Purdy Hicks is pleased to present Laments and Sospiri - two new projects by London based artist Bettina von Zwehl. Together, they form part of a visual and philosophical inquiry into friendship and loss and are the artist’s most personal work to date.
Developed during and after a five-month residency at the Freud Museum London in 2013/2014, Laments marks a new departure in von Zwehls’ approach to portraiture. The subjects, all women, are depicted only in outline, in a series of variations on the traditional profile view, which has become characteristic of much of the artist’s previous work.
Von Zwehl has allowed each sitter to fall into her own pose, lending more of a fluidity and spontaneity to the series. The subjects, plunged into darkness, have a sense of melancholy, or the self-consciousness perhaps, that comes with being asked, just for a moment, to perform being looked at. The portraits are complicated by the quality of the head-dresses that the sitters are asked to wear, which distort the shape of the head, seeming to knead it like clay.
Here she has drawn inspiration from the archives of Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s youngest daughter and pioneer in child psychoanalysis. Bettina von Zwehl was intrigued and touched in particular by the many handwritten letters, cablegrams and typed letters exchanged between Anna Freud and two woman, perhaps the closest female bonds in her life time: Dorothy Burlingham and Eva Rosenfeld, perceiving those detailed and often passionate letters as portraits of the heart.
In Laments, the artist contemplates the female bonds in her own life in the light of a lost friend; the togetherness, separation, familiarity, as well as everything that will always remain unknown.
'I was longing for something to wear that had belonged to her, but never felt I could ask, always afraid of what it might churn up. A few years later, her mum sent me a little dress that N had worn as a child - a gift for my daughter, who was six at the time, but as I saw it, also for me. I couldn't wear it myself but I could use it in my work, and the washing and ironing and washing and ironing, and protecting it from the dampness in my studio became a kind of ritual ....' (Bettina von Zwehl, August 2014)
Sospiri is a new site-specific installation that consists of a configuration of plinths, specified to various heights and dispersed throughout the gallery, a single photographic print lying flat on the top of each one. Each photograph shows a different girl wearing the same dress; a traditional Bavarian dirndl given to the artist by her friend’s mother. The girls are pictured lying on the dark wooden floor of the artist’s studio, their eyes open, faces turned towards the camera, but half dipped in darkness. Composition and lighting were inspired by the Gerhard Richter portrait of his daughter (Betty, 1977).
The recurrent use of the dress draws attention to certain details; marks on the studio floor, the ruching of the fabric, the quality of the light, a missing button, while the repetition of the girls’ pose, emphasises the contingency of each situation; each scenario complete in itself, distinct from every other.
Von Zwehl has evolved Sospiri over a number of years. The project explores the relationship between creativity and loss, through functioning both as an articulation of the grieving process as well as an attempt to work through and understand that grief. -