Artist Tom de Freston and poet Andrea Porter explore the dark images Goya created on the walls of his house Quinta del Sordo (The House of the Deaf Man) in the last few years of his life. Using these paintings as a touchstone both artist and poet create a world in which Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’ provide a vital and significant link between the present and the past. The House of the Deaf Man becomes a space where a strange Master of Ceremonies guides you past walls that talk and a woman carries a severed head through a supermarket. In this house a mad band plays on as a man hangs a spoon from his nose and all the king’s and banker’s horses come tumbling down.
Praise for Andrea Porter:
“The fascinating cut glass surfaces of her work, always tug against an undercurrent of darkness and violence.”
– Jo Shapcott
Praise for Tom de Freston:
“[T]hese paintings also put the human form under a merciless gaze; Tom refuses to idealise our bodies, our genitalia, our corpulence or our angularity – a gaze which implicitly acknowledges Lucian Freud’s oeuvre, in its unsentimental, unforgiving and at times baleful scrutiny.”
– Sir Trevor Nunn
Andrea Porter’s A Season of Small Insanities is published by Salt. Her pamphlet Bubble (Flarestack) was adapted into a play and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her poems have been published in magazines and anthologies in the United Kingdom, Eire, Canada, Australia and the United States of America. She has had poems in the annual Forward Book of Modern Poetry and in the Poems of the Decade published by Faber. She is a member of The Joy of Six poetry ensemble that has performed across the United Kingdom and in New York. She is a tutor for The Poetry School. She lives in the Fens.
Tom de Freston
Tom de Freston is a Contemporary History Painter represented by Breese Little Gallery. In 2012 he was the Hatley Resident at C4RD. Previously he has been the Leverhulme Artist in Residence at Cambridge University, the Levy Plumb Artist in Residence at Christ’s College and the Artist in Residence at the Leys. Five catalogues have been published on his work including essays by Sir Nicholas Serota, Sir Trevor Nunn, Richard Cork, the Hon. Rowan Williams, Dr. Caroline Vout and Mike McCahill amongst others. His work has been featured in Studio International, Dazed Digital, The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times.
Over ten years ago I was in London and wandered by chance into the Hayward Gallery. There happened to be an exhibition of Goya’s prints and drawings. As I walked around I was mesmerised. The Goya I had come across was the Goya of the Spanish court, with grand set pieces and formal portraits, but here was a very different artist. I began to seek out other work by Goya and read about the man and his times. The more I read and looked at his work the more I began to see a complex man, a man full of contradictions and strange hypocrises but whose fears, nightmares and dreams were still very relevant to our current times. My reactions to Goya’s highly personal ‘Black Paintings’ has been a long journey. The power of the visual speaks for itself; the word in response has to say something other, something that steps through that visual to another place.
I have sought to let these fourteen paintings be the beginning of a journey leading me to explore both Goya’s world and my own, and question aspects of the times we live in. The continuing marvel of words is that they live in a space that is created by the listener and the writer together; marks on a page weave together sound, imagination and echoes of our own personal history. I have chosen a variety of forms; the sonnet, terza rima, rhyming couplets, free verse to reflect and explore the different worlds Goya’s paintings suggest to me. The paintings have at times almost created the form the poem takes in that intimate dance between rhyme, rhythm, sound, tone and image that Ekphrasis can create.
The joy of the collaboration on this project for me has been seeing how, from images painted by an artist on the walls of his house nearly two hundred years ago, words and art can be energised to present a different dimension and experience that is as relevant to our present world as Goya’s work continues to be.
Tom de Freston
This is not an illustration of Goya’s time in the ‘Quinta del Sordo’ or a modernising of his ‘Black Paintings’. Instead both of these sources have provided reference points for the building of a new world. The eroticism, mysticism and horror of the black paintings and Goya’s deafness as a cruel physical manifestation of a wider set of psychological and biographical contradictions have taken central roles. Andrea’s poetry gave me an opportunity to find new ways into Goya and his work, populating my mind with new characters and voices.
This ekphrastic engagement has allowed us to try and create a world which is elliptical, maddening and noisy, with time and space as an accordion, opening and collapsing to shifting rhythms, a fractured and fragmented realm with signs and signifiers destabilised. The current social and political climate is given nods with Saturn reincarnated as Bashar al-Assad and Rupert Murdoch, the puppet master, the model for a series of theatrical masks.
More broadly the violence and pornography are seen as interchangeable commodities from a ‘society of the spectacle’. Goya’s grotesques are replaced by a new cast of modernised monsters. A bastardised form of Christian Iconography appears in the form of a zombified Jesus turning the crucifixion into a dance at the disco of death, whilst the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are a hybrid chorus line at the endscene of a bad Bollywood move. A single falling figure nods at the Deposition whilst the same figure becomes Auden’s beast which repeats itself in a swirling Last Judgment scene, the strict patternation of which seems more akin to William Morris wallpaper and the Roschach test.
Art History becomes a compost heap of reference points. Goya’s most violent scenes, Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, Caravaggio’s entombment and Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa are all restaged in domestic settings. The screaming horse head from Picasso’s Guernica nods to the terror of war, the collapsing of ideologies and the absurdity of an increasingly unstable psychological state. All the reference points above are lifted, mutated and restaged.
The safety of the domestic is polluted to create something unhomely, familiar but strange and akin to Freud’s notion of the Unheimlich. The desire is to create a type of poetic and visual theatre where seemingly safe spaces are interrupted and infested by a white noise of psychological unrest and alienation similar to Brecht’s notion of Verfiemdungseffekt.
Welcome to the House of the Deaf Man, we hope you will enjoy the show.
When you go to the supermarket
place my head in your wire basket
as you wander the aisles of meat.
Be careful my hair does not brush
the sign of two for the price of one.
Let check-out girls catch my eye.
Keep me close and always visible,
you never know when you will need
to raise me up as a bloody trophy,
to rouse shoppers from their torpor.
Never take lightly the authority given
when you show what victory means.
Guard me from thieves.
If I were stolen how could you prove
that a god and right and butchery are,
and always will be, on your side?
Insure me, but a policy of like for like
may cost far more than you can pay.
Post my decapitation up on YouTube,
followers want to see the neck bowed,
the thought severed from the deed.
Become the poster-girl for deliverance,
the strong woman’s role in pay-back,
the lesson about listening to a deity.
Artists never see the flicker in the eyes
as you hack and saw through bone.
‘Two blows’ was their hyped publicity.
Most portray the moment before,
the moment after; the moment itself
disappears up the magician’s sleeve.
Speak softly to me at three a.m.
Whisper sweet names you gave me.
Tell me other secrets; I know
about the knife you use to prise
my fingers from your heart,
the axe I take to your soul.
After the Black Painting ‘Judith and Holofernes’.
On Close Examination
She spins, I measure and that one cuts;
even meddling gods are afraid of us.
Here we loom over you, older than time,
here before you inched from the slime
and knew the endless minutes and years
that plummet past and disappear.
You, old man, are not content with three.
Our face and name have a degree
of licence but number is sacrosanct.
Beginning, middle, end. You can bank
on birth, life, death, it’s solid symmetry.
Two’s company but three’s a guarantee
that time on this earth remains unravelled.
It can be short, shit and badly handled
but the thread is spun until it’s snipped.
You know about death, written its script
into your brush, drawn the cut strands
hung from trees in this bleeding land.
But this fourth fate with the spy-glass
hints quality control will have to pass
our handiwork. Will your short span,
show fuck-ups made by another man?
I see her glass is turned towards the door,
beyond which are all the other flaws
but here is the reminder to own your fate,
an art more difficult than mastery of paint.
After the Black Painting ‘The Fates’.
from House of the Deaf Man (Gatehouse Press, 2012).
Order House of the Deaf Man.
Visit Andrea’s blog.
Visit Tom’s website.