> Bettina Von Zwehl: Ruby’s Room

Katy Barron / Bettina Von Zwehl: Ruby’s Room

July 2013

When I invited Bettina von Zwehl on a visit to the Holburne Museum in late 2011, I hoped that she might want to make new work in response to the museum’s miniature collection. The Holburne has a small group of mostly eighteenth and nineteenth century miniatures, which includes a tiny ‘Family of Eyes’. It was this unusual work of art that attracted Bettina, who began to research the history of the eye miniature. Bettina has been making photographic miniatures since her residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2011. Whilst there, she produced Made Up Love Song – a series of 34 photographic miniature profile portraits of a gallery assistant, made at different times of day but always in the same place, over 6 months. The eye miniatures that she began to make after her visit to the Holburne are an extension of this work and resulted in the exhibition Ruby’s Room. The exhibition falls into two parts – the single framed eyes of school children, which have been placed within the permanent galleries throughout the Holburne Museum and the works in the Wirth Gallery, which focus on Von Zwehl’s daughter Ruby. 

Von Zwehl has always made photographs of people. Her earlier series focused on an exploration of the way that her subjects appeared whilst undergoing different physical and emotional experiences such as being woken from a deep sleep or listening to a piece of music in the dark. Made Up Love Song was a departure for Von Zwehl in that the miniatures are a long-term examination of the changes, both physical and emotional, of an individual, someone with whom the artist developed a connection. The works in the Wirth Gallery present us with even closer relationships as they record the artist as well her daughter and her husband, each of whom are identified for the viewer – another departure for Von Zwehl.

Bettina’s initial project for photographing eyes in miniature was to record the eye of every child at her daughter’s primary school. The sheer volume of children to be photographed meant that she had little time to get to know each child and the resulting works have an indexical quality when we first see them. However each eye portrait offers more material the more closely we examine it – we begin to guess at the age, gender, race and even temperament of the sitter. Tiny differences between the photographs – such as the edge of a headscarf or the curve of a brow become hugely important, as each child’s eye gradually emerges as that of an individual. It is notable that many of the children in the Primary School were able to find their own eyes from amongst the whole school group. When encountered unexpectedly in a gallery, a place designed for looking, the children’s eyes seem to confront us, almost challenging us to look away and it is unclear who is looking at whom. 

The framed wall-mounted works embody little of the intense personal meaning of painted eye miniatures, which were carried or worn, but rather reflect the huge power of the photographic image, even when drastically reduced in size.  This is particularly apparent when the visitor encounters an image of Ruby’s eye, framed in gold, which has been placed within the main picture gallery of the museum. The contrast between Ruby’s tiny brown eye and the large painted portraits is remarkable.  The piece demands that the viewer consider the validity of the abstracted eye as a portrait and photography’s relationship with painting. The invention of photography has often been cited as the death knell of the miniature portrait.

Photography and the eye are inevitably entwined, although the eye alone has rarely been a subject for fine art photographs. Two works made more than half a century apart both use the watchful eye as a proxy for a person.

Man Ray’s Object to be Destroyed of c. 1932 is a ready-made piece incorporating his lover Lee Miller’s eye – ‘From atop a metronome, a single photographic eye stares out at us. It is a lovely eye … Set into motion, however, the eye aggresses, disturbs and taunts. Ticking back and forth, it regulates and controls us … With nerves frayed and frustration pent up … We pick up the hammer, smash the metronome to bits; … There is a moment of release, even satisfaction, … But then we notice that … the eye still stares, placidly, oblivious to the destruction wrought in its wake.’

In 1996 Alfredo Jaar used a photograph of a pair of eyes in The Eyes of Gutete Emerita a work about the Rwandan genocide. In it, the eyes of a young Tutsi woman who survived the massacre of her family are briefly illuminated within two lightboxes. The image is replaced with a series of texts about the massacre, but it is the brief appearance of Gutete Emerita’s eyes that force the viewer to visualize the massacre through her eyes. Jaar was concerned that the endless flow of press images from Rwanda had led to a visual desensitization amongst the public and this piece was an attempt to force the viewer ‘eye-to-eye’ with the awful events described.

Von Zwehl’s eye miniatures, like the works by Man Ray and Alfredo Jaar, represent the subject and also allow the viewer to see the world ‘through their eyes’. The anonymity of the school children’s eyes is contrasted with the intensely personal eyes and portraits presented in the cabinet-like Wirth Gallery. Viewing the five small works feels private (the scale of the work itself demands it) and invites parallels with the intimate encounter of a painted eye miniature. Bettina’s daughter Ruby is the thread running through the works. She is first encountered in a profile portrait in which her eyes are closed, in contrast to every other eye in the exhibition. The small box in her hands is also shut, leaving the viewer to guess at its contents, and presenting Ruby as removed, perhaps dreaming. This mix of intimacy and distance imbues all of the works in the room. As with the Family of Eyes miniature, we are given such close access, and yet the interior lives of the sitters remains mysterious.

 – Katy Barron 


With thanks to Katy Barron and to The Holburne Museum, Bath, for the reproduction of this essay on Photomonitor.