x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Safeguarding the legacy of one of Europe’s most unsung artists

Soshana Forever, the latest exhibition at Art Couture, tells the story of a fascinating artist whose only son is on an international mission to preserve her memory and the art of her prolific, 60-year career. Anna Seaman finds out more.

Soshana Afroyim, left, pictured in 1962 at the opening of one of her exhibitions in France, with the artists, left to right, Verdet, Pablo Picasso and Pignon. Courtesy Amos Schueller
Soshana Afroyim, left, pictured in 1962 at the opening of one of her exhibitions in France, with the artists, left to right, Verdet, Pablo Picasso and Pignon. Courtesy Amos Schueller

When she was a child, Susanne Schüller watched Adolf Hitler march triumphantly into her native Vienna. Terrified, her Jewish family fled to London and eventually they escaped on the last civil ship out of Europe in 1941. Soshana, as she is now known, was 13 years old.

In New York, she met an artist named Beys Afroyim with whom she travelled all over the US. He later became her husband and the father of her only child, Amos. Afroyim was also the one who gave Schüller the name Soshana, which means “Lily” in Hebrew.

But her artistic yearning was so strong that it called for a kind of isolation. Soshana returned to Austria in 1950, divorced Afroyim, left five-year-old Amos with her father and moved to Paris to pursue her art in both studies and ­practice.

Four years later, she sat for a portrait by her friend Pablo Picasso, who then asked her to move in with him in his French home in Vallauris. Turning him down, she travelled alone to various countries, pursuing her love of painting and searching for inspiration.

In 1965, she met the American abstract painter Adolph Gottlieb in Mexico and later became good friends with him in New York. Through him, she met Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol; and she herself became one of the most respected artists of her generation.

Yet outside of the artists’ circle, Soshana’s name was not widely appreciated. It’s only now, in her twilight years, that Amos has taken it upon himself to collate her countless paintings into a book and take her inspirational body of work around the world to ensure that his mother’s memory survives.

Preserving her work

“It is my duty,” he says. “It is not a question whether I want to do it or not; I have to do it. I have made it my full occupation.”

Amos, who takes his mother’s surname but refers to her as his “grandfather’s daughter”, began this venture seven years ago. As well as publishing the book that also contains her fascinating life story, he’s compiled an online database of all the articles written about Soshana, as well as preserving her current work that still constitutes about 100 paintings a year.

“I realised that my mother had not been doing anything to maintain her reputation and her name throughout her life, she had just travelled and painted, and so I decided to do something about it,” he explains. “Otherwise, when the artist dies, the name will die with it.”

And it was this journey that brought Amos to Dubai. In January, Soshana was the first foreign artist to be exhibited in the Bahrain National Museum. While he was in the Gulf, Amos made contact with Cynthia Richards from Art Couture, the gallery inside the Al Badia Golf Club in Dubai Festival City.

The collaboration resulted in the current exhibition, Soshana Forever, that is showing in the gallery until the end of the month.

Art represents her

“Soshana’s work is gestural, free and very inspiring,” says Richards. “It is an honour for us to display it.”

Richards selected part of Soshana’s oeuvre that reflects the time that she spent in Japan and China, learning calligraphy and watercolour on rice paper. She’s also included many abstract landscape works of the sea and the desert that convey the passion that the artist had for travel.

“It is fitting that her work should travel now that she cannot,” says Amos, who explains that his 86-year-old mother recently suffered from a stroke and needs constant care. “She is very happy that her paintings are on display in Dubai; she just wants to come, too.”

With further shows planned in Kuwait and closer to home in Europe, Soshana’s reputation is still travelling along with her work.

“She is one of very few Austrian artists who are known all over the world,” says her son. “It is important for us to remember that.”

• Soshana Forever runs until November 30 at Art Couture at Al Badia Golf Club, InterContinental, Dubai Festival City. For details, call 04 601 0101

aseaman@thenational.ae