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Holocaust survivor and two time Archibald Prize winner Judy Cassab has died

2015 Archibald Prize finalist Filippa Buttitta’s portrait of Judy Cassab
© the artist. Photo: © AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins.

One of Australia’s greatest portrait painters, Judy Cassab, AO, CBE, has died. She was 95.

Born Judit​ Kaszab​ into a Hungarian Jewish intellectual family in 1920, she came to Australia as a refugee in 1951 with her husband and two infant sons. Cassab quickly established herself as a portraitist of renown. Fellow artist Jeffrey Smart compared the two time Archibald Prize winner to Cezanne.

Sydney was a lucky new life for Cassab, who managed to survive the Holocaust in which her mother, grandmother and uncle perished at Auschwitz. Her late husband, Jancsi Kampfner, who also lost his family, met Cassab when she was aged 18 and he was twice her age. They married in 1939, and two years later he was conscripted to work in a Polish labour camp. He sent her away to protect her. When she heard he was being sent by cattle train from Poland to Russia and it would pass through her home town of Beregszasz, on the Ukrainian/Hungarian border, she snuck aboard and spent four hours together before she jumped off at the Russian border. Two years would pass before they saw each other again.

Cassab went to Budapest to pursue her painting studies in 1943, but a year later, after Kampfner was released but then went into hiding, Cassab abandoned art to work in a factory and help the Jewish underground, posing as her Gentile maid to avoid the Nazis.

Kampfner’s anti-Russian views cost him his job after the war and they moved to Vienna, seeking a new land, going from wealthy Europeans to penniless immigrants. They ended up in a Bondi boarding house and she appeared to have what might now be diagnosed as PTSD, but there were funny moments, like the time David Jones store owner Charles Lloyd Jones turning up in his Rolls Royce to pick up Cassab, who was painting his wife.

Judy Cassab’s 1967 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Margo Lewers. © the artist

Kampfner’s dogged insistence that his wife pursue her artistic career paid off four years into their new life, when she won the Australian Women’s Weekly portrait prize with a painting of model Judy Barraclough and then again in 1956 with a picture of fellow artist Elaine Haxton.

A decade on, she won the Archibald for the first time in 1961 painting fellow artist Stanislaus Rapotec, then for a second time in ’67 capturing colleague Margo Lewers. She was made a commander of British Empire the following year and was kept busy painting the good and the great of Australian life, and royalty from around the planet.

Her portraits of Joan Sutherland and Robert Helpmann are in the Sydney Opera House.

Cassab was made officer of the Order of Australia in 1988. Her son Janoska rebelled to an extent, moving to northern NSW in the hinterland between Byron Bay and Nimbin, campaigning to save the region’s now world-heritage listed rainforests. He changed his name to John Seed and became one of the great heroes of the environmental movement. Her other son, Peterke (Peter), became a property developer.

Her marriage to Kampfner lasted more than six decades until his death in 2001. On the day he died he told her “if there is an afterlife I will love you from there.”

In 1995 Cassab published the story of her life, based on a diary she’d kept since 12 years of age. The simply titled Diaries (Random House) is the story of an extraordinary life, including, surprisingly, the guilt of a mother committed to her work.

In the last years of her life, Cassab gave away many of her works to regional Australian galleries. Her former home went up for sale in September.

The Art Gallery of NSW, where she was just the second female on the board of trustees, paid tribute to Cassab, with director Michael Brand saying “Judy was a child prodigy, having painted her first portrait, of her grandmother, at the age of 12, but lived through some terrible times, both personal and political. Her commitment to art, along with her good nature, allowed her to live a full and satisfying life during which she made a significant contribution to Australian art”.

She is survived by John and Peter, two grandsons and a great-granddaughter.

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