To Soshana on the occasion of her 80th Birthday.
The tale of Soshana's life and the genesis and reception of her artistic oeuvre reveal and reflect the stories and sagas, which the twentieth century bestowed upon the city of Vienna. As such her life and work represent a Viennese microcosm of this so-called short century. From the blossoming cultural and intellectual opulence of Vienna's bourgeois Jewish community to its violent expulsion; of the difficulties of asserting oneself as a woman and the endeavour to do so nonetheless; of the encounters with other exiles in the USA, the restive, almost obsessive journeying from one place to the next and ultimately, the eventual return home and the reality that even then we cannot talk of a 'homecoming'. Acceptance and at the same time, distance, even from colleagues in the art world, is not unusual for people who have left the confines of their homeland to tread their own pathway.
A few days ago a small celebration was held for Soshana in a newly furbished art repository, where a cross-section of her artistic work was on display. However, in the same matter of fact way as her paintings, two objects managed to capture and reveal the essence of Soshana's life: Two old suitcases, presumably from the Fifties, covered with the familiar stickers that reveal destinations from around the globe. I suspect that only a handful of visitors would have noticed them and for that very reason it was a matter of course they were present in the room, in much the same way as Soshana was. In exactly the same manner we take it for granted that Soshana is now in Vienna, although she spent the best part of her life on the road.
Soshana was born Susanne Schüller on the 1st September 1927, into an affluent, middle-class Jewish family, a backdrop that is echoed in her early education. After a short interlude at a Waldorf school she attended the Schwarzwaldschule situated in the Herrengasse, in what was Vienna's first high-rise building. The school was founded by the reformist educator Eugenie Schwarzwald, and was one of the first educational institutes for girls. It was no coincidence that at this school Soshana was confronted not only with concepts and ideas, but also by a total philosophy of life conceived to provide young girls with both independence and self-confidence. Values, which Soshana would often need throughout her life. Eugenie Schwarzwald engaged teachers at the school who were representatives of the Viennese avant-garde; during the school's first years Adolf Loos, Arnold Schoenberg, Egon Wellesz and Oskar Kokoschka taught there. Even though they were no longer active at the school during the time that Soshana studied there, it nevertheless demonstrates the climate in which the young girl grew up.
In preparation for today I asked Soshana's son which of the many experiences and encounters in his mother's life had been particularly influential. After a short discussion between the two of us about whether it was indeed the travelling, the numerous encounters with well-known public figures or the 'asserting oneself as a woman' Amos grabbed the phone and called his mother. The answer was short, crisp and completely straightforward: 'Hitler'.
The ordeal of German troops entering Vienna marked the caesura in young Susanne Schüller's life. From the window of her parent's house on Hanuschgasse she witnessed Hitler's arrival in Vienna with her own eyes. A short while later they were forced to flee, via Switzerland to France and her Father, and from there, on to London in 1939. The end of a childhood within Vienna's sheltered, bourgeois, Jewish milieu marked the involuntary beginning of a journey that would last a lifetime. As Soshana observed in an ORF-Radio account, 'emigration changed my life'
In 1941 the family crossed the mine-filled Atlantic, aboard one of the last ships bound for the USA. As a seventeen year old she embarked upon a journey through the United States with her future husband, Beys Afroyim, visiting and painting the portraits of many prominent personalities along the way. Those depicted hailed predominantly from Europe and included Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Thomas Mann, Hanns Eisler, Leon Feuchtwanger and Arnold Schoenberg. The first dead body that she ever saw –and, as she revealed in an interview ten years ago, the last- was that of Franz Werfel on his deathbed. At Alma Mahler-Werfel's request his death mask was removed and Werfel's features were captured one last time on canvas by Soshana.
Soshana married Beys Afroyim, and in 1946, their son, Amos Schueller, was born. Many years later Soshana would maintain, primarily as a result of what she had experienced in Asia, that solid family structures were both favourable and necessary: 'It is better if everyone lives together. I found that the people in Tanga were very contented. They helped each other out, no one is rich and no one is poor. I thought that the family system there was very good.' It appears inconsistent, that when he was a young child Amos remained in Vienna, whilst Soshana trod new pathways. For twenty years Paris became the epicentre of her life, and at the same time a springboard for further travels.
Soshana's aptitude and talent for meeting and keeping the attention of personages of rank and fame is not always easy to comprehend. According to Ulli Sturm,(art historian and manager of the Kunstverein Kaernten), the 'prerequisites are undoubtedly talent, a large dose of assertiveness, the pronounced ability to communicate with others, as well as an insatiable curiosity to create, accomplish and experience. What is more, I daresay it requires quick-wittedness and flexibility relative to ones surroundings and last but not least, a downright "masculine" self-confidence'.
It is in light of this information that the encounters and relationships with the likes of Picasso, Giacometti, Branscusi or Sartre can be explained. Giacometti spoke 'coincidentally' with the young artist during an exhibition of his sculptures, and ended up painting her portrait numerous times. On Picasso, who was probably the only star to enjoy international standing during that period, Soshana reflected that 'he probably liked my face'. This understatement, at the very least, led to one portrait, for which Soshana contributed the paper and the brush, as well as a proposition to spend their lives together; a proposal, which Soshana rejected after a period of short but intensive meditation. Soshana's encounters and travels sometimes have an almost overwhelming significance in providing an insight into her artistic work. Private encounters that were perhaps only possible precisely because she was a woman in a sphere dominated by men. Artistic encounters where the fact that she was a woman had been undeniably and expressly unhelpful, indeed disadvantageous. Her personal relationship with Pinot Gallizio brought her close to the CoBrA group and even led to the co-production of work. However, because she was a woman she was never officially admitted into the group.
In 2006 Iliya Trojanow published a novel called 'Der Weltensammler' (literally 'The Collector of Worlds). In the novel he describes the life of a nineteenth century British officer who travels the world, and for whom the greatest challenge is total immersion in a foreign culture until he reaches the point where he is no longer considered to be an outsider by the locals. Soshana is a 'collector of worlds' in every sense. The world itself is the stage upon which her life has been played out. Just as she herself explained for Ö1's(Austrian Radio) Menschenbild, 'the people are different in different countries and in every country one must adapt'. In 1957, on the occasion of an exhibition in Peking Soshana declared; 'my work has changed completely. Zen. One attempts to say everything in one stroke'. These 'adjustments' resulted in a spirited switching of identities with regard to both her personal contacts and her artistic work.
In 1969 Soshana became a member of the Theosophical Society, which through the renewed recognition of the common origins of all religions attempts to relativise and overcome differences of race, class and creed. It is only the attitude, that 'no religion is higher than the truth' that explains why Soshana entertained Arabic workers in her apartment in Jerusalem on the day that the Yom Kippur war broke out. She did not understand the commotion surrounding the sudden hatred between two peoples, and would not tolerate it in the private sphere.
Between 1975 and her return to Vienna in 1985 Soshana spent a further eleven years in New York, the new capital of art. Once again it is encounters with extraordinary people that shaped the artist's life and work, from Marc Rothko, to Francesco Clemente.
Perhaps the price to be paid for a truly cosmopolitan lifestyle is the paucity of artistic awareness of her work in any one, specific country. Of course, the question 'what if' cannot be answered. If the eleven year old had not witnessed Hitler's arrival in Vienna and if the family had not been forced to flee perhaps Soshana would have embarked upon a journey of a different nature.
Quite a few Austrian artists risked the jump to Paris during the Fifties and Sixties. Many returned to Vienna and proceeded, as renowned artists, along their chosen path, replicating observations and experiences. Using the knowledge and experience gathered in Paris they continued to develop their own distinctive trajectory and market uninterrupted. 'World-famous in Austria' was the title of a history of Austropop. One could similarly describe the history of many post-war artists in Austria. The generation of artists who spent a few years in Paris have co-written post-war Austrian history, or at least that which concerns the fine arts. If Soshana does not command the recognition she deserves in her native Austria or Vienna this is partly due to the fact that she was not driven away from Paris because of a longing for Vienna. Instead she saw New York, China, Japan, India, Cuba and Mexico as stages in her 'collection of worlds' and immersed herself whole-heartedly in them.
And so, what remains to be wished for on the occasion of her eightieth birthday? Since 1985 Soshana lives in Vienna once again. Travel is limited on health grounds. Nevertheless steps are taking place that are vital for the recognition and appreciation of her life's work. In the quest to establish her oeuvre, Amos prepares exhibitions with a great deal of devotion. Perhaps here pathways are converging once again, which will allow Soshana's expressed desire for a successful family system to emerge. At any rate, this evening also represents a step towards greater recognition for Soshana's life's work, to whom I wish very many happy returns.