About Susan Zsuzsanna Gräfin Zu Bentheim –
Through the journey of a trans-continental life, artist Susan Gräfin zu Bentheim has circled back to what matters most in her life and work. Between the southern coast of South Africa and land-locked Hungary, between Germany and Johannesburg, her centre has become fixed – on family, values and the ephemeral spark of vitality.
In her work as a contemporary realist painter, Susan has chosen to focus on portraits to express her desire to connect with others – both her subjects and audience – through the shared experience of an image captured in paint. While the full gamut of life provides the basis for Susan’s choice of subject, from the innocence of early childhood to the quiet knowledge of approaching death, each painting has the same source, in a moment of fleeting but clear and heartfelt inspiration.
For Susan, spending time with people, to observe, empathise and understand, allows for her to experience such moments, which trigger strong emotional responses where her imagination is fully captured. There will be something evocative yet untranslatable which Susan will be drawn to; photographing her subjects allows for these brief instants to be translated into oil paint.
The paintings themselves begin in Susan’s quiet, white sanctuary of a studio with the labour-intensive and meditative production of a perfectly smooth surface, whether on canvas or board.
This provides the background for translucent deposits of thinned-down oil paint, which enhance the honesty of the works. There is inherently little room for error on the part of the artist when capturing her subjects’ faces thus in a realist manner, with the layers of brushstrokes and of paint remaining visible. This serves as a parallel to the nature of the individual painted; there is so much more complexity to the subject than a mere rendering of their likeness. Susan’s pared-down colour palette likewise allows the essence of the work to shine through, without distraction, with often only a few shades selected for any one painting. Drawing on the emotional experience of colour, a restrained range can be used to enhance the understated serenity and strength of a woman or the detached sense of being under water, while the contrast of two clashing tones can emphasise the tension of a moment and the loss of innocence.
Use of an evocative palette moves Susan’s works beyond mere reproduction. Her incorporation of objects as symbols further enhances the sense of narrative depth, with each object giving us insight into the trait or memory which initially drew Susan to the moment she has depicted. While some are ordinary accessories – a swimming cap, a hand bag – others are more surrealistically superimposed: the outline of a crown, drawn in a child-like manner as if in crayon, sits on the head of a young girl. A strikingly orange balloon twisted into the shape of a fox stands behind a boy in the snow.
The acts of observation and consideration are powerful ones. For Susan, her subjects inspire her and, for her viewers, we feel strong sense of connection to the people portrayed, as well as our own histories. Together the paintings become a shared space to reflect on life in its breadth.
Susan Gräfin zu Bentheim was born in South Africa. She obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art History and Education through the University of South Africa. She has lived in South Africa, Hungary and Germany, and now works from her home studio in Cape Town.
I’m available for commissioned work. Please contact me further.
Fresh Paint Magazine: Curated selection for the International Issue 14, August 2016.