Suzanne Perlman was born on the 18th October, 1922, into a Hungarian Jewish family living in Budapest. 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
'House of Simon Bolivar, Curaçao', painted in 1941
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 Suzanne 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.’
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.’
'Mother' - Suzanne's portrait of Elisabeth Sternberg,, painted in 1986
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.’
Suzanne Perlman’s paintings are in many permanent collections, including those of The Rijks Museum, Amsterdam, The Municipal Museum, Gouda, Netherlands; The Netherlands Royal Collection; Ben Uri, London; Parliamentary Art Collection (House of Lords); Municipal Museum, Curaçao; The Jewish Museums of London, Amsterdam, Venice & Budapest and many private collections around the world.
Writer on the visual arts, and author of a number of books on modern British and Irish artists, and author of Face to Face: British Self-Portraits in the Twentieth Century (2004)'