James Cahill


The other side of a mirror

Two artists, past and present, respond to disaster

In the spring of 2020, Tom de Freston’s studio burnt down. The artist had just completed an elaborate triptych of painted mouths. On the walls were ten years’ worth of other paintings. He had been trying to darken a section of the triptych with a blowtorch. Everything was incinerated. We learn of this cataclysm towards the end of Wreck, a beguiling hybrid of memoir, art history and fiction, the main subject of which is Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1819), a painting de Freston has long admired.

The disaster behind the painting is that of the French frigate Méduse, which broke up off the Mauritanian coast in 1816 on its way to Senegal. About 150 sailors and passengers clung to an improvised raft, while senior officers made for safety in lifeboats. The episode was a political scandal as well as a moral one; the ship’s blundering captain had been appointed by Louis XVIII, the restored Bourbon monarch, and de Freston has a wry vignette about Governor Julien-Désiré Schmaltz – the man who seized control of the evacuation – being lowered into a lifeboat in an armchair “like a little king”.

Adrift for thirteen days, the raft became a scene of murder, madness and cannibalism. De Freston has absorbed the testimony of Alexandre Corréard, who wrote a book about the shipwreck (with Jean-Baptiste Henri Savigny) and spoke to Géricault. These accounts underpin the visceral imagery of the “Raft”, and Corréard posed for one of the figures in the painting with his arms outstretched in the manner of the deposed Christ.

De Freston, in turn, has dramatized episodes from the disaster – and from Géricault’s reconstruction of it – in a series of novelistic episodes. He imagines the painter reading about the tragedy in a newspaper while curling his hair, preparing for a night out. He evokes the corrosive, obsessive love affair Géricault conducted with his uncle’s wife, Alexandrine. There is considerable imaginative caprice at work in these scenes, as in the “Raft” itself, but it is balanced by a regard for verisimilitude.

Wreck is also about how we respond to works of art in the present, and how those responses are mediated through other events and experiences. Between visions of the Méduse, we glimpse more personal tales of breakage and reparation. There is a semi-remembered childhood trauma, a descent into depression, a succession of breakthroughs and failures in the studio, and – at the heart of the book – the story of a friend, Ali Souleman, blinded by a bomb explosion in Damascus in 1996.

Ali, a literary academic who left Syria during the civil war, becomes de Freston’s collaborator, almost his amanuensis. On visits to the studio he learns about the artist’s pictures through words and touch. Listening to a description of the blues in one painting, Ali says that they remind him of the Euphrates, “where the blue is shot through with a light which makes it almost green”.

Ali’s observations play out in de Freston’s work. The artist tries to give expression to the explosion that blinded his friend; it was, Ali says, like being “chucked the other side of a mirror”. It is a phrase that comes to describe the space in which painting happens. The effort involved in visualizing words, or verbalizing experience, or making the invisible visible – each an act of translation – becomes central. “How will a blind man see my paintings?” de Freston asks early on. “And what will he find if he does?” After creating a cycle of paintings – figures floating in space – in response to Ali’s story, he describes the works to his friend, only to be told: “Tom, these paintings are mirrors”. Self-portraits, in other words. De Freston is mortified, but for Ali the revelation has value. Personal experience may not be the subject of art, but it is always a part of it, and impossible to circumvent.

De Freston’s paintings are literary in scope and theme, and idiosyncratic in relation to the mainstream of contemporary art. “I’ve spent a career being told my approach is too much”, he says. “Too many images, too much movement between form, media, process, collaboration and meaning.” Wreck is about extremes of experience and the proliferation of meaning. Yet the will to excess is held in check. The prose is lyrical – it feels at times like a narrative poem – but not lush. A leap into the past is enacted with a shift to the present tense, to suggest a re-experiencing rather than a retelling. We learn next to nothing of de Freston and Ali’s friendship outside the studio – yet the omission gives a peculiar electricity and focus to their moments of interaction, turning them into dramatic scenes.

The author’s studio went up in flames while he was writing Wreck. It was an instance of art crossing into life, breaking its bounds. But the whole book is about such transferences and ruptures – their inevitability, the possibilities they conceal. “Paintings record histories and contain lives”, de Freston writes in reference to the charred remains of his canvases. “Everything leaves its mark and then exists – or half exists.”


Friday 10th June 2022