The Nonagenarian Jewish Painter Who Escaped the Nazis and Embraced a Life of Colour

From her flight from Europe to the Caribbean during WWII to her studies under Oskar Kokoschka, Suzanne Perlman's life has been as colourful as her striking paintings.

After the Bath (1978)

From the New Mexico desertscape that so inspired Georgia O’Keeffe to the outdoor pleasures of California life that ignited the imagination of a young David Hockney, the intricacies of setting have long impacted the style and sentiment of artists’ work. In the case of Hungarian artist Suzanne Perlman, it is the Caribbean island of Curaçao that is evoked through the vivid colour palette of her paintings. The sunglazed idyll in the Dutch Antilles was her home for more than 30 years, the place where she learnt to paint, and where she established herself as an artist. This week, the first ever retrospective of the 95-year-old’s work, opened at the Dutch Centre in London, encompassing more than 70 years and three continents. The survey offers a unique opportunity to discover the extraordinary story behind Perlman’s impressive yet relatively little-known oeuvre and the places that have informed it.

Beyond the bright hues, there’s a complexity to Perlman’s work that can be traced back to the nature of her arrival on Curaçao. “These were tormented times,” she remembers, with some understatement. Indeed, the artist was not enticed to Curaçao on a sanguine search for warmer climes; rather it was the last stop in a dramatic escape from Europe forced by the Nazi invasion of France.

L: Seated Nude (1969); R: Road to Brakkeput (1951)

1939 was a transformative year for Perlman. Jewish, born and raised in Budapest, at just 16 she had married the Dutch grain importer Henri Perlman, and moved to Rotterdam. Henri was awarded a tender to supply grain to French troops and to finalise the contract the couple were invited to Paris for the weekend. This was May 1940. Three days after they arrived, the Nazi bombardment of Rotterdam began, leaving them stranded in France. The Dutch ambassador advised them to make for one of Holland’s overseas territories, so they ran headlong to the train station. “Everything was out of control,” Perlman recalls. “There was such an enormous crowd on the platform that the trains simply passed by. My husband saved our lives – as one train came past he threw our bags through the open window and jumped on with me held under his arm. That got us to Bordeaux.”

Perlman with her painting of the Government’s House in Curaçao

But they were not safe yet. More chaos awaited them at the port, with thousands of refugees clamouring to board too few boats. The Perlmans made it aboard one bound for Curaçao, but it languished in the port for a week without explanation, until it was discovered that the captain was a Nazi sympathiser waiting for the Germans to take over France. The police ordered him out of Bordeaux, but only just in time. “The night we left, the French Armistice was signed.”

So Suzanne Perlman, at just 17 years old, left her world behind and sailed across mine infested waters to a new home in the Caribbean and a new vocation. “I began painting in Curaçao,” she says. “I was in complete wonder with the nature, the people, the colours and the sunshine of my new home and I had an urgency, a duty to respond to it. The trauma didn’t affect my style of painting but the way I saw the world. I sought to discover a simplicity, an honesty, a fairness in my work.”

Abstract Nude (1973)

This seismic shift of horizon jump-started a career spanning eight decades, three continents and hundreds of works. The nonagenarian still goes to her studio every day, which has moved from the Caribbean, via New York, to settle in London in 1980. The new show, Catching the Ephemeral, at the Dutch Centre, explores Perlman’s practice through a microcosm of 25 pieces that have been grouped according to these different geographical phases: Curaçao 1941-71, New York 1970-8, London 2002-18.

For Perlman, moving is at the heart of her identity as a painter. “My style is constantly evolving,” she says, “what you call in Italian perpetuum mobile, a perpetual motion. I am sure all these different places played a part because you cannot help being influenced by your environment. But you are selective with these influences. You embrace your new culture and you take from it what you appreciate the most and what makes the most sense for you.”

L: Bride and Groom (2008); R: Silvio Tadeus (1975)

It is not just physical place that informs her work. In the ‘6os in Salzberg, she worked with the famed Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka whose advice – “The very first impression of a vision is crucial to retain” – gives the exhibition its name. Echoes of Kokoschka’s energetic use of colour and vision of movement shimmer through Perlman’s pieces, but ultimately her take on the world is uniquely her own.

In Perlman’s work resides a complex layering of lightness and infinity, moments caught as they pass and cleaved to a decades of experience and understanding. As her eye moves from nude figures emerging from baths, to solemn couples, to self portraits, to a hectic swirl of humanity enjoying a bank holiday in St James’ Park, what remains consistent is her curiosity, her compassion, her masterful control of colour and emotion.

“Every time, before I pick up the brush to paint I look at the motif as something totally new,” she says. “Like I was blind before and I see it with new eyes. As an artist, the style reveals itself in your work, it cannot be premeditated. I have never painted with any specific tactic or goal. I just paint because I cannot help it.”

Suzanne Perlman: Catching the Ephemeral is as the Dutch Centre, London until August 31, 2018.

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