Striving For Light — An Exhibition by Judy Cassab

Opening speech by Gábor Ébli

Half a century ago, Judy Cassab, then aged 21, emigrated to Australia. Two decades later, she featured in an exhibition in Budapest dedicated to Hungarian artists living abroad. Another three decades later, today that is, her first solo exhibition is to open in Hungary.

Born in Vienna, Judy was raised in Beregovo in the Ukraine and studied at the Fine Arts College in Prague. She had a true blue Central European youth, one could say — but with the shady side of it. With luck and courage she survived the Holocaust and continued her studies in arts as soon as it was possible. She studied with Aurél Bernáth and Lipót Herman. In 1947, she exhibited at the National Salon. She admired Béla Czóbel as her master who made an excellent portrait of her. The picture of the pretty young woman with two children with Czóbel's well-known, thick brush strokes now graces Judy's house by the bay in Sydney.

In the meantime, Judy became an acknowledged painter in Australia. She has had shows regularly since 1953 in every city of the continent country. As a portraitist, she received countless commissions from overseas, from India to the British royal family. Her autobiography in English, compiled from her diary entries, became a bestseller in 1995 and is still in demand. Desiderius Orbán, the erstwhile member of the famous Group of Eight and the acknowledged arts educator, who also lived in Australia after 1933, became a strict master of hers, and later a close friend. In 1979, they had a joint exhibition at Gallery One in Sydney. In London, she had two solo shows at the gallery operated by the Hungarian emigré and successful art dealer, Crane Kalman.

A proof of the popularity of Judy's art is her having won twice the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture and the Wynne Prize for aquarelle landscapes four times. The 35 paintings in this present exhibition draw on this material. This is also the point where artistic methods become interesting. With modernism gaining ground, portraits and landscapes seemed obsolete by the second third of the 20th century. Portraits seemed to be replaced by photographs; landscapes inspired by nature were pushed into the background by abstraction.

In reviving portraiture, Judy might have drawn on her European background in the first place. Her sensitivity for the personality helped her to compress her impressions — internal, rather than just the external ones — about her models into visual signs. She has a long and casual chat with the subjects of her portraits. The opening impulse to the painting comes from finding the colour that best reflects the model's personality. She used charcoal to sketch the draft on the unstretched canvas and then apply patches of swiftly moving oil paint, often mixed with acrylic paint. The background and the main figure, the independent dynamism of the coulour patches and the recognisable features of the individual complement one another and are pulled into a whole by finally painting the eye.

With landscapes, Judy's sense for psychology and her training in classical painting that she had prought with her from Europe did not help much. But the magical effect of the Australian land becomes evident here. The centre of the country is dominated by rocks that are surrounded by such strong and unusual lights that no painter can withstand their influence. In Judy's art, this experience brought about a turn in the 1960s. She visited Alice Springs for the first time in 1959 and has kept returning to the magical Uluru ever since. Although she still takes pleasure in painting portraits to this day, her real accomplishments were landscapes that teeter on the brink of abstraction and naturalism. She was looking for opportunities for abstraction, yet she was reluctant to create in the non-figurative vein just to follow modernist abstraction which, by today, has been simplified to mere fashion. This is how the mixing of object and non-object was invented in her paintings.

The shapes and forms on the ground captured at various positions of the sun, the metriculously elaborated porous rocks of the shift in human perception in changing light conditions provide the subjects for these paintings. The works are completed in three stages. Based on the artist's experience on the spot, the free and abstract grounding is made. A partly figurative object follows this composition. Then comes the completion by the projection of various levels onto one another, which suggest the dynamism of space. The titles of the paintings sometimes remind of the natural origin itself (Desert Night, Rainbow Valley at Dawn, White Ridge), while in other cases they refer to impressions by shapes and forms (Approaching the Caves, Go with the Flow, Transition). Quite often even the ill-concealed spiritual inspiration becomes apparent: Omen, Striving for the Light and The Gilded Secret.

This is where the true force of the works derives from. They give evidence of the natural environment, modern painting and pantheism all at the same time. They bring closer to us a world that is barely inhabited by humans. It is totally artificial and artistic tools have been used to capture an almost intact, unique natural environment. The richness of hues of emerald, red and orange and the splendour of forms come to life here. Depending on their tastes, everyone can view them as an imaginary journey to the distant land, as an artistic bravura or spiritual vision. It might be worth discovering all three values in them.