In a foray into the relationship between art and conflict, editor Pablo de Orellana reviews The Charnel House, a poetic graphic novel by painter Tom de Freston in collaboration with 37 leading contemporary poets, a book that takes readers through an agonising exploration of knowledge about oneself –and the problems of identity and its recognition.
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‘I watched myself falling for nine nights’, a line from The Charnel House, speaks of the plight of its protagonist and of the author’s spectacular development over the past year. De Freston’s last exhibition at London’s Breese-Little Gallery (November 2013-January 2014, see catalogue here) was comprised of paintings whose characters are calmly observed by the author in despair, degradation and displacement. They were sad, yes, but portrayed in compositions suggesting narrative, framing a spectacle of unbridled despair. De Freston’s characters reach a climax of exasperated frustration, and yet the works provide the means for viewers to frame despair, highlighting its all-too-human insularity.
The Charnel House book features many of the same images in graphic novel format. Punctuated by poems by 37 leading authors such as John Mole and George Szirtes, the storyboard highlights deeper narratives in the images themselves. A character finds himself resembling a Guernica-like horsehead character and sets out in an angst-ridden quest for understanding of his condition. The narrative drags us through all of “Horsehead’s” existence: love, sex, family, loss, painting, a gallery show and even waterboarding and beheading. The paintings and images themselves more than ever depend upon theatrical staging to provide position, sense and visual continuity to great effect.
The violence that aesthetically constitutes the narrative acts in this journey of self-discovery is what fascinates me the most. These instances of violence point to the moments of transition and choice of identification in relation to horsehead’s own politics of who he should be. This violence denoted through the moments when horsehead hates, loves and reconsiders himself, and the inevitable questions that arise at each instance. Furthermore, for those of us that inquire into the constitution of political identity, de Freston provides a fascinating set of isolated visual markers that challenge how we come to recognise identity –gestures, scenes, poses and dress. In sum, how Horsehead recognises himself, the markers that tell him who he is and how they contrast with whom he should be, poses a serious challenge to the ideational stability of identity. Remembering and retrieving who you are, as Horsehead finds out, is a problem.
These moments in which Horsehead addresses his condition are exacerbated by the structure of this exercise in ekphrasis, when the reader’s aesthetic eye is challenged by the textual response. Highlights among the poems responding to the artwork are ‘The Hunger Moon’ by Helen Ivory and ‘Illumination’ by Alan Buckley. The latter in particular denotes the exploratory (and violently desolate) mission of this aesthetic journey though human experience.
The Charnel House is a spectacular painterly journey through a character attempting to find himself through the horrors of his own soul. All in one house and one night.
Pablo de Orellana is Senior Editor of Strife and a Doctoral researcher at the War Studies Department, King’s College London. His interests include diplomacy, critical theory, nationalism, part-taking in democracy and contemporary fine art.