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József Borsos was one of the most talented Hungarian artists of the 19th century; he was also one of the most mysterious ones. Some of his compositions, such as Girls after the Ball or Home Guard, are among the most popular works of 19th-century Hungarian art, yet his artistic personality is hardly known to the public at large. His life story could have been lifted from the pages of a novel: from a successful painter he moved on to become a highly sought-after photographer first, and a restaurateur later – yet hardly any documentary evidence has survived about the specific details of his life, which could provide us with background information to the major decisions he made in life. The fact that many of his artworks have gone missing further obscures the picture.
From the 1840s, Borsos was living in Vienna, where he achieved considerable success as a painter of portraits and genre scenes. His circle of patrons included Prince Pál Esterházy, one of the wealthiest magnates of the period, along with the Andrássys and the Keglevichs, not mentioning the fact that the Emperor himself bought one of his still-lifes for his art collection. He painted in a splendid and magnificent style, which often evoked reminiscences of 18th-century Rococo. The materials of the clothing and the furniture seemed luminous, almost to the point of tangibility. Great compositional diversity characterizes the paintings, in which every detail is worked out meticulously. In addition to Borsos’ masterpieces, we have included in our exhibition a number of characteristic examples from the oeuvres of contemporary Austrian and Hungarian painters, in order to allow the viewers to make comparisons and also to demonstrate the close links between Borsos and the period’s most important masters.
Upon his return from Vienna, Borsos embarked on a new adventure: similarly to a number of his colleagues, Miklós Barabás included, he decided to try his hand at photography, which was still something of a novelty at the time. As a highly sought-after photographer, Borsos took 44,000 pictures during his career: the two hundred photographs currently shown at the exhibition have been selected from a stockpile of 3,000 photographs, which comprises his known photographic legacy. Offering his services at a hefty fee, Borsos mainly drew an aristocratic clientele, although the complete list also included many other notabilities of the age: prominent politicians and artists, Franz Liszt among them, as well as some very fashionable ladies. His career as a photographer peaked around the time of the Compromise of 1867, which is why the portraits of the 360 Members of Parliament for the Parliamentary Album of 1867 features so prominently at our exhibition. He also made a lavishly executed album showing the entire staff of the National Theatre (including Ferenc Erkel and his faithful dog), which was to be presented to the Intendant at the end of his term. To add a colourful touch to the exhibition, we have displayed photographic equipment used in Borsos’ time. The exhibition starts with a presentation of documents currently available on Borsos’ life and career, complemented by some portraits that his artist friends made of him. In the next section of the exhibition the organizers make an attempt to present József Borsos, the artist, through his own works. The thematic units of the exhibition are organized around various topics. How did Borsos depict the life of artists? Who were all those people who sat for Borsos and how did the successful portraitist choose to paint them? Is it possible to reconstruct the artist’s political sympathies as well as his views on the period’s cultural phenomena by studying his compositions? What role did his photographic studio play in the public life of the city? Then we come to the finer points: Who was the Home Guard? What could the girls be gossiping about after the ball? Which young aristocrat did Borsos depict in the role of the Emir of Lebanon? The choice of questions, along with the interconnections the answers tend to establish between the works, seem to suggest the existence of a certain subjectivity, which the curators readily accept, at the same time encouraging the visitors not to proceed along a straight line but to try to establish some connections between the exhibits themselves, instead of merely considering the associations the curators have presented.
In addition to Borsos’ works held at the Hungarian National Museum, we loaned paintings from public and private collections both within and without Hungary (Austria, Croatia, Italy, Slovakia). Some of these compositions were in hiding for some time, and were known only from reproductions or descriptions. To provide some idea about the methods and difficulties of art historical research work, which sometimes can match the excitement associated with criminal investigations, we have used old exhibition catalogs and photos to present some of the compositions, which can no longer be located. A lavishly illustrated catalog complements the exhibition, which, in addition to the studies about Borsos’ accomplishments as a painter and a photographer, will also include the complete list of his known paintings and graphical works.
Curators of the exhibition: Eszter Békefi, Zsuzsa Farkas and Nóra Veszprémi