On the Threshold: The Paintings of Tom de Freston
The obsession began in Paris. To be precise, it was at the Louvre, where a young Tom de Freston found himself transfixed by a devastating scene of human suffering – a huddle of shipwrecked men clinging to a makeshift raft in the Atlantic Ocean, teetering on the threshold between survival and mortality. Great art has a habit of doing this, of halting you in your tracks, demanding you engage with its beauty, perplexity, or, as in this case, its horror. The painting in question – Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819) – is a masterpiece of French Romanticism, but it was the Frenchman’s vivid portrayal of pain and suffering that first caught de Freston’s eye. The brutal depiction of rotting corpses, writhing bodies and desperate survivors became a preoccupation for the Oxford-based artist, launching him on a distinct trajectory as a painter of tragedies, violent spectacle and grotesque characters on the brink of disintegration. But whether he is responding to Géricault’s painting, Shakespeare’s plays, terrorist attacks, or international conflicts associated with the so-called war on terror, de Freston is consistent in his desire to find beauty amid the horror as he strives to better understand trauma and how it might be represented in paint.
Géricault’s enormous canvas portrays the aftermath of the wreck of the Méduse, a French frigate filled with colonists and soldiers that ran aground on its way to Senegal in July 1816. Some 150 passengers crowded onto a huge, crudely constructed raft before being abandoned by the ship’s crew, who availed themselves of the only available lifeboats. Many of the raft’s passengers starved to death, while others were swept away by the raging waves and wind. The remainder endured hunger and dehydration with some even resorting to cannibalism. And yet, for all its tragedy, Géricault’s raft also drips with optimism. The artist’s skilful employment of a diagonal axis divides the painting into two distinct halves: one of despair and one of hope. In the lower half we see dead and expiring bodies, while in the upper section a pyramidal cluster of men stretch towards the top of the painting. It is here, at the picture’s apex, where a muscular black figure, animated by the prospect of rescue, waves a torn flag, hoping it will be spotted by the tiny ship on the horizon. By this, Géricault suggests all is not lost. Indeed, after 13 terrible days adrift, 15 survivors were rescued, living to tell the tragic tale.
The dichotomy at play in The Raft of the Medusa has long captivated de Freston, whose canvases frequently hover between tragedy and comedy, beauty and horror, life and death, and the past and the present. His unsettling images echo many of its themes: abandonment, cruelty, suffering, violence, and the struggle for survival against the odds. Indeed, the image of a raft lost at sea is a central motif in numerous works, becoming for the artist a magnetic force at the centre of a wider constellation of historical, contemporary, and personal reference points. For example, Raft (2014), depicts a raft loosely based on Gericault’s composition, which instead of people, is populated by desperate, golem-like figures with gaping eye-sockets. The figures began life as plasticine and clay maquettes, recalling the models that Géricault made for his own studio recreation of the raft. De Freston sets them adrift in the deepest reaches of outer space. Two windows signify the hope of rescue, though the view through the panes is vague and undefined. The presence of a suspended lightbulb heightens the composition’s theatrical nature. It’s another motif scavenged from art history, nodding to Francis Bacon (Portrait of George Dyer Talking, 1966) and Philip Guston (Head and Bottle, 1975) – artists well known for exploring the dark underbelly of human nature and to whom de Freston’s work is clearly indebted.
While Gericault’s painting served as a metaphor for the dashed hopes of French citizens some 30 years after the revolution, de Freston’s dark and disturbing paintings suggest myriad references. The modern spectre of bodies washed ashore on Mediterranean beaches as desperate migrants attempt and fail to enter Europe hangs over many canvases. But the raft motif is also a springboard for the artist to explore various psychological traumas, including personal grief in the wake of his father’s death (an aspect of the work that is explored at length in his debut non-fiction book, Wreck: The Art of Being Lost at Sea, Granta Books, 2021). In this respect his project recalls Martin Kippenberger’s treatment of Gericault’s raft in the mid-1990s, in which the artist cast himself as the suffering sailors. Created just before his own death, the many drawings, paintings and photographs similarly function as an exploration of his tormented psychology.
To date, de Freston has produced more than 25 large-scale canvases as well as hundreds of drawings relating directly to Géricault’s masterwork. The delirious energy of the original painting is captured in pieces such as Raft (2014), a large diptych inhabited by a monstrous cast of zombified creatures. The barely human figures possess a flat, cartoon-like quality as they float in a nondescript space. The characters evolved from drawings made directly onto digital printouts of The Raft. Initially following Géricault’s composition closely, de Freston allowed his pencil to deviate, creating wild deformities. These were then printed onto card, placed into a small diorama and re-photographed to provide a basis for the manic characters of the final painting. Such convoluted processes are common to de Freston’s works, which often incorporates imagery generated by different media. In this instance, a nightmarish world of gnarled and twisted bodies emerged – cartoonish hallucinations with bulging eyes and bloated lips that double and multiply across the canvas. Indeed, the whole composition is doubled, with the left-hand panel mirrored by the right, emphasising the painting’s dreamlike quality. The flatness of the figures is contrasted by thick, abstract passages, where paint has been dragged and pulled, verging on the expressionistic. A large, open window appears like a threshold between worlds, hovering at the border of chaos and order. Yet the stormy accumulation of dark and light tones leaves it unclear as to whether the raft’s occupants are drifting towards deliverance or destruction.
In other raft paintings, such as Demons Land, Book of Justice IV (2017), the figures began life as duvets covered in paint and stuffed into stockings. De Freston made hundreds of these models as part of Demons Land: A Poem Come True (2015-16), a collaborative multimedia project instigated by Professor Simon Palfrey of the University of Oxford. Comprising film, sound, painting, sculpture and digital drama, Demons Land explores the brutality of colonialism and imperialism through the lens of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590-96). The ragged, deformed creatures appear in the project’s film component (co-directed by Mark Jones and de Freston) and later became the starting point for paintings. For de Freston, collaborating with academics, writers, poets, musicians and others outside of the art world encourages fresh, innovative thinking and the development of new ideas. And while cross-pollination and collaborative working characterises many of his projects, the exchanges are always brought back to painting, feeding into his studio practice and expanding and stretching it to its limits.
One of de Freston’s most ambitious responses to Géricault’s Raft is Wreck Grid (2018), a grid of 81 panels that can be rearranged into almost limitless combinations. A film documenting its creation provides a fascinating insight into the artist’s working practices in his studio, which at the time was located in an abandoned Victorian squash court in Oxford. After carefully laying the panels onto the floor, he is seen pacing to and fro with paintbrush in hand, slopping a muddy coloured substance all over the raft-like structure. Various paints and unidentified mediums are then poured, sloshed and splashed across the panels, seeping, bleeding and mingling together to form a tempestuous field of blue and white pigment. Working intuitively, de Freston allows some areas to become thick and encrusted, while other parts remain relatively smooth. The textured, pockmarked surface has the appearance of a raging, primordial storm – a topography that provides a substructure for subsequent stages, such as the application of collaged imagery or slick, graphic elements that contrast with the painterly passages. De Freston likens his accumulations of paint to wounds that rupture and heal, speaking to the fragility and transience of life. Watching him work recalls Hans Namuth’s film of Jackson Pollock dripping paint across a floor-bound canvas. Yet this procedure is only the first stage of the artist’s involved process.
De Freston speaks of wanting to inhabit Gericault’s painting, to understand its psychology by climbing into the skin of the raft’s occupants. Unperturbed by what is physically impossible, he mixes together pots of liquid clay, concrete and paint into a flesh-like substance, a second skin with which he covers his entire body and head. Now he is transformed into a face-melted mutant, a gruesome golem animated by unknown forces. The deep crimsons and putrid yellows of his new body are hidden from his own caked-over eyes, visible only to a camera, which records the entire performance. The jolting metamorphosis recalls the visceral performances of Olivier de Sagazan, but, unlike the French artist, who transforms himself for an audience, de Freston is looking to develop imagery for painting. The resultant photographs of his encased body, wriggling and writhing on wooden pallets, are printed and then collaged onto the surface of his painted panels to form a cast of lost souls. Indeed, de Freston likens this work to a secular Last Judgement. The final painting is an apocalyptic vision of a drowned world; bodies tumble and twist, tossed about and engulfed by waves of existential chaos.
The paint-encrusted creatures that emerge from this and similar performances are integral to the development of each new painting or series, since they provide a way for de Freston to generate new visuals. But they are also masks, disguises to hide behind and a way of erasing identity. In this they allow for psychological preparation, providing him with a unique method of feeling his way into the characters he portrays. This was especially pertinent in preparing for the Poor Tom series (2015-2016), which takes as its starting point the Dover Cliff scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear (Act 4, Scene 6). Here, Edgar, disguised as the mad beggar Poor Tom of Bedlam, agrees to take his father, Gloucester, to the edge of the cliffs. At this point in the play, Gloucester is blind and suicidal, wanting to leap to his death. But Poor Tom instead takes him to an imaginary cliff, which he describes in vivid detail to his visually impaired father. Tom’s description convinces Gloucester and he jumps, not to his death, but to bewilderment. It is the precise moment at which Gloucester steps off the imagined cliff edge that fascinates de Freston; the perceived liminal space between life and death. It exists for just a millisecond in the play, though the psychological ramifications are profound.
The scene’s metaphysical strangeness is reflected by de Freston’s large triptych Poor Tom (2015), which charts the progress of a manic looking figure, not unlike the golem characters of earlier paintings. In the first canvas, the figure perches on the edge of a raft-like platform, suspended above a vertiginous drop. Below him, a tempestuous, churning sea is filled with collaged, drowning figures that each represent a different facet of his splintered psyche. The second canvas shows the figure slipping into the swirling abyss, while in the final panel he appears to be falling. Yet there is ambiguity here: the character may well be tumbling, but he could also be lying on the ground. Like Gloucester after his plummet, he hangs motionless, perhaps calling out: “alive or dead?” – the words spoken by Poor Tom through which Shakespeare prompts audiences to ponder what it might be like to experience the threshold between life and death, uncertain of which side you now dwell on.
These ideas were foremost in de Freston’s mind when he again covered himself in claggy layers of clay, paint and concrete; performing for the camera in his new garden studio in order to generate the bank of images from which his Poor Tom paintings developed. He describes the sensation of being encased inside that blind shroud as like inhabiting a sarcophagus, a clammy envisaging of what death might feel like. The performance itself was energetic and violent. In a sequence of unwieldy actions, he flung himself across the pallets, rolled on his side, toppled head over heels and fell clumsily into an imaginary abyss that was at once physical and psychological. By stepping into the skin of his tormented protagonist, the artist assumed the role of actor, and the pallets, like Gericault’s raft, became a stage. Indeed, the hundreds of resultant photographs and paintings riff on the theatricality of the Dover Cliff scene, and the way that theatre itself is reliant on troubling the line between reality and fiction.
The Poor Tom series was not the first time that de Freston had found inspiration in King Lear. In 2011 he collaborated with his wife, the poet and novelist Kiran Millwood Hargrave, to produce Scavengers, a dark collection of twenty paintings and poems exploring themes of violence and power within the plays of Shakespeare. De Freston and Millwood Hargrave have collaborated on several text and image projects, including OE (2017), a graphic novel reimagining the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. For Scavengers, Gloucester is portrayed as a contemporary beheading victim in The Blinding (2011), a sinister image accompanied by a gruesome poem. Blindfolded and on his knees, he is surrounded by faceless, orange jump-suited figures; his executioner, knife in hand, grasps his head ready for the kill. ‘Slit his apple / And let it drip’, reads the bloody verse. In Blind Father, the Dover Cliff scene is reimagined in a red sitting room. Gloucester, illuminated by a single filament lightbulb, stands on a small step, teetering above a deep tangerine carpet as Poor Tom, wearing a strange, beak-nosed mask, crawls on all fours, urging his father to jump.
Many of the Scavengers paintings are set in contemporary domestic settings. Juliet, for example, shows the star-crossed lover weeping in a bedroom, while in Birdsong and I put a spell on you, similar rooms provide the setting for sexual encounters, though it is unclear whether these ambiguous scenes present unbridled passion or violent rape. Several canvases reference other artists’ responses to the Bard. Elizabeth Siddall as Ophelia, for example, refers to Millais’s famous painting of Hamlet’s drowned lover, Ophelia (1852), for which his model posed in a bathtub of water. Riffing on this detail (while also evoking Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, 1793), de Freston depicts a naked female submerged in the tub; seen from above, she lies motionless in the water. Nearby, an open door reveals a darkened space, perhaps suggesting the threshold of the afterlife. Here, as with many of de Freston’s paintings, the presence of water represents a powerful and destructive force associated with death; from images of storm-swept rafts to Gloucester’s imagined leap into the English Channel, it regularly threatens to engulf his characters.
The relationship between violence and water is addressed in Waterboarding (2011), another canvas from the Scavengers series that transposes Gloucester’s suffering to the contemporary, post 9/11 world. The painting references the practice of waterboarding, a terrifying form of water torture employed by the CIA against suspects held in Iraq and at black sites around the world as part of the so-called war on terror. Detainees are strapped down and water poured over their faces, simulating the experience of drowning. Giving us again a bird’s eye view, de Freston shows an upturned figure with bulging eyes; his torturer bears over him, bucket in hand, about to pour. A female figure off to one side stares up, as if to challenge any lingering complacency in the viewer. The whole canvas seems submerged – washes of paint engulf its cracked and dimpled surface, which itself appears to have been the subject of violence. Although prisoners are not actually drowned by waterboarding, this ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ can cause physical and psychological trauma. Like Gloucester, its victims are brought to a disturbing place of mental anguish, somewhere between living and dying.
Terrorism and its consequences have informed much of de Freston’s artistic development. In fact, his Fine Art Foundation course began on 11 September 2001. But while he has never explicitly addressed the events of that infamous day in New York, his work has often explored the long, dark shadow that this and other such terrorist attacks have cast over global politics. His 2017 series Truthtellers was produced in response to the horrific Manchester Arena bombing of that year, in which 23 people lost their lives. Working with writer Christiana Spens, he sought to understand how sense was made of the collective trauma surrounding the suicide attack, looking specifically at the way the UK media repeatedly frames terrorism as a reductive battle between good and evil. Another series of performances generated the project’s source imagery, which saw de Freston again slathering his head with paint and clay. The ambiguous cast of characters that emerged mingled social media aesthetics with art historical references, blurring the lines between those with pure and corrupted souls. The true nature of these personas was equivocated further as de Freston began to deform and distort the digital photographs with paint before burning them with a blowtorch.
The final pieces are gruesome, appearing like charred fragments of a bomb blast. Mouths, eyes and noses are glimpsed amid violent accumulations of dragged and splattered paint. These are anonymous figures, blown apart – both physically and mentally – by an evil, destructive force. Several of these fragmented and splintered works feature an isolated, open mouth, recalling Samuel Beckett’s Not I (1972), his ‘one-mouth’ play in which a disembodied mouth spews a manic monologue ranting of torment and trauma. Do these images show innocents scarred by psychological and emotional trauma? Or, do they represent the twisted souls of the perpetrators? Perhaps the truth that these ‘truthtellers’ speak of lies somewhere in between. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so eloquently concluded in The Gulag Archipelago (1973): “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Truthtellers, then, is inextricably linked to the complex dynamics of human nature, as, indeed, is de Freston’s wider enquiry into trauma. Throughout his paintings, performances and collaborations he shines a light on the most disturbing aspects of the human drama, reminding us that we all have a role to play.
Since 2001, counterterrorism has been the justification for American involvement in the bloody wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria among others. Yet de Freston eschews any overt political messaging, focussing instead on the gritty, human experience of violence and conflict. His most recent project, I SAW THIS (2019-20), is a collaboration with professor Ali Souleman, a blind Syrian academic at the University of Oxford who lost his sight during a terrorist attack in 1997. The Arab Spring uprising of 2011 and ensuing civil war in his home country forced Souleman to flee, separating him from the city of Damascus and the stability of a place he once called home. His startling story provides a unique insight into the Syrian conflict, but, more importantly for de Freston, it is a powerful personal testimony of living with the trauma of physical, debilitating injury and the psychological pain of geographical displacement.
At the heart of the project is an attempt to translate Souleman’s internal world of memories and anecdotes into a highly charged body of paintings. Anguished mouths drowning amid turbulent eruptions of smeared and spattered paint materialise on burnt and charred wooden boards. Acrid concoctions of cadmium red oil colour mixed with resin based mediums, concrete powder and smidgens of matt black paint combine with fast-drying white gloss to create fractious, volatile surfaces that split and crack to reveal teeth, lips and gaping voids. Like Beckett’s disturbing monologue, these agitated panels with their isolated mouths allude to the unspeakable and unknowable depths of trauma that can never truly be articulated with words. They augment Souleman’s written memoirs, making the unseen visible and expressing in paint things that are unable to be said.
Yet, despite these visions of destruction and psychological devastation, the project is not without hope. Through working with de Freston, Souleman has discovered how art not only exposes wounds but also has the capacity for healing. This is not art as therapy, but there is certainly a curative and cathartic dimension to the work as past hurts are laid to rest. This redemptive element of the work is best captured by Mark Jones’s accompanying film, which documents the evolving collaboration and friendship between the two men. As interior scars are revealed to the world, so too is a common humanity. Few will be able to relate to Souleman’s experiences but, as de Freston’s art acknowledges, pain, suffering and separation are universal. We all hurt and, to greater and lesser extents, we all heal too. De Freston shows us that the threshold between despair and hope is not far from any of us. Like Gericault’s frenetic flag wavers, he suggests that, even in the darkest of circumstances, the possibility of redemption remains.