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Flesh, figure and rock

by Aimee Board, 2 October 2018

Self-portrait, 1962 by Judy Cassab
Self-portrait, 1962 by Judy Cassab

Judy Cassab’s revelatory experience of the Australian landscape – its vast open skies, rampant forests and, particularly, the arid desert interior – brought a new sensibility to her portraiture. Coupled with her innate talent and foundational mentoring relationships – both in her Hungarian homeland and then Australia – these environs powerfully informed her work, engendering a new path into abstraction.

Judy Cassab had already achieved great heights as a portraitist when she arrived at the Port of Fremantle in October, 1951. Her story prior to this is a remarkable journey of subsistence and sheer will. Bearing mental scars and immense loss at the hands of Nazi Germany, Cassab, with husband Jancsi and boys John and Peter in tow, arrived with the promise of a prosperous new life. A letter from Elek Kálmán, a friend from her home town of Beregszasz, Hungary, was waiting for the family: ‘Welcome to Australia. We greet you with love and joy, with the hope and wish that you should find a home here with your children and live in peace.’ Following Kálmán’s advice, the family made their way to Sydney to settle. Initially disoriented, Cassab’s first impressions of their new home reflected a perceived incongruence: ‘Things which don’t usually occur in the same place, occur in Sydney. Palm trees and fir trees. Long slim cypress and cactus. Geraniums and mimosa.’ However, it wouldn’t take her long to find her place among Australia’s modernist set, respected as she was for her European sensibility and numerous international commissions of prominent figures.

Born Judit Kaszab in Vienna on 15 August 1920 to Jewish Hungarian parents – mother, Ilona, a talented musician, and father, Imre, with unfulfilled aspirations as a writer – her artistic inclinations were encouraged early on. With the family moving back to Hungary in 1929, the first portrait by young ‘Juci’ came three years later. It was of her grandmother, and revealed – at age twelve – her innate capacity to capture an honest, classicised likeness of her subject. It was at the same age that she awoke one morning consumed with the idea of dedicating her life to painting, a goal she certainly accomplished.

In Judy’s Drawing of Anyu (mother) (1937), one of five recent acquisitions of Cassab works into the Sydney Jewish Museum collection, we see her layered study of light, form and shadow coalescing rhythmically across the figure. In the same year, seventeen year-old Judy sketched her schoolteacher and classmates from Beregszasz, the group portrait resembling something of a physiognomic chart, with Judy’s self-portrait in profile in the lower right corner. The sketch must have constituted a haunting memory when she returned to her hometown in later years, only to discover it all but destroyed, the doors of her childhood home torn away, and mother missing. Sombre reports suggest only twenty per cent of the population of Beregszasz survived the horrors of the Holocaust.

Drawing of Beregszasz School (classmates and teacher), 1937 by Judy Cassab

The summer of 1938 proved a life-changing one for Cassab. Having finished her high-school exams, she took a brief trip to Kassa, in Czechoslovakia’s ceded border region, to participate in a literary debate. It was there that she met her life-long love, a worldly and influential man eighteen years her senior, Janos (Jancsi) Kampfner. With each party equally smitten, they were engaged to be married within a month of meeting. Judy agreed to the proposal on the condition that Jancsi support her artistic pursuits, which he, a lover of the arts, whole-heartedly agreed to. Jancsi’s financial success and belief in his new love’s artistic gift would be the support she needed to develop her talents.

Upon her return to Beregszasz in March 1939 – following a year of study at Prague’s Academy of Art – the couple married, taking up residence in a beautiful home where Judy spent her days painting and drawing. However, their idyllic new life was soon fractured by the rise of Nazi Germany and the scourge of anti-Semitism. Detailed in depth in Brenda Niall’s biography and Judy’s diary entries, the atrocities the artist witnessed are horrific. Moreover, with Jancsi sent to a forced labour camp in an unknown location in Poland, the first three years of the couple’s marriage were marred by separation, and the anxiety of not knowing if they would ever see each other again.

Post-war, still grieving for her mother – her memory ‘the bleeding wound I carry inside’ –  Cassab found new impetus, having been reunited with Jansci, and now with a new addition to the family, baby János (John). The family moved to Szentendre, the artist colony on the banks of the Danube, where Judy met renowned painter Béla Czóbel – an artist known for his association with ‘The Eight’, the modernist group of painters in Hungary who were recognised for introducing a more radical, post-impressionist style into the country several decades earlier.

Czóbel’s influence was substantial. The only Hungarian painter known in France in the early twentieth century, he had participated in the Fauve Salon alongside Matisse, Derain and Dufy in 1906. Sitting for her portrait, Judy noted how Czóbel overpainted the entire surface time and time again, each portrait as fresh as the first sitting. Following this, she explored a fresh approach to her own composition, reflecting a more cubist style. Cassab’s time in Szentendre exposed her to other great painters. Jenö Barcsay discussed with her the importance of letting go, and Rudolf Diener-Dénes told her to ‘Take a rag dipped in turpentine and wipe the picture off, however much you like it. Next day, if you paint what you wiped off again, you can be sure it belongs.’

The sum of Cassab’s personal adversities, including the internment and deaths of family members, precipitated the family’s departure for Australia. Soon after her arrival in Sydney, she found another teacher to further invigorate and inform her practice, the renowned Hungarian painter Desiderius Orban – another member of The Eight. Orban, whose works reflected the influence of Cézanne and cubism, believed in Cassab’s ability: ‘You are talented, but you stopped somewhere in impressionism. You must forget that a table has four legs; use only what is essential to your picture. Forget the object.’ Orban taught Cassab the difference between harmonious colours and colour harmony, explaining that the first is a recipe everyone can learn, whilst the latter is achieved through one’s own discovery. Just as composition can be learned, design has to be found. Orban emphasised that this understanding would help Cassab find her own style, and challenged her to give up being ‘the artist’ for six months and paint only abstracts so that she could ‘feel’ her painting again.

Though Cassab had planned to visit Alice Springs in 1953, a bout of ill health delayed her, and it would be another six years before she arrived in the Northern Territory. Weeks before her first encounter with the remoteness of the outback, Judy noted her art didn’t fit into any category: ‘it’s not abstract enough for abstract, and it isn’t really figurative’. Reflecting on her approach to the canvas, she felt her foundation layer was very free and abstract, her second layer formed a theme, while the third layer connected the imagery. It was in this final plane, where the space was formed, that most interested Cassab.

Detail of Ormiston, 1959 by Judy Cassab

Arriving into Alice Springs in May 1959, Cassab organised a meeting with Territory art luminary Rex Battarbee. They arranged a painting trip, travelling for hours at a time through the ‘gentle reds and pale emerald’, as Judy recalled in her diary. It was a cathartic experience for the artist; in awe at the immensity of her new surrounds – ‘the landscape envelops and embraces my spirit’ – Cassab likened her exhilaration to her first experience visiting The Louvre. She experienced the ‘miracle’ that was Ormiston Gorge, where surreal shapes emerged in hues of purple and pink, meeting the brilliance of the stripes and dots on the marble rocks. In her Detail of Ormiston (1959), we see Cassab’s layering of planes; her shifting verticals and abstract forms seem to make sense as objects in the environment, while, at the same time, her graduation of tone submerges said forms, creating a feeling of weightlessness. Similarly, Cézanne was a master of his palette, modulating his colours to match closely with the object’s natural colouring and light, cast across the form. In Bibemus Quarry (c. 1900), Cézanne’s composition does away with exact contoured outlines, prioritising colour. In so doing, he creates an impression of solidity in his image while retaining an atmospheric, luminous quality in the objects and the space they inhabit. Cassab’s composition achieves a similar atmospheric effect. Her depiction of the ‘miracle’ that is Ormiston Gorge, in an almost primordial sense, emanates light.

Bibemus Quarry, c. 1885 by Paul Cézanne

Cassab returned to the Territory throughout the 1960s, considering it her ‘treasure house’ for inspiration. The desert’s impact, with the new, unlimited possibilities it offered, was so profound that she felt her migration to a new continent ‘made sense’ – at least from an aesthetic perspective – as she set about responding to the ‘dry-fallen soldier trees, shifting rocks and burning colours’.

Orban’s influence on Cassab continued to facilitate new perspectives. He drew Judy’s attention to the rendering at the outer edges of her work, or the lack thereof, encouraging her to compose inwards from the edge rather than approaching her composition with emphasis on the central figure. In her diary entry of May 1965, Judy writes of a self-portrait she drew with charcoal, beginning with a line in the upper-right corner of the background, followed by an outline of the left arm. She then describes moving to the top of the head and the right of the neck, with the left eyebrow connecting with a corresponding form. Upon close observation of Cassab’s portrait of renowned Australian sculptor Marea Gazzard (1966), we see a similar interplay of lines and corresponding forms, with positive and translucent space further eliminating any conventional reading of the background as separate from figure. Like the forms in Detail of Ormiston, Gazzard’s figure is suspended and in harmony with its surrounding space.

Marea Gazzard, 1966 by Judy Cassab

Judy’s abstract landscapes from the late 1960s inform her portraits of the period. There is a parallel with Cézanne, who is said to have started his landscapes with the geological structures, then looked at his composition with widened eyes, developing a particular optic to ‘germinate’ his landscape surrounds. He sought to recapture the landscape as an emerging organism, which he termed a ‘motif’. ‘The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.’

Simplified motifs are evident in Cassab’s 1967 painting, Echoes. She includes shifting verticals, and what look to be deadened branches across the top plane to meet a circular form, perhaps symbolic of the figurative. In the same year, her (second) Archibald prize-winning portrait – of artist Margo Lewers – includes contoured lines converging to the interior, the shifting verticals here positioned to envelop and suspend the figure, while the textural, luminous patterning functions to unify the image. In Nancy Borlase (1968) we again see traces of motifs in correspondence with the figure. Her abstract Dark Moon, 1969, bares similar markings: incisions into an inner landscape.

Incorporating lessons learned back in Hungary – where she studied 16th century artist Pieter Bruegal’s method of laying a yellow foundation, slowly varnished, then applying shades of black to build up the image – Cassab laid a ground of earthy yellows and orange for her Portrait of Desiderius Orban (1968), one of five that she painted of him. Working with the outer frame, as Orban had instructed, Cassab contrasted the warm ground with greens, black shades and highlights of white. Her textural patterning and loose gestural approach would likely have met with her teacher’s approval. Here, Cassab sought to capture both the likeness as well as the subject’s inner colour, noting, ‘I don’t paint the portraits on a white canvas. I make what one would call an abstract, on which I then superimpose the portrait on the colour that I have chosen. So that colour not only comes through the other colours, which are built on top, in layers; it also is a unifying rhythm, which keeps background, clothes and face together.’

Judy Cassab’s love for Australia’s desert interior had a profound impact on her practice. Beyond the 1960’s, the distortion in her works continued to grow, and we sense that her immersion in Australia’s arid centre meant more than a fascination with the landscape. It was, perhaps, also an inner healing of sorts, a degree of reconciliation. And yet, later, the emergence of a figurative element in symbiosis with the desolate surrounds – as seen in her work, Anthills, Central Australia (1978) – could be read as symbolic of feelings of isolation, and the enduring trauma brought about by the death of her loved ones, and the enforced displacement from her home. Perhaps, while Cassab’s desert revelation was transformative, both in artistic and existential terms, it remained a layer of experience on a foundation of incalculable loss.

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