The Irish Times
A friend in need: the role of art and friendship in healing trauma
In Wreck, visual artist Tom de Freston interrogates the role of art in healing from repressed personal trauma, and how this is linked into wider communal and historical traumas. Drawing on his own experience, he beautifully expresses the need to paint as a response to trauma, linking his personal narrative and the state of mind it affects to the complex story of suffering and corruption behind Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. He has long been obsessed by the painting, which bears horrible similarity to the drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean in recent years.
De Freston also highlights the desire, implicit in such artistic practise, to be in dialogue with others, both historically and contemporarily. Engaging with Géricault as well as his sources, and the catastrophe that inspired the great painting, he finds real meaning and solidarity in the life and work of a man painting 200 years before himself.
Here, solace is drawn from intimacy as well as distance; there is a certain perspective that de Freston can take from the knowledge that a man in this other time and place was grappling with some of the same problems, whether personal, political or aesthetic, as well as a transformative intimacy to be found in his affinity with Géricault’s own story.
This meeting with the past has a curious effect of both helping the painter confront his own traumas and taking him away from the present in some way – enabling him to become a hermit, at times, when so entranced by the painting and so focused on his own projects.
That is why de Freston’s collaboration and friendship with Ali, a man blinded by a bomb in the Syrian war, becomes so fascinating and moving. Here, de Freston works with Ali so that he may “see” the paintings he has made, and then he creates new ones based on Ali’s story, which Ali can feel and imagine, and so “see” in this way. During this process, de Freston also learns to see in new ways himself, engaging with his painting through the experiences of Ali.
Overlaying this story with his own long-standing fascination with the character “Poor Tom” in King Lear, de Freston weaves together a breathtaking story of dialogue and the search for truth, for ourselves and one another, and the complex relationship this has with images, and how we communicate with one another. Crucially, it reveals the friendship at the core of this practice, and art as a form of transcendental social bond that may enable true empathy and solidarity even in the face of life’s most catastrophic, harrowing and debilitating experiences.
Although not an artist, Eve, Chloë Ashby’s protagonist in debut novel Wet Paint, participates in art as a viewer; she recollects her obsession with a painting – this time, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère – which was also loved by her late friend Grace. This love of the painting becomes a way of remembering their intimacy and contextualising Eve’s own life as a bartender. She takes on work as a life model when she loses this job, so providing her own presence, indeed her naked body, for artists to draw.
The give and take of art production is particularly interesting here; while Eve is recompensed for her time, she takes up life drawing primarily because she needs the money. Her vulnerability is pronounced for this reason, as well as her hidden personal problems centred around the recent tragic death of her friend.
Much has been written about the “male gaze” and the exploitation of artists’ models (and models in general), with the role of the muse a complex one, often tainted by the social structures and inequalities of patriarchy and capitalism. But modelling also has the potential to be a valuable and even healing experience, which Ashby reveals in a sensitive and insightful manner.
She describes the meditative state that Eve seems to enter, and the ways in which she begins to confront her own previously detached state. Through modelling, she learns to sit with herself, since in this situation of course she has no option but to be still. Therein, Eve moves out of the anxious mental state of grief and shock, which has subsumed her since her friend’s death, and makes steps to reach out into the world again, admitting her own vulnerability.
With a careful, subtle, and compassionate description of the ways in which a life may be shaped by loss, Ashby creates a realistic and elegant portrait of a young woman beginning to recover herself from bereavement, echoing Manet’s famous painting.
Both books explore the complexities, possibilities and potential pitfalls of the artist-muse/artist-model relationship, and the ways in which friendship is so important both in the creative process and the recovery process. Through the recognition of one another, in these times of great need and vulnerability – whether directly through art practice, or vicariously through the engagement of art itself – we are enabled to climb out of the void of isolation, and the splintering of the self, brought on by trauma and loss.