Sydney artist bathed in the creative light of Italy
She quickly made friends, starting with the consular official of the Australian Embassy, Bob Hincksman, also a painter. Within a week, she was invited to a weekend in a villa in Lazio, north of Rome. There she met Isabella Tacoli. The two became the closest friends of each other for the next 45 years. Isabella recalls, “She met all of our friends and was loved by everyone. “
Then there were the expatriates from Australia – writer David Malouf and artists Justin O’Brien, Jeffrey Smart, Peter and Susan Ward – and many others who traveled to Tuscan villages for their ‘interpretation’ of the Italian light. Janet was in a new “circle”.
She would get up and go out early, set up her easel in the streets of Rome, work until lunchtime, and return to paint in the afternoon light. The routine remained the same all her life. By the mid-1960s, Janet was in her element. In the Italian summer of 1964, two years after Janet’s arrival, she met the love of her life, Wael Zuaiter, a Palestinian translator, at an artists’ fair on Via Margutta in Rome. Janet was 39, Wael 31.
Zuaiter helped bring his paintings home and serenaded him with a song from Shakespeare’s sonnets, A lover and his daughter, while they walked. Janet later said: “I was very impressed. The fact that he knew this song that we sang at school. I was very drawn to him.
One of his painter friends, Egidio Scardamaglia, remembers: “She was madly in love, it shows. And [it was] definitely, completely mutual.
Janet spent seven happy years with her Palestinian partner. They shared literary interests, the love of beautiful music, painting and opera. Wael helped her organize a series of very successful exhibitions. Together they entertained a variety of European intellectuals like Maxine Rodinson, Jean Genet, Bruno Cagli and Alberto Moravia. They were on the social circuits of many embassies.
When Zuaiter came home one evening in August 1972 with a marriage certificate for Janet, she was elated. Her diary says she told her mother “the next time I come home, it will be with Wael”. Janet was already the best friend of Wael’s sister, Naila. The two families were ready to merge.
It was not to be. Two months later, on October 19, 1972, Wael Zuaiter was assassinated by an Israeli Mossad commando. This was allegedly because Zuaiter was involved in the deaths of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. But in November 1993, the BBC interviewed a key player in Zuaiter’s death: Major General Aharon Yariv, adviser Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s special on terrorism in 1972. The last question and answer was: “Q: So these people were not just people your intelligence agencies thought were responsible for Munich?” A: Not necessarily, not necessarily at all. Some of them were linked to Munich, others were not.
In 2005, an Israeli journalist from Time Aaron J Klein magazine wrote a book on the Munich murders and retaliation in 1972. On Zuaiter’s murder, he concludes: “In hindsight, his assassination was a mistake.
Janet’s take was different: she said Wael was killed because he was a nonviolent public intellectual and activist for Palestine. Her family stood behind her. His beloved niece Louise Cox, then 19, flew to Rome to help mend her aunt’s trauma. Janet edited a book, “For a Palestinian: dedicated to the voice of Wael Zuaiter”, containing a series of reflections from global public intellectuals who knew Wael. And a string of Arab embassies contacted her to offer her, now “wife” of a martyr, work. That same year, she decided to quit abstract expressionism and to paint figuratively again.
The eight years between 1979 and 1986 were his “Arab period”. Italy takes a back seat and responds to invitations from seven Arab countries to “paint with us”. Janet’s first sight of Yemen’s capital Sana’a stunned her with its architectural beauty.
His paintings of the Persian Gulf were exhibited at the prestigious Galleria La Margherita in Rome in 1982 and received rave reviews. High traffic Unita: “There is delicacy, there is melody, there is respect for man: these are the qualities that we find in his paintings.
Despite the success, Janet had doubts about the safety of the streets of Rome. At 63, after a collision with a motorcycle, she decides to return to her age-old skills in interior painting. This was aided by his newfound fascination with an Italian interior design theorist, Mario Praz. He called it “interiority”: exploring the individual from his environment.
She started with her faithful friends: the house of Justin O’Brien, then that of Bruno Cagli and finally the studio of Jeffrey Smart. His childhood skills were very useful to him. Some of his best works were made around this time and are hung in Italian homes.
In 1993, she had an exhibition in Cetona, near Florence. The same year, the Princess of Jordan offered him to do another exhibition in Amman. Janet agreed. In 1999, Caroline Simpson met her in Rome and asked her to paint Sydney’s historic building, the Clydebank. She accepted, but returned to Rome.
In Janet’s heart, she knew why her family in Sydney were starting to question her decision to grow old in Rome. At 72, she felt like her friends were in Italy, but her family was in Sydney. She faced an agonizing choice. It was time to go home. When she made up her mind in 2005 to leave Rome, she said her goodbyes at a big dinner in Piazza del Popolo, offered by the President of the Province of Rome.
She returned to Sydney in December 2008. For the past 13 years, she has painted Glebe interiors, attended Palestinian protests for the Women in Black group outside Sydney City Hall and regularly visited Sydney’s Italian restaurants. . She kept in touch with her friends in Italy by phone. Her determination to speak Italian whenever she could told me that Janet was still wondering if she had done the right thing.
The National Library of Australia has preserved his papers, diaries, letters and some paintings for future generations.
Peter Manning is the author of Janet Venn-Brown: A Life in Art.