Judy Cassab's affair with the landscape of central Australia began almost forty years ago. In the winter of 1959 she made a trip to Alice Springs, the first of several that were to span three decades.
The idea of painting central Australia had first been suggested to her by Frank Clune, less than two years after her arrival in Australia from Europe with her family in 1951. He pointed out that Nolan had been there, and it was waiting for others. Before Nolan, Drysdale had travelled to the interior of drought-stricken New South Wales and miraculously transformed the scenes he witnessed into something strange and haunting. She needed little convincing. She bought a plane ticket and painting materials, and was ready to fly in July 1953. There were two pounds left in her purse. Nervous tension overwhelmed her, she fell sick, the trip was cancelled.
Over the next six years she established herself as a successful portraitist in Sydney. Her talent for painting the figure was an advantage, enabling the family to survive financially. But it also proved to be a kind of impediment: these were difficult years in terms of what and how she should paint. Waves of abstraction washed over the cultural shores of the city and seduced its artists. An exhibition of contemporary French art came to Australia in 1953, reinforcing a new language, a new way of seeing. Local European advocates were formidable. Her friends Paul Haefliger, a Swiss, and Desiderius Orban, a fellow Hungarian, praised the formal qualities of painting over the representative. 'Do you want to be a fashionable portraitist or do you want to be an artist? Try something you haven't tried before, for God's sake. Try abstract,' Haefliger encouraged her. Orban would tell her to stop painting her portraits from the centre outwards, and that she should begin with the edges of the picture plane and move inwards. Figuration, abstraction; she struggled fiercely with these polarities.
In 1959 she found the desert. The desert found her. She heard her own voice stir. She realised fully at last the justification of her decision to come to Australia.
The relevant darkness of the night is soothing. 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 in spots and hues, something on which the painter's glance focuses. Here, it's 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.
She moved towards her material and her work began to sing. Ormiston George, Emily's Gap, Glen Helen, Standley Chasm, Simpson's Gap, Rainbow Valley. In such places she began to eliminate the horizon and found an abstraction already wrought by nature and time. Close up, far away, scale no longer mattered. Her struggle with polarities now became concentrated to one purpose: to capture the magic of this place; to translate into paint the poetry of her new sense of immersion. Occasionally, amid the ecstasy of her feeling about the landscape she must have combed through the pain of her past, and grasped the logic of it: the horror of Hitler's yellow star, persecution and murder, separation, and the uneasy promise of a new world for a family stained with sadness and loss. In the surreal, purifying space of central Australia these memories fell into place as quite simply the travails and stages of a painter's journey. In that space she found salvation.
Rich impastoes, delicate washes over white canvas or paper, traces of powdery black charcoal, here burning colour, there little colour at all, passages of luminosity, deep shadows embracing the enigma of all images, mystery of paint, mystery of subject, mystery of self. Here has been created the domain of a visual poet, come together in a beautiful collection of landscapes in which the essential Judy Cassab might be rediscovered. *
* quotes from Judy Cassab: Diaries A. Knopf, Sydney 1995.