It takes two to tango

Anne Sassoon’s globally-influenced paintings to be on display at Jerusalem Biennale.

Anne Sassoon painting (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anne Sassoon painting
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anne Sassoon incorporates numerous cultural worlds and spheres of thought and creation into her work. She also did a decent amount of globe-trotting over the years before eventually making Israel her home more than 20 years ago.
Born in the unlikely spot of Llandudno, a small town in North Wales, the now Jerusalem-based painter brings her meandering personal baggage to her variegated visual work, an array of which will soon be on display at Hechal Shlomo as part of the 2019 Jerusalem Biennale.
Sassoon’s familial backdrop is one of the typical wandering Jew.
“My great-grandfather on my mother’s side came from Poland,” she said. “He started a little jewelry shop. He was a little peddler from Poland at the age of 17.”
 Things eventually looked up for the young entrepreneur, when a bona fide celebrity happened by his modest business premises in Bangor along the coast from Llandudno, and just across the water from the island from Anglesey.
“One day, the Earl of Anglesey was looking for a trinket for a friend, and he came in and he liked this man who had a big kippah on,” she recounts.
It was to be a seismic career confluence for the young jeweler.
“They became the royal jewelers – Wartski’s – and they still make the royal wedding rings,” Sassoon said. Indeed, the long established company, now based in London, holds royal appointments as jewelers to the Queen and the Prince of Wales.
Sassoon’s paternal lineage, as her surname suggests, is of a very different ilk.
“My father’s parents had left Baghdad to live in England,” she explains. Her father was on leave from the British Army when he met her mother, and the rest is history.
“I think we must be the only half-Welsh, half-Iraqi family around,” she laughs.
That cultural overlap has stayed with Sassoon throughout her life and has informed her artistic work over the years, including her current show Two People Holding, curated by Ilan Wizgan.
“I’ve got different things that I plug into,” Sassoon explained. “The main thing that started when I came to Israel, at the very beginning, was the idea of couples. I realized, afterwards, why I was doing it. It’s because of the dualities of the ways of seeing things.”
Sassoon is straying, here, into political – or humanist – climes.
“Soon after I got here, somebody took me to Ramallah to look at some art there,” she recalls.
The next day, she got something of a ticking off for her foray across the Green Line.
“I was at the start of my Ulpan, and you had to think of something to say [in Hebrew],” Sassoon says. When she told the class that she visited Ramallah the day before, “The teacher got really cross. She said, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. It’s dangerous.’”
 Sassoon clearly didn’t think so – and still doesn’t.
“When I went to Ramallah, it was actually just before Independence Day, and that was when I first saw there was another side to it,” Sassoon said.
“It reminded me exactly of Alice going through the looking glass. You see the objects, but from the other side,” she posits, referencing Lewis Carroll’s 1871 sequel to the better-known Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
That resonated with Sassoon on various levels. She says she ventures into her own “wonderland” every time she applies brush to canvas.
“That is how I work: I love to not know quite what my subject is,” Sassoon said. “I have certain things that I am absolutely sure of doing, then I come back to it all the time. There’s always much more to the thing than I know.”
So, presumably, she is always surprised by the end result.
“Absolutely,” she declares. “That is exactly why I paint. That is why it is exciting to me.”
We first met a few weeks ago, in Sassoon’s cramped rooftop studio in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood. At the time, she was unsure about which works were going to make it to Hechal Shlomo, so it was beneficial to pop over to the third floor exhibition hall for a sneak preview before the grand opening on October 10. It made for impressive and captivating viewing.
The spread takes in about a dozen works of various sizes. The relatively diminutive proportions of Sassoon’s everyday working space means that she can’t compete with the permanent occupant of the room, a gargantuan oil depiction of Jerusalem by Reuven Rubin, which takes up most of one of the four walls.
Sassoon was not initially sure what to make of having her works share the same domain as their much larger neighbor but, true to her go-with-the-flow ethos, things ultimately worked out.
“I think this works well with the Rubin picture,” she notes of one of her more expansive paintings on the opposite wall to the Rubin. “You see this hill-shaped triangle, that sort of corresponds with Rubin’s hill of the Old City.”
It does indeed. The Sassoon work is a fascinating fusion of elements, shades and textures, with two large male figures in the foreground standing on a hill strewn with all kinds of vegetation, rocks and a couple of birds. I noted the intriguing appearance of an airplane near the top.
“That was inspired by The Baptism of Christ by [Early Renaissance Italian painter] Piero della Francesca,” Sassoon explains. “I like having things up there. It’s sort of like a reference point. Piero della Francesca has a bird at the top of his painting.”
Hence the inclusion of two feathered friends in Sassoon’s picture.
The pair of figures followed the exhibition theme, and there are other couples dotted around the show. Some appear quizzical, some a little comedic, and others having a more brooding feel to them.
Sassoon also knows a thing or two about the ugly political side of life. She and her husband, celebrated writer Benjamin Pogrund, fell foul of the South African authorities during the apartheid era and had to leave in the mid-1980s, relocating to London prior to making aliyah in 1997.
One, which Sassoon calls Pink Tie, Yellow Tie, shows two men who appear to be about to shake hands, but there is clearly no love lost between them. They appear highly suspicious of each other, and reluctant to actually meet.
“They are definitely politicians,” Sassoon laughs.