The Freud Museum can be overpowering, packed as it is both with Sigmund Freud’s collection of antiquities and personal effects and as the house his daughter Anna lived and worked in for five decades. Everything there suggests some link to the life of the Freud family. Bettina von Zwehl’s exhibition follows on from a residency at the museum. The artist has fully engaged with this intense personal narrative in a way that manages to avoid getting bogged down in illustrations of Freudian texts and themes. The core of the exhibition, three beautiful anonymous personal portraits from the ‘Lament’ series, are really unrelated to the museum but link to the artist’s book on the theme of loss produced in collaboration with writer Josh Cohen.
von Zwehl’s installation ‘Safe Light’ is actually a negation of the presence of Freud in the house. This is achieved by blacking out the museum’s major attraction, the slavishly preserved reconstruction of the study and consulting room from Freud’s Vienna apartment. Red dark room bulbs and tubes replace standard lighting, reducing the interior details to vague impressions. The comparison between the process of the therapy session and the activity of the dark room in its moment of exposure is a neat one but presents a dilemma for Freud’s fans. Just as chemical photography after digital has become rather quaint, so advances in neuroscience and genetics in the study of behaviour reduce psychoanalysis to an expensive hobby.
By the door of the darkened study is the relief of ‘Gradiva’, the subject of Freud’s study on the fetishising of the female figure and the gaze, that through its influence on Surrealism has produced countless artworks and films. von Zwehl’s installation ‘The Sessions’ makes light play of obsessing over a female portrait, with 50 silver gelatin test prints of the same girl hanging along the walls of the staircase. The parallel of photographic practice and psychoanalysis is drawn out further by the repeated 50-minute therapy sessions matched to the 50 dark room sessions to produce the series of imperfect prints. The artist, like the therapist/patient striving to make a ‘breakthrough’, reveals it is the process that matters most.
‘The Sessions’ occupies a space in the house that might normally be taken over with childhood snapshots. At the foot of the stairs von Zwehl displays a selection of the observation reports compiled by Anna Freud for her study of child psychology. The degree to which all aspects of her child subject’s lives and behaviours were recorded and interrogated by Anna and her assistants is chilling. Anna’s presence in the house is lived through a display of archive boxes containing papers and correspondence selected by the artist. Her instruction ‘Make a Note of Anything…’ is the title of the photographic frieze installed around the walls of Anna’s study room. The inquisitive and watchful eyes of anonymous children stare down at the visitor to von Zwehl’s exhibition, and, by proxy, the eyes of the Freuds too.