Meeting Judy Cassab

Rosa McGregor


   In February 1984, Judy Cassab arrived into my world on one small aeroplane. There was flooding at Invercargill airport, so my Dad booked her a seat on a charter flight, which flew down the west coast to sink down onto a small airstrip, ‘surrounded by mud and lake like science fiction.’[1] This happened much before I was even a thought.

   Judy had been invited to paint a portrait my Dad, and perhaps cheer him after a crumbled marriage and a helicopter accident. She came from Sydney, down to Mount Linton, my home, which lies at the far south of New Zealand: at the ‘nearest point I’ll ever get to the South Pole,’ she said. 

   To me, it sounds like she was a savior; Hungarian angel, descending from the sky. ‘I devastated the drawing room. Heavy couches and tables were moved to accommodate easel, model and me. And we painted morning as well as afternoon when the sun catches up.’ I can see where the two of them would have moved around the light- drenched room, across the algae-green carpet, chasing the day. The pronoun ‘we’ in her diary entry is an insight to the dynamic relationship of Cassab and her sitters, the vital liaison behind the portrait making. As she has said many times: the ‘personality exists at the end of my brush.’

   Silly of me, I had expected that a man had painted the portrait; the ‘Cassab’ scrawl on the bottom right corner is a contracting centipede, with barely a nod to gender or a real life. [2] I never thought much more about the portrait, until fairly recently, when cast myself into the life behind the portrait and the scrawl; so Judy glinted as I read her journals. It felt like I had found a lost friend, a diamond in the sole of my shoe, providence. I then wrote her a lengthy letter. A few weeks later, I received a reply by mail from her son, John Seed. This biographic engagement has had a slow and sound growth.

   As a child, I would see the portrait with the rough turquoise chest and camel trousers, and the long, gainly fingers of my Dad time and again. I sometimes felt that common slant of the strangeness of a parent’s existence, before you arrive on the scene. I would linger and wonder over his younger grace, his looming blue eyes, hanging tall above my eyesight, just beside the heavy door to the garden. The stained black, Rimu door was sometimes given up on and instead used as a resting post for a while: Dad was there, as guardian, always.  Her impressions of the south are the most vivid account of the rolling paddocks and the Takitimu Mountains I have heard before: ‘It’s mindboggling. Emerald and sap, Prussian-blue-black, snowcapped mountain peaks.[3]’ I think it may have reminded her of the sub-Carpathian region of Hungary where she grew up. Cassab’s turn of phrase is wonderful, as a third language not undertaken until she was in her twenties, her command of English serenades. She won the Kibble Literary award for her published journals, Judy Cassab: Diaries, in 1995.

   A generous and spirited woman, my Dad, Alastair McGregor recalls the four or five days she stayed fondly. After being reticent to the idea, he warmed to her great chatter, and was bemused by the way she turned the canvas upside down. I have since found out the curiosity behind the upside-down technique, an artist’s prerogative really. In an interview with her friend and sitter, The Hon. Justice Michael Kirby, she says, it is to “get the picture, the whole picture.[4]” Of course, a portrait involves background, colour palette and balance, the complete idea. People live in and through their environments; they define character in many ways. The want to upend the whole thing for a consummate illustration of the subject seems perfectly natural. It is what artist’s do

   Though a nuanced landscape-painter as well, portraiture is the form that has sustained her great humility and engagement in the lives of others. Judy asserts that ‘portraits are alive,[5]’ unlike a photograph caught in a moment, portraits are a ‘digging out of expressions,’ and will show many elements of a character over time. At twelve, she made a drawing of her grandmother, Anyu, proving a brilliant talent. This was also when she first became a diarist. The young Hungarian Jew had the instinct of human narrative and of sharing love. As Edmund Capon said of the celebrated portrait painter, twice winner of the Archibald Prize: ‘it is people that are both her ultimate inspiration and the constant refreshment of her indomitable spirit.’[6]

   Now aged 94, she is still a scintillating woman. I went to meet her in Sydney, where she now lives in a Jewish rest home. John Seed, her eldest son welcomed me in to her room, and I had feelings of luck and grief all over. She was sitting up on her bed, one leg crossed over the other, composed as a nightingale, waiting for John to return and read to her from her diaries. The drawing of Anyu hung next to her 1942 self-portrait, just opposite from her bed. The oil painting of Judy aged 22, is compelling, it is dark and navy, her white sleeve holds a brush up to the canvas and she is turned to the left with the flush cheeks of a bright young artist.  It was ingratiating to see her light up at my visit, so keen and aware of herself, and surroundings. I introduced myself and talked to her about my interest in her, and then I sat on a wheelchair quietly star-struck.

     Judy has an unusual form of dementia. Living literally in the moment, she is able to hold her attention in an ellipse of around 30 seconds. Everything can be seen as in a thin moving crescent of light. She has retained all of her life’s memories; John says her mind is perfect. The problem is that she cannot actively access them, so her family and carers read to her from the diaries, to prompt her remembrance. A serendipitous relief of old age, as well as an encouragement to all notebook people. In gentle disobedience to her condition, Judy said she “still does.” That is, turn her portraits upside-down. I mentioned to her the link I had been thinking about between portraiture and biography - the close investigation of another. I held her interest, but by some instinct my pretense of enquiry fell away and we decided to hear from her past.  I asked her whether she would like me to read from her time in Europe or in Australia, she promptly said “Europe!” with gusto and certainty.

  Born Kaszab Judith in Vienna in 1920, she grew up with her mother, Ilona Kont and her grandmother, Anyu in Beregszasz until she went to art school in Prague, in 1938. Beregszasz is the most dear place place to Judy, as all childhood homes are; we watched a film on the history of the township together. In much the same way as I am fascinated by her account of my home, she made clamors of exasperation and joy as the scenes rolled by. I didn’t really know what to say though, as Beregszasz was where her family was annexed and sent to Auschwitz; so I held her hand.

  I could not begin to herald the huge web of people that her lasting life force has influenced.  An early embodiment of the enduring nature of her portraiture is the picture done of Jakob Katz, when Judy was sixteen. He was a loved and notable figure in Beregszasz, the portrait became a treasured talisman: Katz was murdered in Auschwitz. His daughter retrieved the painting from a river after looters had deemed it worthless, it was smuggled across borders, handed through generations, safeguarded at great risk, and now resides in the home of his descendants in New York.

   Her time in Central Europe, after surviving the Siege of Budapest, were some of her most formative. In 1946 she moved to Szentendre, an artist’s colony on the banks of the Danube, where she and her newborn, Janoska, (John) and husband Jansci, gathered with like-minded people to live quietly. She wrote then, ‘Now I’m in my element. I rise at 6 a.m., feed, paint, eat, sleep after lunch, feed, walk, paint, go to bed.[7]’ The new freedom was miraculous, and Cassab began to lead her life as she was determined to: wedding the aspects of being a mother and artist.

   Lou Klepac, art historian and the editor of Judy Cassab, Portraits of Artists and Friends wrote, ‘Most gifted artists who have painted portraits have had to find their own personal solution to the problem of the likeness versus the picture.’[8] In the midst of her career she became enamored by the need to address abstraction. Which might have been to pull away from the representational figure, but she sought to involve both. I would say this mirrors the woman who has managed to reconcile many great challenges in her life.  In May 1965, regarding Desiderius Orban, artist and mentor: ‘I asked Orban, I told him about the portrait, about the desire but inability to distort.’[9] He told her that her edges were ‘mostly unresolved.’ Cassab began to work from places around the outer of the picture plane, toward the centre. As opposed to starting from the centre, the face, the chest, the hands, she composed from the edges inwardly, and her processes became those of correspondence. Alike to being a mother and an artist she looked for ‘pure form – relationship,’ never allowing herself to rest her attention of one part of the anatomy with out looking elsewhere. ‘The left eyebrow in connection to a corresponding form,’ so her pictures ceased be figures on a background but an integration of both. By the time she reached the centre, the unfolding whole ‘must be distorted.’ She said it was ‘incredibly difficult,’ to achieve this in portraiture, but ‘for the first time in my life’ she had the freedom to define her own realities, in her work, as she had in her life.

     There is no one way to see a thing, a person; we are all mad, we are all the same. I can see the partiality of representation in all forms that reimagine a person, though there is no doubt Judy Cassab is a master. She has said, ‘my sitters don’t tell me how to paint!’ I can imagine her indignantly saying “Mam, try to visualize Renoir skin” as the Duchess Marina suggested she change the skin colour of her daughter Princess Alexandra to a warmer tone.[10]

   As I said goodbye after my second meeting with Judy, the talking portraitist, she asked me for my details, so we could talk in the future about my biography on her. She said it was ‘lovely to meet you’ in her crimson Hungarian accent, I was touched, but felt a tickle of regret that she would forget me when I was gone. As her biographer Brenda Niall says, ‘Lives intersect, however marginally or indirectly.’[11]

   I am going home over summer, and I will be thinking of Judy as I peer across the emerald and sap, Prussian-blue-black, snowcapped mountain peaks.




[1] From Cassab’s unpublished diaries I was kindly given access to, j studio her in Sydney. They hugely expand on the 1995 published version; there are 42 handwritten volumes.

[2] Cezanne was famously silent with his subjects, ‘from the moment he put down the first stroke until the end of the sitting, he treated the model like a still life.’ E.H. Gombrich, The Image and the Eye. Oxford: Phaidon, 1986, p 15.

[3] Judy Cassab Diaries, Sydney, Random House, 1995, p. 355

[4] Conversation with The Hon. Justice Michael Kirby, October 2013:

[5] Interview with Barbara Blackman. National Library of Australia, 1984.

[6] Capon, Edmund. Catalogue Rainbow Valley – the spirit of the place, Budapest, Vasarely Museum, 2003. P. 5.

[7] Judy Cassab: Diaries, p. 20.

[8] Klepac, Lou. Introduction to Judy Cassab, Portrait of Artists and Friends. Sydney: Beagle Press, 1998, p 22.

[9] Diaries, p. 127

[10] This portrait was done in Buckingham Palace in 1960, and to be presented on the Oriana, a great cruise ship. Diaries. P 111

[11] Niall, Brenda, Life Class: The Education of a Biographer, Carlton, Vic, Melbourne University Press, 2007, p 33.