In one of his paintings, he portrays himself sitting in his studio resting between two sessions of painting. He is not looking at the observer as most self-portraits would do, but is more inward-looking and seems to be suffering from the inner torments artists often have to endure. Only his hands are resting, but not the rest of him. His mind and soul continues to churn and keeps shaping the vision that needs to be projected from him so that he can show some of life’s bitter-sweet moments; so that he can illustrate the conflict of perishability and transiency, and the reality of the here-and-now — shown through the prism of form, colour and light.
A tall and strong man, József Horváth had a childishly innocent soul of the artist susceptible to even the slightest breeze and never stopping contemplating. His piercing gaze was always scrutinising the face of life and his brush kept on gathering the extraordinary beauty of reality with onerous responsibility and humble piety: this was his unmistakably unique realm of vision.
During the difficult years of his life, József Horváth created a rather simple world for himself, a more accurate image of real life which projects beauty and truth, human joy and misery incessantly towards the viewer.
The profile of the artist and that of the man do not necessarily coincide. In him, these two simply amalgamated. He painted the way he lived: bereft of any corruption, free of any venality, never driven away from his artistic and human faith and adamantly demanding honesty, loyalty and dignity from others and serving the cause that has been chosen to be his mission. It was an arduous task to stand his clear and candid gaze, and was even more difficult to earn his friendship. As he hated a tie around his neck, he equally detested dishonesty, deceit and flattery. His weaknesses also stemmed from his artistic prominence. He was not devoid of vanity — he had all the right to be vain — but he paid a high price for this flaw: he was oversensitive and every minor scratch had left an indelible imprint on his mood for long weeks.
He was reverential, unblemished and kind-hearted both as a person and as an artist. Like his great predecessors, he indefatigably proclaimed devotion and piety via the worn out face and the work-roughened hands of his elderly subjects, via the affectionate mother bending over her infant, via the beautiful body of the young girl standing radiant in the wooden washtub, via the calves chewing hay in the warm stable, via a bowl of medlars, or via the bullock-cart creaking up the road in the autumn landscape.
There are painters who are always distressed, who feel hindered by old values and do their utmost to find something novel — often at all costs — a new form, or sometimes no form, or simply a new shade of colour; anything that might take them a step higher on Jacob’s ladder of fine arts. Horváth never demolished anything to create something new. He never revealed the anguish of development; like an expanding tree, he introduced only its fruit to the world, the vintage of a harvest. In his pictures, novelties are not presented harshly; they are applied with soft naturalness. The graphic representation of his development does not show a broken line as that of other artists would. He stumbled upon his own unique expression already as a young man and he was chiselling and perfecting his techniques year after year, never tiring, never discouraged by others’ contemptuous head-shaking. There were, and still are, many who regard his development as not too dynamic, not too dramatic and not even too modern. Despite all this criticism we can safely say that he — tortured by internal battles — did his best to extend the storehouse of expressions in painting, especially in watercolour, but he did not seek to achieve this end by the shocking effect of rectangular apples, radically changed perspectives or split faces; he strived for the perfect harmony of colours and forms to portray the real world. He was a conservative, in the genuine sense of the word. He never imitated anyone or anything; he was always a creator, someone who created things no one had ever done before and no one ever will, for each of his works evolved from the merger of reality and the artist’s imagination.
József Horváth’s life evolved from the Pannon landscape and both his spiritual and artistic approach were defined by this magnificent scenery. He was born in 1891 in a small village in Kemenesszentpéter, Vas County, where his father was a village steward. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the world, this community preserved some typical rural characteristics such as the shepherds with long braided hair who carved wonderful objects with their knives, and who taught little Joseph how to conjure up items inspired by his imagination. His first teacher was Pista Rabi, a swineherd, who helped him carve a richly patterned bullwhip out of a piece of plum wood when sitting by the well minding the pigs.
It was in his parents’ house, furnished with antique furniture and decorated with etchings and lithography, where he learned to appreciate beauty. His father was a good friend of Franz Storno, Sopron-based painter and art collector, and Horváth’s mother, also highly cultured and intelligent, taught him to respect great minds. Outside his home, surrounded by local kids, he played at Lake Bankós and the backwaters of the River Rába. He would spend time in the sheepfold or by the goose pond, or join the corn-huskers, the hemp-farmers or the sheep shearers (motives we know from Millet, Zügel or Segantini) and this simple biblical life presented the child with domestic scenes which he could later reminisce and visualise. These experiences he went through as a child defined his characteristically Hungarian style, these very experiences helped develop his liking for simple folks, and the sweet tranquillity prevailing in his paintings is perhaps the greatest legacy of his childhood years.
At a presentation he once held at an advanced age entitled “The memories of my career as an artist” Horváth offered a very tangible and distinctive rendition of his recollections of his home village and his schooldays. The presentation was like a wall full of genre paintings. We could just picture the 156 pupils jammed in a single classroom, with the grey-moustached school teacher in front having a good shot of strong spirit he bought in the corner shop. We could envisage the cane, whipping nails, we could see the crowds of children stamping in the mud of the schoolyard, and we could also see his fellow kids in loose pants sitting on the desk with stretched legs with the hemp between their tows and weaving the whip for the carved stick. The would-be genre painter could not have possibly wished himself a better school than this.
Because there was no form available for the school certificate to fill in, the teacher wrote their grades on a sheet of white paper. It was here that little Joseph’s got his first ‘A’ grade for drawing, as he was passionately drawing already at this time, especially hussars and horses. Soon, however, he had to say farewell to the goose pond, the friends with whom they picked nests, and the whole heavenly life in the village, and had to make his way to the town, and the larger it was, the more he despised it. First, he went to Keszthely, a picturesque town in Transdanubia to attend a secondary school. Had it not been for Lake Balaton, the local Museum of Ethnography, the beauty of wood carving in Zala and Vas County and a brilliant drawing teacher, who helped kindle Joe’s avid interest in arts, he would have been very dejected indeed. He was still attracted to wood carving, and he did not spare the time to carve a whole threshing machine, to the very last screw. His bookshelf, however, was filling up with books on arts: Meller’s Michelangelo, Lázár’s book on the Barbizon School, or László Paál’s monograph.
When his idyllic life in Keszthely was over, it was replaced by the whirling of the capital city. He found himself bed and board far from the centre, and his first visit was to the tomb of Munkácsy in the Kerepesi Cemetery. He kept the small watercolour painting he had made at the painter’s tomb until his death. At the College of Fine Arts he studied under the guidance of Imre Révész, Aladár Edvi Illés and István Bosznay who were also his mentors during these crisis-laden years involving quite a few ailments he was afflicted with. The boy, fiery by temperament, was distressed by the pernicious disease of self-doubt inflicting on him both physical and psychological injuries and it was István Réti who came to his rescue and who taught him that serving art was an arduous task that required a lot of devotion and humility but perhaps not so many technical skills. It was then when he comprehended the power of discipline, diligence and faith and he focused his artistic efforts on nudes believing that the naked human body was the masterwork of nature so the artist’s job was to capture that perfection in the most skilful way.
One of the most decisive moments of his life was in a museum in Vienna when he caught sight of a painting by Wilhelm Leibl depicting two tiny hands. “Here we go!”, he signed. “This is how I should be painting, with this exquisite delicacy of tones, with this vibrant plasticity applying patches at such perfect succession!” It was here where he realised that there were no lines, only patches and tones with no specific contours. This revelation is the key to his painting: he painted patches but no outlines. Even his graphic illustrations are devoid of contours, there are only patches of different tones.
As the notary of college students, he had the opportunity to get into a close contact with some of the greatest artists of the early 20th century: Benczúr, Szinyei-Merse, Ferenczi, Bosznay, Stróbl and Edvi Illés. Focusing on watercolour at the time, it was the latter, Edvi Illés who employed this technique which, as opposed to the thickness of oil, made the canvas flimsy and the depiction floating. This made a great impact on Horváth and he made a large number of watercolour paintings over his lifetime.
After obtaining his degree in fine arts in 1914, Horváth started to work with János Thorma in Nagybánya at the recommendation of Réti. He remembered this period as the happiest days of his life. He could devote all of his time to painting, especially to painting nudes. He may have stayed until eternity in Nagybánya had it not been for World War I, which sent him to Vienna but owing to a benevolent captain, he could spend more time looking at the paintings of Velasquez, Rembrandt and Rubens than fighting on the battlefield. Because of a deficiency in his leg, he was released from service and went to work as an art teacher to Sombor. After Nagybánya and the buzz of the Austrian capital he felt rather out of place in this sleepy rural town. His melancholic nature took him to new depths. On Sundays he would paint a picture of the residents of the poorhouse, so most of his works from this period emit gloom and despair. After the occupation following WW1 he fled Sombor and managed to come back to Hungary via Croatia but he arrived seriously ill. While recovering he took to carving again, and painted the first larger figurative watercolour of his career depicting an old peasant which brought him the Esterházy Award in the Autumn Exhibition of Palace of Art, Budapest in 1921. Critics highlighted the tremendous illustrative force he applied to portray his subject.
Once he recovered, he went to his new workplace, a state school in Sopron where he settled down — and stayed for the rest if his life. This historic town had inspired so many painters before; besides, the adjacent Bánfalva and Brennberg reminded him of Nagybánya.
This first success, the appreciative friends and the fact that locals were buying more and more of his pictures somewhat bolstered his confidence. As a result, he became very productive and painted a series of portraits and interiors, and he painted some large paintings that brought him even more success. The first picture in this series was a composition with two figures entitled Confession from 1927, which accurately represents the first epoch of the 36-year-old artist. It was awarded with First Prize at the 1929 exhibition of Hungarian Watercolour and Pastel Painters.
Although he played with the dispersion of light somewhat clumsily, he applied powerful patches of colour and was brave enough to leave some of the odd blotches on to illustrate the dramatic internal struggle tormenting the girl, confessing to her debauchery and the mother listening to her confession. This picture is regarded as a major milestone in Hungarian watercolour painting for this work depicts a topic that has been reserved for oil and with such professionalism and making such novel impacts that had been unprecedented in arts using watercolour only.
Two other paintings need to be highlighted from the year of 1927. The Interior of St Michael church, which received an award from the capital in 1928, and another one entitled Village Casino. There are five peasants sitting in two separate groups in the heavy air of the casino. A ray of light glimmers through the narrow window and bathes the white heads accentuating the white sleeves and bright waistcoats against the dark background, and framing the lively faces and diligent peasant hands painted with melting colours, but petering out and becoming faint at the rough skin of the five pairs of boots. This earthly example of depicting a more complex reality was a test, but Horváth did not only passe the test but did so with ‘flying colours’.
Being humane was one of his key characteristics; he was deeply affectionate with and understanding towards the old and the needy. It was these people who he paid tribute to with muted lights and velvety colours all throughout his life. He highlighted their figures against the dark and bleak background; his brush applied radiant colours to light up their anguished faces. One of his most shaking pictures is the one entitled Farewell painted in 1928 where, under the canopy of light emitted from the small oil lamp, sits a grief-stricken old peasant by his dying spouse, the whole scene clad in the colours of deep mourning.
Every time Horváth painted a picture he had spent a lot of time making studies of the subject. These sketches helped him turn vision into image. The study he made for Farewell was later awarded with a state prize issued for graphics, and the painting itself won the prestigious Izidor Halmos Award.
Even though Sopron, this small town, was a perfect place for a man with such mentality, his difficult personality had to face tough challenges. He could visualise colour-harmonies and was looking for matching subjects. He was experimenting how yellow and blue worked together, what effect Scheele’s green made with white, and how black and red interacted on the canvas taking every colour on the palette under close scrutiny and experimenting with every combination possible . He enjoyed Vienna’s proximity, and he often paid a visit. He drew a great deal of inspiration from the representatives of the Barbizon School such as Millet, Courbet, Renoir, Menzel or Trübner, and even more from the Swedish Zorn, but he was most profoundly affected by Wilhelm Leibl whom he respected so much that he visited his tomb in Wurzburg in 1933 while on a study tour in Europe. Although all of these artists may have exerted an impact on him, his personal artistic persuasion had already fully evolved and no trends could possibly have made him stray off his beaten path.
It was during this period when he stumbled on a new form of expression, a technique that he mastered and stayed loyal to throughout his career. His eyes could see things somewhat softer than ours, softer than it could have been expressed via oil, tempera paint, pastel, or even via traditional watercolour. This new technique also involved watercolour put on a specific sheet, the so-called Whatman paper. This required a great deal of extra concentration and presence of mind, especially on his larger paintings, for not only did he have to possess perfect drawing skills but also had to be constantly alert and watch how fast the sheet was drying while making sure that the colours and tones were applied in the right proportion and at the precise moment. And what was the result? Soft velvety shades, as if they were breathing, glimmering lights with silvery incandescence and, in terms of overall effect, a perfect unity of form and colour seamlessly merging into one another. Armed with this novel technique, he could now focus on another task that he considered the noblest task of painting: depicting nude figures. The opalescent colours of the naked body, the expression of myriads of delicate greys are two dominant features of his first nudes. In 1932 he painted a large composition with two nude figures entitled Hungarian Samaritan, which was bought by the Budapest Gallery but unfortunately disappeared in 1945.
But then came other nudes all proclaiming the beauty of the healthy female body and painted with the purity of intention, and thus putting eroticism in the background. With the first versions of a series entitled In Front of the Mirror he was awarded with 1st Class State Award for Watercolour in 1934 and the Szilárd Röck Prize for his picture entitled Bathing in the same year. With its seclusion and sculpture-line composition and with analogously similar tones, this picture is regarded as one of the most significant works in Horváth’s career. The following year brought him an award by the St George Guild for his painting entitled Motherhood.
The figures depicted by Horváth are usually surrounded by walls and windows, and this confined environment is intertwined with misty silvers and golds. He avoided the harsh colours of Plein Air painting, (much as he admired the Master of Sunlight, Spanish Sorolla’s cascades of light) and he filtered the intensity of light via windowpanes or replaceed it by lamplight. These gentle sources of light were made more radiant with sparks of light fluttering alongside his figures and accentuated even further by the contrast of dimly lit patches applied on the canvas. His paintings created the same atmosphere as his personality did: the viewer can sense some intimate and intense heat, the enveloping warmth of which awaken the painted flesh and fabric.
In the meantime — in 1933 — he found himself a wife from the very Mühl family that had already given two renowned painters to Sopron and Hungary. With his understanding and supportive spouse by his side, he set his artistic goals even higher. Apart from nudes he also painted portraits all of which radiated a whole range of different characters such as the Old Woman, Old Hungarian and My Wife. He entered a national competition with portraits and nudes and was awarded with the Balló Prize (shared with another artist). He spent the prize money (2,500 HUF) on a three-week family holiday in Brennbergbánya where he gained further momentum and painted new Plein air nudes and various scenes from the life of local miners.
By this time he had been linked so intimately with Sopron that — after some inward struggle — he turned down an offer to teach at the College of Fine Arts to succeed Edvi Illés and Baránszky. A few years later he once again declined the invitation and stayed in Sopron.
At a 1938 exhibition of the Royal Academy in London, they spoke very favourably of his painting entitled Red Jumper, they even made reproductions of the work. Regrettably, a large collective exhibition to be hosted by England could not be realised because of World War II. It was during this period when he painted Girl in Front of the Mirror, regarded as one of his best works. Built on the contradiction of warm and cold colours, the poetic nude of a young girl is hemmed by tiny flickering flames of light. This work has finally earned him the 5,000-HUF worth Balló Award, this time without having to share it, and also the Esterházy Jubilee Prize. His dreams to go on a study tour abroad from the Balló prize were shattered when the war broke out. He was somewhat consoled by the fact that Sopron’s Loyalty Prize, founded to commemorate the town’s token of loyalty at the referendum in 1921, went to him in 1939 in acknowledgement of his work as a painter.
As the tempest of the war was raging and the grim tale of inhumanity was unfolding, so was his sensitive soul tormented. He painted mothers’ nagging worry in 1942, in one of his masterpieces entitled What will become of you? Lying between her mother’s leathery sole and dark calves, as fragile as a rose petal, there is an infant against the background of a dull red apron and illuminated by the shades of poverty. This painting is a faithful documentation of the times of woe with air-raid shelters and sirens. In the following year he once again paid tribute to motherhood with his Hungarian Madonna, which brought him the Gold Medal of the Hungarian State. It was the early 1940s when he painted those poignant family pictures of Sári and Berci among them the boy (Berci) with a red hood —an evident reminiscence of Renaissance masterpieces. In 1943, he won the Grand Prize of the National Society of Hungarian Fine Arts, which granted him a waiver from having to be juried.
József Horváth was a most industrious artist and a compulsive painter. He subjected all his and his family’s activities to this grand passion. He would not waste any of his precious time and when he was not painting — which was seldom — he was teaching from dawn till evening. Besides working as a teacher of drawing for thirty years, he would teach anybody whoever he considered to be talented. His sense of responsibility, his temperament and endless patience put him among the unhurried and considerate painters. He would hesitate for long, and his paintbrush would only gather momentum when he thought he had drawn enough inspiration to express delicate exquisiteness. He never or hardly ever painted without a model. When he could not find any models then he would fall into despondency and would paint still lives.
In 1943, with generous support provided by Sopron, he managed to build a new studio in 1943 and with ample light coming in from its windows he could paint nudes including the one standing on a pedestal in front of the long studio window wearing a dull blue headband and bathing in sweet yellow light as if in honey. The bomb attack on 6 December 1944 destroyed his studio and it took another year to have it restored; again with the town’s support. During the last five years of the 1940s he was watching the ideological chaos penetrating the world of art in Budapest from a safe distance. He was not — could not be — discouraged by the temporary triumph of the abstract style although he did wonder how realist painters could take to abstract overnight only to return to realism after the great exhibition in Moscow in 1949. He was not intolerant with other styles or trends, though. He who painted with extraordinary precision, could appreciate the fervent impressionists working with hasty brushstrokes, he even felt somewhat close to their world. There was one thing; however, he considered to be a prerequisite: honesty — which, for him, — meant putting faith into something you believed in. And whenever he could sense the lack of this honesty, he refused to be tolerant.
He kept on walking along the way he paved for himself and which was often rough and full of pitfalls. Between 1945 and 1950 his paintings were repeatedly rejected; especially his nudes were criticised for being too glum and melancholic. He was recompensed by Sopron’s City Council when they bought his painting entitled What will become of you? in 1950 for which he was awarded Hungary’s most prestigious prize, the Munkácsy Award in 1954. This acknowledgment lent him a fresh momentum and he painted a large number of great pictures in succession. His last active decade produced the following titles: the Lenkey Portrait, the Chat, the Corn-huskers, Lost life, Dr Prőhle; some other works depicting the life of blue collar workers (Rasp-cutter, Cauldron smith, Miners, Moulders), etc. A special mention must be made of his Self-Portrait he painted as an elderly man, where he succeeded in illustrating his own character with breath-taking precision and candidness. We could go on listing his paintings as the number of the works, he himself regarded as an “opus”, is well over 500.
In the spring of 1959 József Horváth had an exhibition in Budapest, at the National Salon, where the public could see the major works of his career. There were thousands of people visiting the exhibition and taking huge delight in the paintings but the majority of his peers stayed away and critics gritted their teeth in silent exasperation. Horváth was suffering more than ever during this week although he was somewhat consoled by the degree of affection with which his local fans were celebrating him back home, as the town’s giant painter, at a major exhibition held in Sopron. As a token of appreciation, both the City Council and the Foundation of Fine Arts bought a few paintings from him.
József Horváth’s life came to a shockingly abrupt end on 22 April 1961. It felt as if one of Sopron’s towers had tumbled down. The town suffered a great loss as he and his gaiting figure disappeared from the streets; for he, one of Sopron’s most decisive intellectuals, was suddenly gone. Gone was his vaulted temple and gone were the pair of piercing blue eyes ablaze with the obvious sign of internal flames. Gone were the grey flocks of hair fluttering in the breeze and we also missed Pajti (Buddy), the little dachshund scurrying after his master’s walking stick clicking along on the pavement. His nudes were trembling in the shivering silence of his studio; his painted creatures were waiting despairingly for the key to turn in the door, but to no avail. Their master’s head was never again lifted from the pillow. But his works could not afford to rest, for all 500 of them will have to continue their life, for him as well.
Someone was gone. A person whose whole being reflected pureness and virtuous benevolence was suddenly no more. When he passed away we understood right away what a great person we had lost. But what a wonderful artist he was — only now are we beginning to sense. Time will pronounce the final judgement on his paintings; time will tuck every dishonest work in the corner of oblivion but time will definitely retain what is candid, eternal and everlasting.
Becht Rezső Horváth József az ember és a festő – József Horváth, The Man and the Painter
Rezső Becht (1893-1976) writer, literary translator, editor of Soproni Szemle, a master of local fiction