Born in 1958 in north London – where she has lived ever since – Julie Held is an uncompromisingly truthful painter of expressionistic vibrancy and rare sensitivity. She is the daughter of parents who came to England from Germany as refugees from Nazism in the late 1930s; her mother Gisela Held, who died when Julie was eighteen, was a talented sculptor (and the subject of a series of poignant posthumous portraits Julie makes every ten years). Julie’s father Peter, also the subject of portraits of humane, graceful gravitas, epitomises for her the intellectually curious and generous German Jewish culture from which he was exiled.
Some of the ghostly, translucently contoured figures in her paintings of family meals and other celebrations, seem implicitly to commemorate the memory of late family members – such as Julie’s beloved emigré grandmothers from her London childhood – but also they allude to the tragic absence of those in her extended family who died in the Holocaust.
As a student at Camberwell School of Art from 1977-81, Held found that in portraiture she had ‘instinctively found a form of expression I loved’. During visits then to the National Gallery, she admired Rembrandt’s painting Saskia Bathing for its sublime humanity and psychological acuity, and also Titian, ‘[for the way] he was able to invest the sitter with tremendous presence; that is also something I have always tried to get into my pictures.’
In her 2006-7 Self-Portrait, Held stands in winter at a flower stall in central London. She wears a simple black hat and an elegant fake-fur coat of old-fashioned luxuriance. The downcast gaze of her gaunt face (its wintry pinkness illumined with lunar tones) and her right hand’s slender index finger, each point towards an array of flowers: roses, a gerbera, freesias and fuschias, their diverse sensuous qualities evoked with sumptuous, sometimes sparkling colourism and calligraphic freeness.
‘I’m at a flower stall outside Oxford Circus Tube Station in Argyll Place, a passageway stretching from Oxford Street to Liberty’s department store – which I have happy memories of visiting as a child with my mother to see fabrics there; my mother was a dressmaker too. Although I was buying the flowers as a gift for someone, I suddenly had a memory of buying flowers for my mother years before when she was ill in hospital. The deep sadness I often felt as a child as she sometimes withdrew emotionally from me, came to mind. At the time I had felt fenced in in my attempt to reach out to her. As a child, I had had no language to articulate this – and didn’t understand it till much later in life. In the picture. there was also this idea of the brightness within the encompassing darkness – the joy that flowers give, however sad the predicament. My mother loved flowers.’
The painting conveys the artist’s epiphany as her enigmatically withdrawn figure gestures towards the mystical glow of orange freesia blossoms, the most delicate of flowers. ‘No longer was it a lovely dark sky but it became a luminescent cobalt blue in my imagination and suddenly against the background of blue all the flowers seem to come to life, and I had a glimpse of the ones I wanted, and I tried to retain that moment in the painting.’ Held once said, ‘Even under the shadow of an illness or a very bleak period in your life, a flowering clematis can bring you momentary great pleasure and joy.’
To the picture’s far right is a refreshing narrow band of turquoise – perhaps a partial, abstracted glimpse of the apparatus of the modest flower stall. Through skilful painterly handling – and the exploratory elaboration of preparatory drawings – the simple stall has attained the presence of a sanctuary celebrating an urgent momentary blossoming of hope.
An exhibition, Living Memories: A Life Living in Portraits (London Jewish Cultural Centre, 2015) contained a number of self-portraits Held has made over the years – as a swimmer, gardener and bride and even a mythic voyager through strange, hallucinatory seas (once seen seated naked in the luscious, glistening flesh of a scooped-out Mango Boat) – a slight yet still wiry, resolute figure. Her exhibition Living London (11 Princelet Street, Spitalfields, 2014) contained two recent self-portraits (one tellingly titled Outside-In), in which stylish, costly shoes and handbags are alluringly and austerely displayed on glass shelves, whilst in the street outside the vulnerable-seeming, casually attired figure of the artist peers in, hauntingly transfixed, it seems, by the enticingly chic window display.
Held doesn’t like to make what she considers artificial dichotomies between early twentieth century avant-garde Austro-German Expressionism, on the one hand, and Fauvism and the École de Paris on the other – in fact, she has been considerably inspired and galvanised in her own painting by what she discerns as their creative cosmopolitan confluence. She admires the British expressionist painter Leon Kossoff for ‘the ability to pursue another human being…with the utmost emotional respect’.
Self-portraits that Held says have especially impressed and moved her include Titian’s profound Pietà (c.1575) – made not long before his death – as a near-naked, plaintive old man; Munch’s startling, tumultuous Self-Portrait with a Cigarette (1895); Matisse’s wildly radical Self-Portrait in Striped Tee Shirt (1906); searingly frank late Bonnard self-portraits in the bathroom mirror; and the late Rembrandt self-portrait (c.1695) at Kenwood House, Hampstead, which Held admires for ‘its marvellous ageless vigour’.
Held currently teaches at the Royal Drawing School in London. Her paintings are in collections of the Ben Uri, London; New Hall, Cambridge; Nuffield College, Oxford; and the Culture Department, City of Leipzig – the city where Julie’s father Peter Held and his family came from.