Thursday, January 05, 2012

Susan Perl: "The only skill I had was my artistic ability."

As a child growing up in Austria, Susan Perl loved to draw. Before she could even talk, she drew.


Rather than play with dolls, she drew. And when she drew, she drew in her own way.


Her art education in Vienna was abbreviated. She could not - or would not - draw in the academic manner taught by her professors. Perl felt stifled by the rules of formal art training.


Those rules interfered with her creativity. They simply did not suit her desire for self-expression.


Meanwhile, the Perl family was struggling to survive a most dark and dangerous time: The Nazis had invaded Austria.


Before escaping to the United States by way of Italy, the family suffered traumas Perl later likened to those experienced by Anne Frank and her family. Looking back she said, "I wonder how we managed to survive."


"After my family arrived here it was economically necessary for me to find a job." recalled Perl. "Since I was too young, I had to lie about my age. The only skill I had was my artistic ability."


Years earlier, when the family was living in Vienna, Perl's mother had sent some of her daughter's drawings to the art director at Vogue magazine. He had replied that should Perl ever come to America, she should come see him. "I decided to seek him out," said Perl. "I didn't stop to think about it long enough to be afraid or nervous. I just went to the Condé Nast offices with some samples of my work and presented myself."

"I was hired as a staff artist right away. What good fortune!"


What followed was ten years of drawing - learning on the job - at Vogue, House and Garden, Glamour and any other Condé Nast publication that might need Perl's services. She drew everything from lingerie to furniture, spot drawings for stories and fillers to full-blown illustrations for articles. Along the way she met some of the iconic giants of fashion illustration: Ludwig Bemelmans, René Bouché and Carl Erikson (Eric). Perl said, "This was my schooling. It really was a fantastic experience."


Perl said, "The world of Vogue was so different than the horror I had fled. It seemed so strange to be plunged into the glamorous, frivolous milieu of fashion. Because of the terrible things I'd seen happen in Austria, I was older than my years... "


"... but it [Vogue] was a great working experience."

Next week: The 1950s - Life After Vogue

* Next month I'll be at The Nook once again to present a lecture on Female Illustrators of the Mid-20th Century. For information and ticket reservations click here.

* For more stories about female illustrators of the mid-20th century, please visit my other blog

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this great series, Leif. I never paid Perl enough attention before. She thrives doing reportage, but I wonder if she preferred that over children's book work, or otherwise?