For his 2008 series, The New Me, Sandro Kopp painstakingly created a self-portrait every day for 28 days. The paintings are honest, self-questioning and slightly disconcerting – qualities they share with the works in his latest exhibition, Fiercely Loved shown at Timothy Everest in Spitalfields, London, E1.
The richly layered paintings in Fiercely Loved are of soft toys: Goully the monkey, Liony, Snoopy and other cloth, wool and fur comforters and confidants. Although the portraits are not of Kopp, or his friends (the subjects of his 2010-2012 shows of Skype paintings) they do tell the most personal stories of the artist and his intimates. They also possess the power to provoke memories from childhood, and even infancy, in us all.
I was three and my sister was five when we were driven by our parents through France to Spain in a Volkswagen. Our luggage was piled on the roof and we slept in the car. As my sister recalls, “we always woke up in some field or other”. We are a family who are avowedly averse to camping, and yet, now that we come to talk about it, we often did just that but without the added bonus of a tent. My parents slept up front, my sister on the back seat and I was swaddled in the boot. That holiday Little Ted was lost overnight in one of those fields. He was, as his name suggests, a small teddy and he belonged to my sister. She only realized he was missing when it was next time to sleep. She was “devastated” and “inconsolable.” Nearly 50 years later I can hear in her voice that not only was Little Ted lost, but the holiday was lost and something else too. Perhaps she lost the belief that our parents could magically repair everything?
A friend, Charlotte, tells me of a similar journey with her parents and her comforter, Wol, whose portrait is part of Fiercely Loved. She recalls losing Wol out of a car window when she was aged four. Prompted by Wol’s inclusion in the show she asked her parents what they remembered of the loss. Her father, who sounds like an astute man, says that a Charlotte “a propos of nothing” suddenly announced that Wol was missing. He says in his email to her, that he was not sure if Wol “fell, or was pushed.” The route was retraced and Wol was, miraculously, recovered. I had a strong image of Charlotte sitting in the back seat, insufficiently noticed by her parents who were together in the front. She wanted them to turn around in more ways than one and she engaged Wol in the exercise. What Charlotte’s story demonstrates is how important it is for the child to assume their rights over the object of their love, the comforter, the soft toy, or what psychotherapists would call the ‘transitional object’.
Donald Woods Winnicott first used the term in his paper Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena – a Study of the First Not-Me Possession in 1953. When an infant is first born and begins to feed from a mother’s breast it has no knowledge that it is a separate being. It believes itself to be part of the mother, or rather, that the mother is a part of it. A significant part of the infant’s move towards understanding the existence of a world of ‘not-me’ is its discovery of an object, usually soft, that can move to show it has a vitality or reality of its own. The infant readily clutches it as a defense against anxiety, particularly at the time of going to sleep. The object represents something that is both mother and ‘not mother’ and can be used to express all sorts of feelings, for example, love, hate, aggression, and reparation. Importantly, these loved possessions are able to survive all the feelings children have towards them. The objects are termed transitional because they help a child move from the original object, the mother, towards a more independent state.
My sister still mourns Little Ted, but, when I call her, is more anxious to talk about Big Ted who, she says, was really her favourite. Big Ted had to have several new noses as she serially rubbed them away with her love. In fact, Big Ted eventually had to have a ‘makeover’ by our grandmother as my sister’s love for him was so fierce he’d lost not just his nose but, much like ‘Teddy’ in this exhibition, his eyes and most of his furry face. Maybe her love for Big Ted was more vigorous as she had lost Little Ted? Maybe what persisted in her was a greater need to assert her ownership?
My sister’s love for Big Ted survived his makeover because she sanctioned it but Winnicott states the object “must never change, unless changed by the infant.” Most parents get to know the value of a Teddy, a Wol, a Liony or a Goully and carry it around when travelling. Most understand the need to let it get dirty and smelly and inherently understand that washing introduces a break in continuity of the infant’s experience, a break that might destroy the meaning and value of the object to the infant.
I am not sure what age I was when my mother became repulsed by my ‘ribbon’ (which was, in fact, a blue blanket with a ribbon border that I stroked between my toes) and concerned that, on another trip abroad, the customs officers would not allow us in the country with such a thing. She not only washed it but trimmed it into a neat, acceptable, square. I can instantly recall the feeling of outrage and near despair, the feeling of a brutal separation.
Writing in Attachment and Loss, the psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who was a pioneer in attachment theory, says that, “There is no reason to think that attachment to an inanimate object bodes ill for a child; on the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that such an attachment can be combined with satisfactory relations with people. With some children, indeed, an absence of interest in soft objects may give grounds for concern.“ He tells the story of a child whose strong dislike of soft toys from infancy was notable and was rooted in his mother’s rejection and later desertion of him. That child’s dislike of soft objects reflected a dislike of his mother.
Bowlby believed that the prolongation of attachment to inanimate objects into later childhood was not a sign of insecurity. It should not be a cause for concern if we love our Lionys, Teddys and Ribbons alongside our parents, our siblings and our friends long after some (notably parents) believe is healthy. However, alarm bells ring when a child’s preference for such an object outweighs any attachment or affection for a person.
The largest painting in the exhibition, Safe, shows Goully (Kopp’s own treasured ‘transitional’) arms outstretched around Snoopy and Piglet. Kopp describes these three as his ‘favourite sitters’. The cave, with its fronds, in which they sit seems feminine and womb-like, outside the background is phallic, harsh and rocky. Beyond the world of soft toys lies that of the hard ones of older childhood, the ones that break and disappoint, and beyond that, some way off, the realities of adulthood.
What Sandro Kopp has achieved with Fiercely Loved, is the elevation of some of his friends’ and family’s transitional objects into the heroic and romantic. His portraits, set in landscapes that bring to mind the grandest from past centuries, are poignant and powerful. He also lets us see how these toys and comforters are not only transitional objects but also the earliest transferential objects. Into Wol, Liony, Piglet and all the rest are projected the rage, disappointment and even hatred their owners have felt for their parents, their sisters and their brothers. And we see that reflected back in their staring eyes, their limbless waves, in Goully’s silenced mouth. We feel too the fierce love that these soft toy warriors have endured. The decorative but taut blue ribbon round Goully’s neck has collared him for decades, the friendship bracelet almost severs Snoopy’s arm. Perhaps Kopp feels that some have borne their fates angelically. Snoopy and Piglet, have been set free by him and are ascending weightlessly to comforter heaven. Whilst these two have been released, the others remain as possessed by their owners as they were when they were first discovered. Only now, we’ve discovered them too.
Camilla Nicholls, October 2013
Camilla Nicholls was a communications strategist and policy advisor working in the national media and for several leading arts organisations before becoming a psychotherapist. She currently works in the NHS and runs the private practice, EC2 Therapy. www.ec2therapy.com