Suzanne Perlman obituary

An obituary by Philip Vann for London’s Guardian.

Expressionist painter inspired by Goya and Van Gogh who was drawn to portraying ordinary people

The artist Suzanne Perlman, who has died aged 97, once said: “In my work I need to identify myself with the essence of things.” Such fierce focus as a visionary expressionist painter nourished her in a life of unforeseen and radical changes of circumstance. She was essentially self-taught, and it was following her arrival in the Dutch West Indies as a young Jewish refugee from Europe in 1940 that her art emerged with a consummate self-assurance.

Soon after arriving at the Caribbean island of Curaçao, and settling in its capital, Willemstad, Perlman was amazed to hear “ancient Hebrew melodies to welcome the Sabbath bride. It seemed a miracle.” These were emanating, it turned out, from a Sephardic synagogue founded in 1674 on the island, whose festivals and rituals became a key subject of her paintings.

Inspired by painters such as Goya, Van Gogh, Emil Nolde and Edward Hopper (whom she later met while on a trip to the US), Perlman found herself drawn to portraying ordinary people of the island: figures such as women washing their clothes in a tin bucket, street vendors and ritual dancers; a masterful composition of a poor, young couple lying on their bed mulling over their daily problems; and some nude portraits, at once austere and sensuous works radiating with dignity and compassion.

From the late 1950s, Perlman spent time in New York and Florida, where she encountered abstract expressionism. She went on to paint monumental yet intimate female nudes that melded abstract and figurative elements.

House of Simón Bolívar, Curaçao, 1941, by Suzanne Perlman

House of Simón Bolívar, Curaçao, 1941

In the 60s, she attended a workshop in Salzburg run by the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka; afterwards he invited her to work alongside him in his studio for the summer, an experience that freed her to follow her instincts as an artist. She recalled him saying, “Technique you can learn but the moment of vision cannot be taught.”Advertisement

Born in Budapest into a cultured Jewish family, as a child Suzanne developed a knowledge of art and artists through helping to sort out a large collection of painterly postcards acquired by her parents, Elisabeth (nee Reiner) and Abraham Sternberg, for their art and antiques gallery. “We used to call out, ‘You have a Matisse, a Velázquez, a Goya – give it to me.’ When many years later I saw the work of the great masters, the excitement of the actual sensual brushstroke was unbelievable.”

She left school aged 13, after her father died, studying then at home and helping out in the family business. In 1939, Suzanne was living in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, having recently married Henri Perlman, a Dutch grain trader. The couple were summoned by telegram to Paris by Henri Roy, the French interior minister and a family friend, on the pretext of discussing supplying grain to the French army. In effect, he saved their lives as they arrived in the capital three days before the Nazis invaded Holland.

Her description of the couple’s escape from war-torn Europe to the tranquil beauty of Curaçao has a filmic quality: the couple escaped the chaos of Paris by precariously jumping on to a passing Orient Express train to the port of Bordeaux. Then, a mutiny of sailors against the captain of a French ship enabled them to get places on “the last vessel to leave Europe on the day the French armistice was signed, 22 June 1940. We sailed on the treacherous mine-infested waters and arrived in Curaçao at the end of August.”

For many years, the couple ran an antiques business in Willemstad, where Perlman had her own attic studio space. After exhibiting regularly from 1945 onwards, she had her first big solo show at the Curaçao Museum, Willemstad, in 1961. In the early 70s, Perlman studied at the Art Students League of New York, an independent art school where she was a pupil of the painter Sidney Gross.

Washday Ritual (1941)

Suzanne Perlman’s 1941 painting Washday Ritual

Henri died in 1983, and from the early 90s Suzanne started spending more time in London, working from a studio in St John’s Wood. “I began to paint immediately. As an outsider, there was quite an amazing quality in what I saw; I had to communicate this sense of wonder.”

In 1993 and 1997 she had solo shows at the Boundary Gallery, London, and in 2000 her painting Parliament With the Burghers of Calais was acquired by the Parliamentary Art Collection and hung in the House of Lords.

In 2014 the Ben Uri Gallery presented her show Painting London, which included Bank Holiday in St James’s Park (2005), depicting a young skateboarder, a balloon seller and young lovers (one playing a cello) in a teeming yet harmonious composition.

Towards the end of her life, Perlman began to achieve increasing critical success: marking Perlman’s 2018 retrospective exhibition at the Dutch Centrein London, the art critic Jackie Wullschläger highlighted a self-portrait, painted by the artist aged 79, as “a slash of dark gold marks, urgent, free but precise, forming a semi-abstracted head [which] stood out as expressive, visionary, deeply engaged with modernist tradition”.

Perlman was appointed to the Order of Orange-Nassau in 2009. In 2019 the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, acquired Perlman’s painting Dry Dock (1959), depicting the giant Shell oil refinery in Curaçao, for its permanent collection.

She is survived by her sons, Robert, Louis and George, five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

• Suzanne Perlman, artist, born 18 October 1922; died 2 August 2020

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