Award-Winning Artist and Holocaust Survivor Judy Cassab Dead at 95

She won the coveted Archibald Prize twice in her lifetime.

Filippa Buttitta, Judy Cassab ‒ portrait of an artist (detail), a finalist for the Archibald Prize 2015. Photo: Filippa Buttitta/Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Filippa Buttitta, Judy Cassab ‒ portrait of an artist (detail), a finalist for the Archibald Prize 2015. Photo: Filippa Buttitta/Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Judy Cassab with her paintings in 2011. Photo: Brendan Esposito, via the <em>Syndey Morning Herald</em>.

Judy Cassab with her paintings in 2011.
Photo: Brendan Esposito, via the Syndey Morning Herald.

Judy Cassab, an artist and a Holocaust survivor, died of cancer in the early morning hours of November 3 at age 95. She had been suffering from dementia for 14 years, and had been diagnosed with melanoma six months ago.

She was born in Vienna in 1920, and began painting as a girl. “Her mother bought her a set of crayons for her twelfth birthday and she drew a drawing of her grandmother, which was the first drawing she had ever done in her life,” Cassab’s son Peter Kampfner told ABC. “And [it looks like it was painted] with the hand of a 50-year-old master. We still have that drawing today.”

As a young woman, she studied art in Prague after making an agreement with her future husband, Jancsi Kampfher, to be an artist and not a “hausfrau,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. In 1939, her studies were interrupted by the German occupation of the city, and Kampfner was forced to work in a labor camp. Afterward, he went into hiding, while Cassab disguised herself as a Gentile maid.

Both the couple’s families died in concentration camps, and Kampfner’s anti-Soviet political views caused him to lose his job following the war. After they emigrated to Australia, Cassab rededicated herself to painting and became a fixture of the Sydney art scene.

Judy Cassab, portrait of Marea Gazzard (1966). Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Judy Cassab, portrait of Marea Gazzard (1966). Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

She was the first woman to win Australia’s coveted Archibald Prize for best portrait, taking top honors in 1960 for her painting of artist Stanislav Roptec, and again in 1966, for her portrait of artist Margo Lewers.

Among her other honors, Cassab was named a commander of the order of the British Empire in 1969, and an officer of the Order of Australia in 1988. In 2011, she received Hungary’s Gold Cross of Merit.

“She was somebody who really knew what her vocation was very young and sustained it in a really committed and tenacious way for her whole life,” said Anne Ryan, curator of Sydney’s New South Wales Art Gallery, to ABC. “That was an impressive thing, especially for a woman of her generation. It wasn’t easy for women to succeed in the Australian art world and she certainly did.”

Filippa Buttitta, <em>Judy Cassab ‒ portrait of an artist</em> (detail), a finalist for the Archibald Prize 2015. Photo: Filippa Buttitta/Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Filippa Buttitta, Judy Cassab ‒ portrait of an artist (detail), a finalist for the Archibald Prize 2015.
Photo: Filippa Buttitta/Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Australian artist Filippa Buttitta painted Cassab last year for her entry to the Archibald Prize 2015, where she was a finalist; she visited the elderly artist at her nursing home about 20times to capture her likeness.

“I found the regular visits and companionship of such a great artist extremely rewarding and motivating,” said Buttitta of the experience on the Archibald Prize website. “I was delighted when she actually touched the work with her own brush and even more delighted to see her undertake a few small works of her own, having not painted for nearly two years.”

Kampfner died in 2001. The couple is survived by their sons, John and Peter, grandsons, Bodhi and River, and great-granddaughter, Jala.


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