Suzanne Perlman’s Self-Portrait (2002) was painted in a solitary, intensely focussed two-hour session looking at herself in the mirror in her north London studio. She was seventy-nine at the time. ‘It was painted during a difficult emotional time for me. I found I had to get under my own skin. It cannot be a premeditated nor a descriptive way of painting, more an organic exposure of mood and feeling. It was a catharsis for me to to express my feelings; you can’t resolve them otherwise. It’s about giving yourself away. Something happens in life, I try to respond to it. The result becomes a work of art.’
She also talks about ‘the dynamism of the inimitable brushstroke, which is your unique voice, your signature. This is a human voice of silent contemplation really, imbued with a sense of tragedy. The painting has a feeling of the loneliness underlying life and how complicated life is – and one has to put that down in a stroke. At a certain moment, I knew it was all there – nothing to be added. Nothing to be amplified or suppressed or explained because it explains itself.’
In the 1960s, Perlman attended a workshop in Salzburg run by the painter Oskar Kokoschka; afterwards he invited her to work alongside him in his studio. ‘He had an amazing dynamic, and said, “Technique you can learn but vision you have to explore., People who are sensitive will immediately connect with the power of a hidden reality, but the moment of vision cannot be taught.”’
Perlman echoes that when she says, ‘the brushstrokes reveal the inner person – they have to be very real and immediate – not something you can teach or be taught. Painting itself is at once a sensuous and philosophical process, revealing something about the ancient nature of your soul.’
This is a vibrantly direct self-portrait, the head, neck and bare shoulder filling up much of the picture plane. Features appear almost sculpturally contoured in a vigorous, complementary array of darks and lights against, at times, a vivid red backdrop. The eyes are virtually opaque – with just a glimmer or two visible. The essential colours are ‘orange/red, created by a mix of red earth colour with burnt umber, and green, created where blues, greens and yellows meet up’. For Perlman, the picture’s palette is ‘deep and dark, redolent of the life force, and it represents what you go through in life, where the joy meets the tragedy’.
For such a sensuously hewn, powerfully distilled self-portrait, the painting evokes innate dignity and delicate vulnerability in the artist’s character along with a poised self-assurance which has kept her going in a life that has encompassed some of the most surreal vicissitudes of fortune than can be imagined.
Suzanne Perlman was born in 1923 into a cultured Budapest Jewish family. As a child, helping her parents out in their art and antiques gallery, she developed a love of art by helping sort out and catalogue a collection of museum postcards of works by artists such as Velázquez, Goya and Matisse. She says that when, years later, she saw original paintings by these masters, ‘the excitement of the actual sensual brushstroke was unbelievable’.
In 1940, she was living in Rotterdam, having recently married Henri Perlman, a businessman and scholar. They arrived in Paris in May 1940 just three days before the invasion of Holland, and somehow managed to escape the incredible chaos of the capital at the time, precariously jumping together onto a passing Orient Express train, which took them to Bordeaux, from whence they got places on ‘the last vessel to leave Europe on the day the French armistice was signed. We sailed on the treacherous, mine-infested seas and arrived in Curaçao (in the Dutch Antilles) at the end of August.’
The couple settled in the small capital city of Willemsted, running for many years their own art and antiques store; Suzanne had her own studio in a large attic above. She started painting poor street vendors, domino players in the street, ritual dancers in portraits which are at once compassionate and incisive but whose dark features articulate a richly nuanced interior radiance. After the War, Suzanne’s mother, Elisabeth Sternberg, came to live in Willemsted for ten years. Elisabeth had lived through most of the war at the family home in Budapest, where she hid a number of Jewish people at great risk, and she is the subject of a poignant 1986 portrait by Suzanne, showing a woman of enigmatic warmth and imperturbable composure.
Perlman’s three sons, who were born in Curaçao, went to boarding school in England, and in 1990 she came to live in London. Moving back to Europe proved a renaissance for her as well as being ‘a tremendous challenge… In London – the endless city depicted…for me, most movingly, by van Gogh…I began to paint immediately. As an outsider…I had to communicate this sense of wonder.’
A 2014 exhibition, Suzanne Perlman: Painting London (curated by the Ben Uri Gallery) displayed visionary expressionist paintings such as Holiday in St James’s Park (2005). Featuring figures embraced, as it were, by a curvilinear stretch of lake – including a young skateboarder, hip, huddled young lovers (one in a darkened panama hat, playing a cello), a lithe, tee-shirted balloon seller sinuously flexing before his customers (a mother and child in a buggy) – it is an exuberant portrayal of a part of cosmopolitan London as a teeming yet curiously expansive and gracefully informal Arcadia.
Suzanne Perlman’s paintings are in many permanent collections, including those of The Municipal Museum, Gouda, Netherlands; Ben Uri, London; Parliamentary Art Collection (House of Lords).