Suzanne Perlman’s life of colour and conflict

Jewish Book Week is set to celebrate the expressive artistic life of the St John’s Wood painter, says Alison Oldham.

Budapest-born painter Suzanne Perlman has had experiences so extraordinary as to be literally incredible.

“No-one will believe you” said her husband Henri after they met the Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer on Miami Beach in a storm the same day in 1982 that Suzanne read his short story set on a Miami Beach.

“Madame, you must understand, we were fated to meet at this juncture in the storm at this time,” Singer said. “There is no such thing as coincidence. Good night.”

But this incident is trumped by the couple’s journey to Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles where they lived for over 20 years. Born into a family of antique dealers and collectors, Suzanne married young and by 1939 she was living in the Netherlands with Henri, a Dutch scholar and businessman.

The following year his office was among the first to be hit in the Nazi bombardment of Rotterdam although the Perlmans were in Paris. There they managed to board an Orient Express train for Bordeaux then took the last ship to leave Europe on the day the French armistice was signed.

Both episodes are related in an essay by art historian Philip Vann in the catalogue for her exhibition Painting London, staged by the Ben Uri Gallery last Spring in Cork Street, Mayfair.

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This catalogue will be available at an afternoon event, An Artist’s Life, at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town on February 23, when Perlman will be talking to Ben Uri director David Glasser.

His foreword explains that in Curaçao, established as a refuge by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition, the “gleam and vibrant local palette left indelible marks on Perlman’s vision” and she still paints with “the same vitality, intensity and grasp of colour as she has done all her life”.

Milestones in her artistic development include early acquaintance with the Old Masters when her family’s business acquired a collection of World Museums postcards which the children helped to sort out in the evenings, calling out “You have a Matisse, a Velásquez, a Goya – give it to me.”

In the I960s, she worked alongside Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka after attending a workshop he ran in Salzburg. He told her “Feel the ephemeral. This cannot be taught. You can do it!” She admits to always taking some of his influences into her work and acknowledges the importance of the less well known American painter Sidney Gross, with whom she took a workshop in New York.

Settling in London, in St John’s Wood, in 1990 she modified her exuberant style, aiming for a detachment and reserve in response to the city’s atmosphere. A fine example is the 2007 painting Primrose Hill made in a car in a rainstorm. Philip Vann describes this as London seen from an Expressionist and Fauvist perspective: “The orange umbrellas appear like giant nutshells sheltering people from the scrawly, sparse calligraphy of raindrops of the same hue.”

The event, part of Jewish Book Week, includes a screening of Perlman’s paintings which reflect her life on Curaçao and in America and Europe, especially the South of France and London.

Suzanne Perlman: An Artist’s Life is at 2.30pm on February 23 at Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street NW1. £6.50. To book, email or phone 020 7446 8771. Catalogue £15, available from the Ben Uri at 108a Boundary Road NW8 and their online shop.