BOOK REVIEW: JUDY CASSAB: A PORTRAIT, By Brenda Niall, Allen & Unwin,
17 September 2005
CAMERON WOODHEAD, REVIEWER
© 2005 Copyright John Fairfax Holdings Limited. www.theage.com.au
IN 1996, Judy Cassab invited Brenda Niall to sit for a noncommissioned
portrait. Nearly a decade later, Niall has returned the favour in prose.
Having won accolades for previous biographies of leading Australian
contributors to the arts - a life of pioneer painter Georgiana McCrae,
another of writer Martin Boyd, and notably a book tracing the exploits
of the talented Boyd family - Niall is perfectly placed to write a
biography of one of Australia's most celebrated female painters.
Born in 1920, Cassab spent most of her early life living with her
mother's family in Beregszasz, a town whose nationality shifted with the
political upheavals of 20th-century Europe. During Cassab's childhood,
while retaining its Hungarian cultural heritage, the town benefited from
Czech liberal democracy.
In this fragile time of peace between the wars, Cassab lived in a
household composed entirely of adults: her mother, two uncles and one
aunt, all overseen by her imposing grandmother, the matriarch of the
family, who had inherited a brick factory on her husband's death.
Despite the lack of friends her own age, Cassab thrived: she read widely
and her prodigious talent for drawing likenesses became apparent even
By the time she left school, her ambition to become an artist had become
a conviction. And she soon found an unexpected ally: on a school trip to
a neighbouring town, she met Jansci Kampfner - the wealthy manager of
the vast estates of Count Schonborn. Although he was twice her age, they
fell in love.
Prudently, Kampfner insisted that Cassab spend a year studying in Prague
before committing to marriage. Cassab, likewise, made her intentions
clear: "I love you - and I will marry you - but you must always let me
be an artist."
As 1938 rolled into 1939, German tanks rolled into Prague. Cassab was
young, but she knew enough about what had happened to the Jews of Vienna
on Kristallnacht to know that she had to return home. Arriving at the
German embassy to obtain a visa, she had nearly reached the counter when
a voice came over the loudspeaker informing her that all Jews should go
to the back of the queue. Instinctively, she obeyed.
It was her first taste of anti-Semitism. As Hitler's shadow grew longer,
it would only get worse.
Kampfner and Cassab were married in March 1939 to the sound of distant
cannon fire as the Hungarian army quelled isolated Czech resistance in
the background. Count Schonborn attended, although he asked not to
appear in any wedding photographs. Within two years, Schonborn would be
drafted into the Luftwaffe; his former manager and friend, ineligible
for military service, would be conscripted into a forced labour unit.
Cassab and Kampfner survived the horror and deprivation of war, and
evaded Eichmann's murderous Final Solution, but only just. Cassab was
given fake documents by her former maid; Kampfner was hidden in a
friend's cellar in Budapest. Returning to Beregszasz after the war, they
found little more than a ghost town. Almost all the vibrant Jewish
community, including most of Cassab's family, had been deported to
Auschwitz in cattle trucks. They never came back.
The years immediately after the war were a whirlwind of activity: Cassab
toured the galleries of Western Europe, her painting career took off,
and she had two sons. By 1950, the need to escape the torments of the
past overwhelmed the couple and they emigrated with their young family
For Cassab, adapting to life in Australia was a challenge made easier by
her extraordinary talent as an artist. At the time, female artists were
not taken seriously. Max Meldrum had commented, when Nora Heysen became
the first woman to win the Archibald Prize in 1938, that it was "sheer
lunacy" to expect women to paint as well as men.
But Cassab proved him wrong. Within five years, she had picked up her
first art award. Shortly thereafter, she was commissioned to paint royal
portraits. In 1961, and again in 1967, she won the Archibald Prize.
Cassab was the first Australian woman to become an internationally
recognised painter in her own right, without having to be reclaimed by
feminist critics and art historians.
Behind her public success story, though, she remained plagued by
vulnerability. Several times, the psychological stress of her horrific
past led to near breakdowns. Her marriage, while loving, was also
stormy. The same woman who could scoff that giving an award to female
artists was like having one for "artists with red hair", nevertheless
had substantial difficulty reconciling her career with her role as a
wife and mother.
Niall does a wonderful job bringing her vivacious, complex subject to
life. Parts of her book are so skilfully told, they almost seem animated
by the spirit of fiction.
If there is one complaint, it is that Niall's account of Cassab's
development as an artist is too superficial. But this isn't art
criticism, it's biography - and as a portrait of the artist it's about
as intelligent, dramatic and entertaining as you could hope for.