Judy Cassab - Ross River Road

<strong>Judy Cassab CBE AO</strong><br/>Born 1920, Vienna; arrived Sydney, 1951<br/><br/><i>Ross River Road [The Torchbearers]</i> 1972<br/>Oil on board, 44 x 35cm<br/>Charles Darwin University Art Collection – CDU1853<br/>Purchased through the CDU Foundation for the CDU Art Collection, 2010 <br/>Image © the artist & courtesy Bridget McDonnell Gallery, Melbourne

Born Judit Kaszab in Vienna, Austria, of Hungarian parents, Cassab trained at the Academy of Art in Prague in 1938, later studying under painters Aurél Bernáth and Lipót Hermann in Budapest. Her formal education was suspended with the outbreak of the Second World War, but her desire to be a painter never languished. In 1946 she began visits to an artists’ colony based in Szentendre on the Danube, led by Czóbel, Barcsay and Kmetty, and went on to exhibit her works at the National Salon, Budapest in 1947.

Personal adversity, including the internment and death of many of her family, precipitated Cassab’s departure from Europe with her husband and children. She settled in Sydney in October 1951, where she rapidly forged her reputation as an Australian portrait painter of note. Cassab is the only woman artist to have won the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Archibald Prize twice: first in 1960 for her portrait of Stanislaus Rapotec, then in 1967 for her portrait of Margo Lewers. She was also awarded the Helena Rubinstein Portrait Prize twice – in 1964 and 1965 – and secured many prestigious commissions in both Australia and abroad.

Cassab’s earliest Australian paintings embodied an essentially European sensibility and were known for their vigorous, self-styled figurative expressionism. By the 1960s and 70s, her visual vocabulary matured, synthesising her European training and background with experiences of a new people and new land. In the 1980s, intricate painterly surfaces, varied textures, sculpted forms and flattened shapes of pure or mixed colour – often enveloped in a surreal or dream-like atmosphere – charged her paintings with enigmatic energy. Cassab’s mature style fused an underlying tension between abstraction and figuration that also characterised her portraits, with their swiftly executed background swathes of colour chosen to reflect her subjects’ personalities or “inner colour”. This intuitive and instinctive methodology was also applied most convincingly in her other principal oeuvre as a painter – the landscape of outback Australia.

Less than two years after her arrival in Australia, author and journalist Frank Clune suggested Cassab travel to Central Australia and experience its landscapes as Nolan and Drysdale had done. With little delay, she booked a trip, but overwhelmed by the prospect of what lay before her, delayed her first visit until 1959. Then, the desert came as a revelation. Her first visit to Uluru and the Olgas, recounted in her diaries, record the moment:
May 1959 brought me my first sight of Alice Springs. I knew at once how important the moment was: a recognition that now I knew why we had immigrated to Australia. I felt like Ali Baba discovering the treasure cave … I began 14 pictures in a week. I have never experienced such colour. It was like a physical force hitting not only from the front, but sideways and from the back as well.

At that time Ayers Rock only had one place to stay, a shed with a barrel on the roof to catch the rainwater if it rained, and a tap for show. The sheets we slept on were flown, on a little plane, to Alice Springs to be washed.

The rock was a wonder, like the Taj Mahal. Indescribable. Full of legends, caves, murals, ponds. The forms recall Henry Moore. I also found the face of the Sphinx and Lady Godiva.

The vivid colours of Central Australia, its stark light and dramatic forms had a profound effect on Cassab, reaching well beyond the discovery of new subject matter. Until this moment, colour had “always been something which pops up here and there in spots and hues, something on which the painter’s glance focuses”. In the desert, retinal and emotional experience was more confronting and demanding.Like artists before her and since, the desert’s silences and unknowable spaces also unlocked something within her, captured but not contained in her chosen medium. European surrealism gave way to a place-specific transcendental romanticism, one with a granite edge and a vivid, localised palette and direct application of paint. The twin currents of portraiture and landscape in her oeuvre coalesced: rocks, sharp ledges and undulating sand dunes were anthropomorphised as elements of an environment emptied of but contingent upon human experience. Titles or sub-titles for her paintings hinted at the spiritual dimension she sought and discovered in the Far North. This work, Ross River Road, sub-titled The Torchbearers, alludes perhaps to the flame-like geological formations in the painting’s middle ground.

Cassab has returned to Central Australia on many painting trips, venturing further north and west to the Top End, Far North Queensland and western New South Wales. Her experiences of a new country and sense of belonging are profoundly and sensitively expressed in both the human and natural portraits of people and places captured in her paintings. Although she has travelled and exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally, holding more than 70 solo and group shows in Australia and abroad, her deepest sense of engagement with a chosen land transpired well beyond her suburban home in Sydney, in the heart of the Australian continent. There, by her own admission, she came to understand that “for the first time since arriving in Australia … one can love the soil”.

Judy Cassab’s work is held in major collections in Australia, Britain and Europe. She was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1969 and the Order of Australia in 1988 for her contribution to art. Ross River Road 1972 is the first work by Cassab acquired for the CDU Art Collection and is included in the CDU Art Gallery’s current exhibition, The Nature of Things, showing until 10 June 2011.

See featured piece on Judy Cassab's work Bitter Springs, NT also in the CDU Art Collection.
[Sources: J. Cassab, Judy Cassab: diaries, Alfred A. Knopf, Sydney, 1995; E. Capon & B. Pearce, Judy Cassab, exhibition catalogue – European tour (Budapest, Berlin, Dublin & Brussels), 2003-4; Art Gallery of NSW, Landscapes from the Collection - 2008: http://archive.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/media/archives_2008/judy_cassab; National Library of Australia: http://www.nla.gov.au/events/doclife/cassab.html; Judy Cassab website: http://www.judycassab.com/ ]

Anita Angel, Curator CDU Art Collection & Art Gallery

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