Fiona Leckerman chats to acclaimed artist Julie Held about her new exhibition, inspired by memories of her late mother.
The artist Julie Held is immensely articulate and softly spoken as she discusses her forthcoming exhibition, entitled Living Memories: A Life Living in Portraits.
The recently merged JW3 and London Jewish Cultural Centre will mount both a retrospective of her portraits and the unveiling of new ones commissioned for the show, which will be displayed at Ivy House from the end of June.
Julie is exceptionally excited about the prospect, the idea for which she attributes to LJCC curator Julia Weiner, whom she describes as “a tremendous curator and a delight to work with”.
The exhibition will showcase Held’s life’s work of portraits, the subjects of which are largely family and, in particular, her parents. Held’s mother, Gisela, died 40 years ago, when Held was just 18, after a long and protracted illness and it was perhaps the catharsis of grief that is reflected in her early work.
Held explains that up until she was in her 30s, the memories of her mother dominated her work.
Her mother, also an artist, was perhaps the catalyst for Held’s love affair with painting when, as a small child, she and her siblings were handed little pieces of clay with which to play. “I remember on my third birthday, my parents bought me a miniature vacuum cleaner and a drawing book. I knew instantly what thrilled me more – it was the drawing book and colours,” she recalls.
Her imaginings of her mother continued throughout her life and each year she paints her at the age she would have been. This year would have been her 90th birthday and for the first time Held decided to place her together with her father, Peter, whom she has also painted fervently throughout her life. “It was how I imagined them as a very elderly couple. I just completed a painting of my stepmother and father and that double portrait gave me the idea to include my mother,” she explains.
Held is a colourist and her work stems from the tradition of painting oil on canvas.
The portraits are rich and the paint is used with a depth that works to express Held’s feelings for her subjects. She started painting portraits as a student at Camberwell College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools, exhibiting at a number of galleries in London, Prague, Hamburg and Leipzig and she continues to teach at the Royal Drawing School.
The portraits of her father are both strong and loving, one of which was featured in the 2013 BP Portrait Award at The National Portrait Gallery. She says:“I hope people can look at the paintings and be able to see facets of their own lives.”
Held is heavily influenced by Titian and Rembrandt and describes Matisse as the great love of her life.
She says: “Once something is in my imagination, it lives with me.”
Judaism features significantly in her early art.
Although her mother’s belief in God was troubled owing to the loss of family members in the Holocaust, she always endeavoured to celebrate Shabbat and the festivals, carrying on the heritage. It was only after her mother’s death that these traditions suddenly ceased. “In my early works, I painted the things that were no longer in my life because there was a great sense of loss,” she explains.
This is depicted by her mother’s inclusion in these family portraits, sometimes joining the family and other times appearing as a ghostly figure watching from outside of a window.
Held admits that her proclivity to reimagine her mother was a large aspect of her early work, but says she is now focusing on the future and describes the exhibition as both a commemoration and celebration.
•Julie Held – Living Memories: A Life Living in Portraits is showing at Ivy House until 26 June