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The dark and troubled waters behind Virginia Woolf portrait

When painting portraits, artists can’t help but work in their own impression of their subject


Shoshana Kertesz

Portrait of Virginia Woolf

For Hungarian artist Shoshana Kertesz, “art was my true voice”. She remembers “ferociously colouring, drawing — inside books, on the wall, even on paper”. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would reply “a marker pen artist”.

Her father was also attracted to the arts, and “once the Iron Curtain fell in Hungary, he was able to pursue his desire to design furniture and open a contemporary art gallery.”

Kertesz’s interest in “the human psyche” meant she was “always drawn to portraiture”.

At Montazs Art School, Jozsef Baska encouraged students to find their own voice, telling them that “mistakes, or deviations from reality is what makes art art — but you have to earn your right to make those ‘mistakes’ once you have mastered the basics."

In 2003, six years after graduating, she left Budapest for Jerusalem.

“I'm Jewish on my mother’s side, and I wanted to explore that part of my heritage. A unique atmosphere surrounds the Old City — no wonder there’s a condition called ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’, where some visitors have some sort of cathartic experience.”

In 2010 she moved to the United States and settled in New Jersey. “It’s never easy to move — but for artists, all we need is a room of one’s own.”

Kertesz’s wide-ranging subject matter includes paintings and photographs of writers, poets, musicians, Biblical subjects, a street juggler, and even the Brooklyn Bridge.

“My focus is still on the human — but I like to be surprised when I walk down the street and see a very photogenic pigeon.”

 What prompted her to undertake this portrait of Virginia Woolf, currently on show in the Women’s History Month group exhibition at the Rotunda Gallery, Jersey City Town Hall until March 31?

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“Quentin Bell’s biography inspired me. Woolf’s difficult early years, her feminism, her marriage, her relationships, her writing, her death — all these things made Woolf who she was.

"It was like standing in her presence and inhaling, and exhaling, during the painting process, onto the canvas.”

As an artist, Kertesz relates to Woolf’s struggle.

“Her breakdowns seem to coincide with her finishing a book. Artists expose their inner being to the general public. The artistic process is like a birthing process and the ‘baby’ will be one that the artist treasures as their own whether it is ‘perfect’ or not.

"But since art is the act of giving, the artist — male or female — has to face that the baby is now released into a world that can be cold and cruel. It is scary.”

She doesn’t paint every day. “Sometimes a work takes time to crystallise.”

Graphic design and background acting in films supplement her income. During the Covid pandemic, her husband, a classical musician, is having all his performances cancelled. Kertesz, in the meantime, is making pencil drawings for an exhibition Art in the Age of Covid.

With portraits, Kertesz says, “artists can’t help but paint their own impression of the model.

"In Jacob’s Room, my favourite Woolf work, we only get ideas of Jacob’s personality through the impression of others.

"I cannot fully know Virginia Woolf — but I can share my impression of her based on photographs, her writing, her life experiences, some of which I feel a deep connection to.”

Kertesz’s Virginia Woolf wears white and black, has an intent, serious, reflective expression. And that dark blue background?

“I usually paint first and think later, sometimes going only with an instinct. I thought this colour would fit her well — but looking back, I realise that this colour is the colour of troubled waters, waters that she chose as her final destination.”

And that happened 80 years ago today. On March 28, 1941, a Friday, “a bright, clear, cold day”, according to Quentin Bell, Woolf, wrote three letters, two to her husband, one to her sister — and at about 11.30am left her house at Rodmell in Sussex, made her way across the water-meadows to the river Ouse, and drowned herself.

But Kertesz’s portrait remembers Woolf as a deep-thinking, brilliant, living presence.

Instagram: @shoshker / shoshanakertesz.com

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