By Claire Roberts
Margit van der Zwan is a curiosity among arty types. Within minutes of meeting, she tells me that her grandmother lived next door to the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, and how funny it is to think of him hanging out his pants on the washing line. Her upbringing was unconventional, moving between the Netherlands and the UK, studying many areas of the arts including music, literature, sculpture and illustration. Recently she has turned her attention to making portraits of female composers.
I get the impression that van der Zwan loves being a craftswoman, be it on the cello or with a brush in hand. Her composer portraits are pen and ink drawings, made by hand, with colour added digitally. ‘This technique is one of my favourites: everything about using a good brush and coal-black ink is deeply satisfying. And then adding blocks of colour at the click of a button is one big gratifying experience.’
What made her go for this technique? ‘I chose a contemporary style to contrast with the stuffy image that can surround composers. I have also tried to choose some lesser-known portraits, but sometimes there’s not much available. If anyone is related to Hildegard von Bingen, they should call me!’
It was a shock to realize how much women’s music has been kept off the radar. My portraits aim to redress the balance.
Her approach is idiosyncratic, with music by the composers playing as she sets about creating their portraits. For her, this is the closest relationship she can have with her subject: ‘In a way, I’m listening to their voice. I try not to research too much. Having the music playing while their face is being captured on paper really influences the finished drawing.’ She admits to experiencing ‘strange moments’ during the making of her portraits – ‘sometimes I chat out loud to whoever I’m drawing. It makes me feel closer to the subject. And a bit crazy.’
But what led her to this project? ‘A friend requested a portrait of the jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. Delia Derbyshire soon followed. Having already drawn about 35 wrinkly men in a composer portrait series, it was a refreshing change. For a working musician, it was a shock to realize how much women’s music has been kept off the radar. My portraits are a tiny contribution to redressing the balance.’
van der Zwan’s portraits are an interesting sequel to Radio 3’s 2015 season of works by female composers, addressing a long-standing challenge: how best to integrate their compositions within the standardized repertoire? The likelihood of finding a tea towel with Handel’s face on or a Scott Joplin poster is far greater, for example, than acquiring a Fanny Mendelssohn fridge magnet. Margit presents them as faces relevant to modern times.
Her desire to tell their tale may be linked to her work illustrating texts and storyboards, which has helped her to convey her message without distracting from the story. Her collection now includes portraits of Amy Beach, Louise Farrenc and Clara Schumann.