Tom de Freston is a visual artist based in Oxford. His honours include a Leverhulme Residency at the University of Cambridge and the inaugural Creative Fellowship at Birmingham University. With his wife, writer Kiran Millwood Hargrave, he is the co-author of award-winning children’s books, including Julia and the Shark (2021). Wreck(2022) is his debut work of non-fiction, drawn in part from a collaboration entitled I SAW THIS with professor Ali Souleman and filmmaker Mark Jones. The multi-platform project combined text, performance and painting, and an attempt to convey Souleman’s experience of blindness in the wake of a terrorist attack in his native Damascus. Wreck is an incredibly generous book: the story of de Freston’s obsession with a painting (The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–19), and the man who made it (Théodore Géricault); the story of a friendship and the artist’s own struggles with his practice and his past.
Stephanie Sy-Quia: This is your first book. What can you tell us about it, and how did its challenges differ from those of painting?
Tom de Freston: On the surface, the book is about my obsession with Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa: the story of the painting’s creation; the story of the real-life tragedy that it’s based on; and then Géricault himself, his biography and the historical context. Really that’s a slight red herring because it becomes very much about my own practice, through being obsessed with that painting and my collaboration with a Syrian writer called Ali Souleman, and the unexpected echoes and uncanny resonances between my relationship with Ali and Géricault’s relationship with two of the survivors from the raft. It therefore became this composite journey of me processing grief and trauma around my father, and entering Ali’s experiences and working together to see how it might be possible to translate his experiences of blindness and war and displacement into paintings. All of these things become a far wider exploration of what it means to depict suffering in paint. Is that possible? Is it ethical?
SSQ: One thing I loved about the book was that it felt like a studio tour of your mind.
TdF: At the time, I was represented by a commercial gallery, which was very strongly trying to push me away from my collaborations. They weren’t keen on the fact that I really liked using film or interviews or conversations, or my own writing, as a way to pull the curtain back and let people into the studio. I think for marketing reasons, they wanted to kind of keep the shiny facade of the finished thing. I was interested in recovering the thinking that goes into a piece, which a viewer won’t know if they’re only looking at the end product. I am not an academic, or a critic; I am interested in the way the mind leaps and jumps outside of rigorous methodology.
SSQ: This is first and foremost the very moving story of a collaboration, which is not your first. Others include those with your wife, Kiran Millwood Hargrave. What do you
enjoy about collaboration, and what do you think our culture stands to benefit from more emphasis on it?
TdF: We’re still obsessed with the idea of the individual. People very quickly want to pigeonhole, but what really excites me is how our knowledge or ideas or creativity develop as we move from one medium to another. There’s a translation or a morphing from one person or one conversation to another. I love that idea of collaboration as a form of constant transformation. Ultimately, I don’t even believe that the individual exists; we’re all part of an entire ecosystem where every-thing’s connected and in constant dialogue, and to try and imply that the single artist in the studio is hermetically sealed in with their work of genius is ridiculous. Everything you read, every conversation, it just goes onto this compost heap of the mind. The reason I work with writers, filmmakers or academics is because I’m excited about different modes of thinking.
SSQ: In a moment of candour, you describe a reaction of “hunger” to Ali’s story. Although you channel this response into a mutually nourishing collaboration, there is an often-unbridled hunger for the trauma of marginalised groups in wider culture, a demand for them to excavate and delineate their trauma for the consumption of the powers-that-be in a way that can feel exploitative and harmful. Were you conscious of that in your handling of this project?
TdF: I had the immense privilege of having this relationship with Ali, which very quickly became a two-way thing for both of us to think about ways in which the arts can interrogate the self and past suffering. It became an exercise in the impossibility of empathy: how might we attempt to step into someone else’s experiences while always knowing that it’s impossible? Even if the desire to reach out and try is there – that’s the point. If you get to a really personal level between individuals, then at the very least you’re safeguarding each other. There’s a big question about power, too. Ali is unbelievably articulate, intelligent and composed – not “raw”; he is able to push back, and co-formulate the modes of our engagement. I don’t think there’s a power imbalance. What struck me from the very beginning was the importance of realising the vastness of how much you don’t know, and then embrace the fact that you do not have a complete picture. If anything you have shards, which are already abstracted and come with bias. I wasn’t passively receiving some universal truth from Ali; we journeyed through everything together.
SSQ: I’d like to explore an idea you mention early on, in a description of The Raft: that the painting depicts the “horror of stoicism”. This appears to be a central idea of Wreck.|
TdF: Stoicism is often thought of as the repression of emotions, but there’s a painting from 1789 by Jacques-Louis David, which also hangs in the Louvre, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons. It exemplifies a different way of thinking about what stoicism could mean. Famously, the figure of Brutus is very static, often described as calm, but to me, that is a failure of looking, because his toes are curled right up. Then you realise that he is suppressing vast emotion. He is able to, but that’s actually hiding a deep horror that can’t be got out of, and which I think the painting deals with beautifully. It’s a painting full of ambiguity, with deep psychic wells beneath the figures, where we can never exactly pinpoint the emotion. Géricault, like many of his generation, was greatly influenced by David and similarly, something about The Raft that people find uncomfortable to acknowledge is that it’s full of erotic tendencies, as well as mourning and horror. It’s slippery and you can never quite pin it down. Ali and I pursued these things to do with ambiguity a lot in our relationship, and we still do. He’ll talk about moments of having lost his sight or having lived blind; he might describe them as beautiful or he’ll sometimes say they’ve been a gift, but then will very quickly want to check that. Obviously it’s also horrific and limiting, but crucially, it is all those things at once. I suppose I was working against that desire to constantly flatten and simplify.
SSQ: What can you tell me about the tension between the metaphors of the wreck and the raft?
TdF: I finish the book by saying I’m grateful to have made a raft from the wreck. In general, I’m really wary of any kind of romanticising of trauma, or the suggestion that it’s worthwhile to experience these things so that we turn them into art, and that that can be a way of saying everything has been repaired. I’m also suspicious of the suggestion of psychological or therapeutic journeys coming to completion. We have to be incredibly careful of saying that terrible things are ultimately good things to have gone through. I do think there is a way in which art or writing or thinking can be a space in which and build anew from the wreckage. Here I return to the subtitle: to be lost at sea. It’s not as if you’re suggesting you’re sailing off to sunlit uplands, but it’s to explore those dark spaces. This is sort of how I want to approach the aftermath of the book’s publication or how I’d like readers to come to it: this space is alive to further delving. The book can become a thing that can be pulled apart again. You’ve got to venture out together on it: the book itself can become a kind of a raft.
SSQ: I love your description of the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol as an “act of deep remembering”. Do you think artists have a special role to play in fostering a climate that facilitates more deep remembering?
TdF: I suppose we all have a responsibility for that. I do think at the moment, and in the last seven years or so, we’ve realised that battles are being won not by facts or evidence, but by emotional narratives. The arts have a role to stand up and realise that they can tell complex, emotional stories. That’s the fight: to push back against simplicity and its exploitation. We have to do better with our storytelling at every level.
SSQ: Throughout the book, you imagine what was in the historical gaps of Géricault’s relationship with his aunt, Alexandrine. At the end of the book, though, you pull away from her quite quickly and make a point of leaving her privacy. Why was that important to you?
TdF: It wasn’t a choice in advance. She was somewhere between his mother, his lover, and also a kind of a patron: bringing him up and supporting him. I found it a very interesting exercise trying to approach that without judgement. When my research took me to the end of her life, I started to feel that hunger again: to find yourself in a rich imaginative space, to get excited about wanting to explore it. She outlived him by a long time and it was very clear that she never forgot about him. You could imagine a whole book on this grief-stricken lover-mother, in old age, still with this great sense of love. What is that love? How does it manifest itself and what’s the life beyond that love? Then I thought, no, I shouldn’t be here; I should respect her desire for privacy.
SSQ: Throughout the book there are changes in tense. Why?
TdF: I wanted to do Géricault’s biography, but in language similar to what he was doing with paint when he approached history. For example, we don’t actually have any of the sketchbooks, notebooks or details of his time spent at the Sistine Chapel, yet I wrote a whole chapter on that trip, because it interested me to think what it would mean to enter a space without records. I liked the idea of openly acknowledging that this was a creative act, while at other moments in the book, I’m positioning myself far closer to an academic biographer. I wanted that slippage of tenses because I wanted to make the reader feel a bit dizzy. There are moments where you’re in the present tense – it’s visceral and tangible – and then you realise that it’s an illusion. The figure in that space isn’t Géricault; it’s me. Hopefully the whole thing falls away in front of you.