The House of Dreams – Recent Work by Diana Zwibach


March 2008

Diana Zwibach was born in Novi Sad on the banks of the Danube River and lived there until the age of 12 when, in 1961, she moved with her father and mother to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Her father was a radiologist and his talents were much sought after. However, his dream was to take his family to Israel and this dream became a reality when the family moved to Tel Aviv in 1964, allowing her father to take up a post at the Chaim Sheba Hospital and a lecturing postion at Tel Aviv University. When in Ethiopia the Zwibach family witnessed an ill-fated coup against the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie and later, in Israel, Diana and her mother were temporarily evacuated to Rome in 1967 to avoid the potential dangers created bt  Israel’s Six Day War with its Arab neighbours.  When Zwibach asked her father why she and her mother were being sent away, her father replied that it was their safety; that he could not bear the thought of loosing those he loved. Tibor Zwibach’s parents, his sister and his niece had perished in Auschwitz along with so many countless others and this trauma had scarred his psyche and remained a deep and irreconcilable burden until his own premature death in 1975 at the age of 56.

Despite Tibor Zwibach’s best efforts to protect his only child, Zwibach’s probing mind and sensitive nature detected a sadness and despair in her father, a man she adored and admired. One of the images in this body of recent work - executed in a very short and intense period of creative energy – shows a male figure: tall, proud, athletic. The predominant tonality of the image is blue and is a homage to Zwibach’s father, her protector. Here, he emerges dream-like from the blue of the Danube after swimming or rowing. This is a central image in this new body of work which focuses specifically on Zwibach’s early childhood in the small, lively, colourful Serbian city. It is a city of dreams, of remembered colours, sounds, smells, people, laughter, movement…a constantly changing panoply of imagery filtered through the lens of memory and the intervening decades of living. It is a childhood remembered, cherished, valued and shared.

These images (there are around eighty in all) differ from much of Zwibach’s previous work – canvases in which she sought to come to terms with her familial history, the history of her people and the traumatic events in which she found herself caught up, as a witness to human brutality and the vast tides of history over which she had no control. Her images were frequently a testimony to pain and, as such, were tableaux of anxiety and confusion – cluttered, coloured, confused – as they reflected an inner turmoil and restlessness. They were the product of the history of post-war Europe and the history of the world beyond.

Here we find Zwibach in a more reflective, contemplative and celebratory mood. The images are almost wholly of a childhood remembered with joy and, as such, they are warm, loving and often convivial. One shows a blond girl with ribbons in her bunched hair holding a doll. In fact, the figure (the artist herself as a young girl) caresses the doll in a gesture of loving protectiveness. This might be seen as metaphor for the mature artist cherishing the memories which provide the basis for this exhibition. In another, a white seagull perches atop a wooden post protruding from the river Danube.  However, unlike the dying seagull in Anton Chekhov’s eponymous drama, Zwibach’s bird is a symbol of hope, freedom and beauty. It is a symbol with which the artist herself strongly identifies. Compositionally, this image shares a number of characteristics with others in this series. Firstly, its focus is extremely tight and the main image occupies the majority of the physical space (in this case A3 paper). The ground is a predominant solid red, so that the white bird is thrust forward into the viewer’s gaze and although there is energy and movement in the background and surrounding the central image, the effect is not to distract the viewer’s attention but, rather, to focus it. 

Zwibach employs a number of recurrent motifs throughout this new body of work, and while some are both symbolic and realistic, others merely stand for themselves, without allusion, metaphor or symbolism.  In another work there is a composition comprising a male and female figure, a donkey and a ladder. Whereas the human figures may allude to family or friends, the donkey is simply a recording of childhood remembrance: donkeys and horses were a common sight in post-war Novi Sad, beasts of burden and transportation. The ladder is a more enigmatic reference and symbolises for Zwibach the possibilities of life: ascend and descend, rather like in the game of snakes and ladders itself.

At heart Zwibach is a figurative painter. Her interest in the human figure can be traced back again to her childhood, peopled with characters, friends, family, guests – a colourful cast who lived in and passed through the convivial household created by her cultured and sociable parents.  Added to this was the vibrant life of Nowy Sad where open-air markets, Gypsies and puppet theatre gave her youthful imagination much on which to dwell.  In later years her formal training was also highly influential in directing her artistic attention to the human figure; teachers such as Moshe Rosenthalis (b.1922) in Tel Aviv,  Joseph Hirsh (1920-1998) and Zvi Tolkovsky (b.1934) of the  Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and Carol Weight (1908-1997) of the Royal College of Art in London.provoked her interest and offered her an expanded view of the possibilities and purpose of art.

Many of these images, therefore, offer a perspective on the human figure; often figures are grouped in pairs or in greater combinations but sometimes the figure is solitary, isolated within its own world. In one small but powerful image a cross-legged form (it could be either male or female) contemplates a full, rising moon. Zwibach describes her childhood experience and that of her adult life as being solitary, not in a physical sense but emotionally.  It’s a theme which has been dwelt upon by numerous artists but it also reflects the human condition; at times we all to a greater or lesser extent, feel a loneliness, an isolation and a disconnection with the life which surrounds us. This is paradoxical in an age which suffers from ‘information overload’ where we are constantly bombarded by noise, images and all the concomitant sensory clutter which our technological age has unleashed.

Even where figures are found in groups of two or more, it’s possible to detect a distance between the ensemble characters; although physically close, these figures rarely touch or entwine. Even in love there is a separateness.  In one piece two figures stand on a roof top, watched by a third. The watching figure is partially truncated by the physical edge of the paper on which it is depicted, a deliberate device which emphasises the distance, both in time and space, between the observer and the observed. It’s tempting, irresistibly so, to compare this composition to some of the imagery of Chagall, whose roof-top scenes and dream-like imagery derived from his vision and memory of his native Vitebsk. However, Zwibach describes this work as work of remembrance about her parents. Here, her night-gowned mother dances in the moonlight and her father, less animated, strikes a pose with hands on hips. Gulls fly overhead and the dark blue Dunav can be seen in the distance.

It’s worth mentioning at this point the various techniques Zwibach employs to create her imagery because in a very real sense the medium is the message.  Zwibach applies acrylic-based paste to paper and card which she then manipulates using a variety of techniques. Often the paste is rolled and various implements are then employed to mark, scratch and incise the viscous liquid medium. Zwibach describes this process of incision as her attempt to get beneath the surface of things. It’s rather like a river which over a long period of time erodes the rock and soil over which it flows, revealing the underlying geology. In a literal and actual sense, therefore, Zwibach’s work is never superficial; it is, rather, an enquiry, an exploration and an investigation of truth.

The work of committed artists is always in a state of flux, transition and evolution; artists who stick to a prescribed formula of repetition are therefore no longer artists, but repeteurs, a charge which could never be levelled at Zwibach. With maturity comes experience and with this comes a greater understanding of the journey of exploration which art provokes. In these works is possible to sense a shift and a more assured artistic stance; this is mature work and the artist has found her true voice. It is a voice which sings with clarity, precision and great harmony.

Another recurring image in the series of work, and central to any understanding of it, is that of the box, or rather a figure within a box. In the German language koffer refers both to a box and a suitcase and etymologically it is linked to the English word, coffin. Such nuances are important. In one work a female figure is depicted within a box – she may be struggling to emerge, or conversely, she may be being forced into the object. At the risk of falling into the trap which some critics describe at the intentional fallacy, it seems apposite to suggest that for Zwibach the box is a highly charged emotive symbol.  In the museum at Auschwitz are displayed, along with room-fulls of other personal effects, the suitcases of the prisoners who were transported there, never to leave. Personal effects are the material testimony to their imprisonment and suffering. The box has contained her, both in the form of a house and also a symbol from which she has constantly endeavoured to escape. Although contained by the constrains of the physical body and its ultimate and inevitable end, the artist, through their art and imagination can escape, at least temporarily, from the literal and metaphorical boxes in which they find themselves.

Standing out from the series of small scale works here are three much larger pieces, executed in charcoal. By definition they lack colour, and even tonality, but they are full of movement, energy and passion. These works also autobiographical, a trio which might be termed  ‘mindscapes’. Amongst the kaleidoscope of imagery which includes animals, trees, human figures, elements of landscape, a ship and, again, the highly symbolic seagull, it is possible to detect the image of a box or object which is being pulled ‘through’ the rest of the imagery. Here Zwibach is suggesting that memories and some material aspects of life are always present. The past is always being carried by the artist as she moves through life and makes her art. Most of us collect and keep certain objects which are significant to us: momentos, letters, artefacts, images and here Zwibach  emphasises that her past is both weighted and precious, something which much always be borne and carried through life.

If Zwibach employs a panoply of symbolism in this series of images then another central and recurring motif is the tree. For Zwibach this conjures the idea of rootedness, or rather the wish for it. Because, as someone who has lived in a number of places around the world and travels constantly, the particular quality of stability has been absent from Zwibach’s life, although her current home, in the north of England, has has given here a wonderful sense of belonging.  It is instructive that in this series, which focuses on the idea of home, the tree as leitmotif should occur so frequently. In one image, a female figure dances next to a tree while in another a figure sits in silent contemplation adjacent, again, to a tree. For this exhibition Zwibach has also created a number of small scale books, or what might be termed ‘visual autobiographies,’ and the tree is a central image here also. In one sketch a figure reaches skywards becoming a tree, in an act of metamorphosis.  The writer Herman Hesse wrote that “… trees have always been the most penetrating preachers….they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons…In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves…”

This seems a particularly apt series of observations when considering Zwibach’s work, for as an artist she too is seeking to represent herself, her life, those she has loved and lost, her home and that strangest and most distant of places, her childhood.