“I always paint autobiographical things, because it is what I know best. I want to paint things not for what they are, but for the emotions they provoke in me. That mysterious sensation, for example, caused by a room, a corner, where at one time I felt something.”
Linda Olivetti Kohen, 94, made these remarks for a 2012 exhibition of her paintings; when she visited New York recently before returning home to prepare for a major solo exhibition in Montevideo to open in December, she showed Lilith the catalogue of that earlier show of her dazzling, jewel-toned work. Kohen has lived in South America since fleeing Italy at 15 with her family, in 1939. Despite transitions of place and culture, she has continued to paint almost every day throughout her life, she told Lilith in a wide-ranging conversation. Many of Kohen’s paintings have an air of emptiness: an unoccupied chair or bed, a set table without diners, a series of corridors, a recurrence of suitcases. And several show parts of her body as she herself sees them, like the sequence with her feet resting on the floor as she sits on a bed. The work is mysterious and very beautiful, conveying loss but no lugubriousness or sentimentality.
In person, Kohen is charming, moving easily between English and, when speaking with her daughter, Spanish, talking about her early life in Milan, before Mussolini enacted his racial laws in 1938. “What was it like? Paradise. When we left Italy I didn’t have the right documents to go to university. And there was a war going on, so I just kept painting.”