standard pretext for political arrests following the communist takeover of 1948. After a short spell in prison, he was allowed to work in a machine tool factory near Budapest, before taking up with the artists’ collective.
Szasz’s career as a painter developed in 1970, when the Hungarian authorities allowed him to take up a contract with a Canadian art gallery. After four years in Toronto, he moved to Los Angeles, where he stayed until the early 1980s. He had numerous exhibitions in Canada and the United States – where his paintings fetched high prices – and also befriended the surrealist painter Salvador Dali, with whom he shared an agent.
His most characteristic and haunting work was the series of paintings he did in the late-1960s for a large calendar depicting 12 women, each representing a virtue or vice. Animal symbols perch on the top of each woman, with Courage topped by a lion, Wrath by four snakes and Luxury by the head of a wild boar.
Szasz returned to Hungary in 1982, and helped to found the arts studio of the Porcelain factory at Hollohaza. For several years, he painted, mostly on porcelain, and designed furniture. After this, he lived for a while in Sopron, finally buying an old manor house near Kaposvár, in the south of the country, where he enjoyed life as reportedly the sole owner of a Rolls-Royce in communist Hungary.
During his retirement at Várda, he produced 25 drawings, portraits of living Hungarian poets which are to be published this December in a anthology of contemporary Hungarian poetry in English translation. His honours included the officers’ cross and the middle cross of the Hungarian Republic.
He married four times and is survived by his wife and companion of 20 years, Katalin.
· Endre Szasz, painter and graphic artist, born January 7 1926; died August 18 2003