This exhibition explores the Gallery’s rich collection of landscape paintings, drawings and watercolours by esteemed senior Sydney artist Judy Cassab. It is the latest in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ ongoing series of focus exhibitions on the Australian art collection and includes fourteen works spanning over four decades, from 1959 to 2003.
Cassab was born in Vienna in 1920. Her studies in art were interrupted by the onset of World War II, when she experienced many hardships, including the death of her mother and grandmother in Auschwitz. Following the war she left Europe with her husband and children, eventually settling in Sydney in 1951, where she has made her home ever since.
Judy Cassab’s art is characterised by two major themes – portraiture and landscape. Her considerable skills as a portraitist established her reputation as an Australian artist of note, but it was her experience of Central Australia in the late 1950s that made her first feel fully at home in Australia, and confirmed for her she had been fortunate in her emigration here from Europe.
Her diary, which she has kept for most of her life, recounts her experience with the desert landscape, when she visited Uluru and the Olgas for the first time, in 1959: it contrasted dramatically with her bourgeois domestic life in the suburbs of Sydney.
I feel like Ali Baba discovering the treasure cave – or like a child in front of an enormous box of chocolates. I feel so greedy. … My eyes burn from the vivid colours of the day. I have never experienced this. Colour has always been something which pops up here and there is spots and hues, something on which the painter’s glance focuses. Here, it’s a physical force, hitting you not only frontally but sideways and from the back. …’ I understand, for the first time since arriving in Australia, that one can love the soil. [Judy Cassab Judy Cassab diaries Sydney: Alfred A Knopf, 1995 p.100, 28 May 1959, Alice Springs]
Cassab has returned to the centre many times, taking trips to key points of interest with trusted friends, often camping in primitive conditions – these hardships pale in comparison, however, with her exultation in the forms and colours of the landscape. She has also travelled to far north Queensland and far western New South Wales, among other remote Australian locations. Landscape helped her engage more effectively with abstraction; her work has generally been an amalgam of figurative and abstract, even in the portraiture, where the abstract background is often the key defining factor in the final work, and painted first.