Lament, by Bettina von Zwehl and Josh Cohen

Fragmented images and light and shadow haunt a study of grief and memory, says Janet Sayers

September 1, 2016
Silhouette of woman looking to the left
Source: Photo is taken from Lament and is courtesy of Art/Books

In his book The Private Life, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen railed against the glorification of celebrities and against photographs that left nothing in the dark. In Lament, a collaboration with the artist Bettina von Zwehl, he deplores the paparazzi for seeking to shine their light into every crevice of their subjects’ lives.

In developing this theme, he is inspired by fragments of von Zwehl’s black-on-grey photograph of a young child. Scattered over various pages of Lament, they serve as illustration for a story that Cohen tells. “Only after the first photograph came did Wakeman realize how long he’d found the faces of children unbearable to look at,” it begins.

Printed in huge letters, sometimes just one word to a page, Wakeman’s plight draws us in, like a large-type picture book we might enjoy reading to a toddler. As for Wakeman, he is reminded by the photograph with which his story starts of how, on the Underground, he averts his gaze from “the merest hint of a small child”. Relieved when the train arrives at his station, he loses himself in “the funereal shuffle to the exit” and in walking to “the childless world” of the bank in which he works and knows where he is. Yet the photograph obsesses him. So do its successors, one of which arrives each day through his letterbox, always showing the same picture of a five- or six-year-old boy, variously brightly lit or “shrouded” in darkness. It brings Wakeman to life; makes him “strain” to discover what is going on in the boy’s mind; awakens him to scenes, fuelled by his own childhood, “suspended somewhere between memories and dreams”.

Interleaved with the progress of his metamorphosis are pages filled with von Zwehl’s dark silhouette portraits of a woman, one portrait at a time. Opposite them are printed white on black meditations by Cohen in which he uses light and dark to symbolise the antithesis of the outer world and the inner world of fantasy and imagination.

Immersion in the latter is the condition of being human. Or so Cohen insists in taking issue with those who interpret Plato’s story about prisoners in a cave seeing only shadows as a plea for deposing those shadows in favour of reality. Against this plea, Cohen celebrates a legend attributing the origin of painting to a young woman drawing the profile of her lover’s face cast on a wall by a lighted lamp, to retain as a keepsake after he departs.

There are echoes, here, for Cohen of Freud’s theory that those who are loved and lost leave their shadow on the ego of the melancholic. So too with others, not least a psychoanalytic patient who, having been separated as a child from her parents by wartime evacuation, says that the “negative” of them is more real to her than the “positive” of the psychoanalyst who treats her.

Recounting these and other anecdotes and observations, Cohen concludes that von Zwehl’s photographic fragments and her silhouette portraits “reveal the human as a lamenting being, destined to live with loss and absence”. Maybe. Either way, with its handsome layout, words and haunting visual images, Lament is one of the most engaging volumes it has been my pleasure to read, look at and ponder.

Janet Sayers is emeritus professor of psychoanalytic psychology, University of Kent.

By Bettina von Zwehl and Josh Cohen
Art/Books, 120pp, £19.99
ISBN 9781908970275
Published 7 July 2016

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