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published in "The Mainichi", Japan, march 18th, 1957
She has been called Cassandra of the canvas, a prophetess of doom, an artist of the Atomic Age, a painter of anxiety and loneliness, of disease and dementia, of unemployment, pain, and death.
Critics have written of the “tragic tone of her haunted canvases.” They have spoken of the “grief, the foreboding, the rebellion that torture her brush and inform her palette.” They have talked of the “white disintegration, the somber solitude, the fiery annihilation that colour her moods and bespeak an almost morbid restlessness.”
But to Soshana, not yet 30, the words of Pablo Picasso suffice.
Says the master: “I find great gifts in her.”
Soshana Afroyim was born in a Vienna caught between two world wars. She grew up in a London under the blitz. She reached artistic maturity in war-conscious New York, and she settled to work in a disillusioned postwar Paris.
After brief excursions, experimentally, in realism and expressionism, she delved, as French critic Descargues says, into the “darkest recesses” of abstract art.
Canvases like Fury of the Marshes, Chrysanthemum and the Spider, Dead City, Sad Flowers, Pain, Solitude, Disintegration, Bombed-out, Church, and The Wandering Jew - these express her thoughts, her feelings, her vision.
They are the products of endless hours in the Paris studio, in the Rue de la Grande Chaumiere, in the place where Paul Gauguin once worked.
Politics, philosophy, turmoil in Europe, the gay life of Paris, these mean little to her. She keeps aloof. Says Soshana: “I paint. That’s what I want to do. That is what I feel I was born to do.”
She uses oils and Chinese inks primarily. She combines the abstract and the real on canvas, just as she feels Nature does in life itself.
Her work, her scenes, her humans, are grim. People, landscapes, are figures and scenes of despair. Her eyes stare, it would seem, into red and awful dawns, into scenes of blasted trees, and lowering skies, and the convulsions of earth. She depicts Polar-like landscapes, fragments almost from the end of the world, where leafless trees poke up their shattered limbs, where the last sun perhaps sinks in red hazy ruin on the snows and sands of the final day. There is an eeriness, a ghastliness to all she paints.
This girl paints, in fact, as Kafka wrote, as Eliot writes and Malraux writes, and Dreiser, wrote, and Zola wrote.
“I am conscious of trees and the awful things we humans can make of them,” says Soshana in explanation, “for as a child, I loved and needed trees. It hurts, it always has, to think of trees hurt and wrenched and ruined, and thus to paint such a tree is to paint in agony to me, to symbolize ruin, by the depiction of a tree in ruin. It is I think, the breakup of things loved, things remembered.”
The wracked quality one finds in her landscapes, one also finds in her paintings of people, notably in The Wandering Jew. Here is human misery, with gaunt cheeks and Old Testament eyes, modern man, lonesome and stumbling on his ... … despair lost. Here the hands and the knuckles with such little flesh. The exhausted stoop to the shoulders. The rusty coat, the faded scarf, the great bundle slung over the back, all that is left perhaps of a man’s earthly possessions, as he stumps away from the brink of ruin. These are his own conceptions.
“I studied on my own,” says Soshana, “that was what I was told to do, what I always felt I wanted to do. Picasso, he told me the same thing. He said, ‘Go to yourself, girl, don’t go anywhere else. If you find things inside of yourself to say, you will paint. If you don’t, no one on earth can teach you’.”
And she says, “Painting is the language I speak, the only one I think, I speak well, the only way in which I can express myself about the life I feel consciously, subconsciously.”
She has travelled in India, in Pakistan, in Southeast Asia, and now in Japan. She will go to the mainland of China and perhaps to Tibet. Then she will return to Paris where of 50.000 painters, five are famous, 500 earn a living, and perhaps 1.000 get by, where the rest starve.
There is an effortlessness, an ease to this girl, and only the deep eyes appear to brood, to mirror perhaps what smoulders inside. There is patience more apparent than rebellion, peace more than restive violence, and there is above all, a serenity odd for one so young.
This girl comes from the heart of Europe. There is this Eastern European allure and mystery to her, a dark-eyed pensiveness that would suggest Grenado and the gypsies, but what gypsy could be so quiet, so poised.
There is a feeling about her that she has moved from great fear and great pain, something about her that suggests the burnt city, the empty street, the deportation train, the chill cell, the high place of execution, the camp of death, and yet, as she says, there have been none of these, at least in her own immediate life. These are, nonetheless, of the world in which she has lived and grown, and they have meaning for her, which shows in all she paints.
One senses many things about Soshana as one talks and listens. A quietness of an individual, used to her own devices and presence, a control despite very deeply felt. One sees much in the deep eyes, the slightly parted mouth, and the calm manner in which much that is child-like so innocently still appears, and one certainly sees much in the incredible hands.
One thinks, as did Pablo Picasso, “in her, I find great gifts.”