Thackeray Gallery 2015

Some three years ago, after 24 years in St Ives, I returned to London. What was left behind, but perhaps still informs my work, were the horizontals of sea, the expanded sky, treeless land of rock and moor.

Now in London, with its busy architecture, breathing parks, street life, unquiet light, these elements of Cornwall are overlaid with rising forms, running curves and the vertical horizons of the city. The land is paved, the waves are of traffic, winds are tamed and the light is quite different.

It’s a fusion of experiences, which has in some way crept into my new work. This generally remains in a constant state of flux, no schemes, no systems, relying only on intent and process, with the desire to make something new, while at the same time continuing a conversation with the past.

My work is as much about time, as it is about form and space because of the time it takes for any potential meaning to configure, or reveal itself.

Ralph Freeman

Each painting holds a universe of possibilities ‘ ... but what is specific, particularly to abstract painting, is that it can stand alone in a precarious state, above and beyond any reference to other visual media or figuration, forcing one to confront painting as painting and painting alone.’
(as paraphrased from F van der Meer and I Mckeever.)

Thackeray Gallery 2013

Introducing Ralph Freeman – an artist whom we have followed and admired for a long time.

For over 25 years, Ralph was based in St Ives, Cornwall where his career as an artist was firmly established, and recognised with a solo exhibition at Tate, St Ives. Alongside his painting, he is also an accomplished jazz musician and composer.

This first exhibition at Thackeray Gallery is made up of a collection of recent and new works from both Ralph’s former St Ives and now current London Studios. When looking at these paintings, the viewer is drawn into a mysterious world: where form may be an object, such as a book, or a building, or maybe the shapes are a sound. Coupled with this, the works all draw a quiet contemplation, a moment to reflect. They hold you in a safe space, allowing you room to find your own interpretation, your own feelings, your own reflection.

We hope you will come and experience this ‘collection’ for yourselves.

Sarah Macdonald-Brown

Campden Gallery 2012

There always comes a point in time where I need to switch to a different medium.

A change of process opens up other possibilities with the promise of unlocking hidden doors. The brain is subdued, overtaken by the play and the exploration of the element of craft. This creates its own connections between stimuli, time and response, beyond thought, and dictates what should be acted on or reacted against.

The images which form the basis of the mixed media work (some recently re-discovered) were recorded over a longer period of time, either with drawing, photography or watercolour. To have been there, physically, to capture the image and to take away a particular sense of place was essential. What is afterwards imagined then develops embellishes or simplifies this record, by calling up a memory of what was sensed. I try to envisage a depiction outside its original parameters by stretching and pushing it away and out of the restrictions of its original frame. These then are the essential building blocks of the current mixed media work. Re-inventing the catalyst which initially drew me in to the subject.

The key is light or its absence. This is how form or structure evolves. It illuminates that which seems essential. Other elements can fade, dissolve or become immaterial. Light suggests what needs to be lost or implied and what needs to be found or said. Through perceived memory of a place or an atmosphere, key elements are selected, exaggerated or become focal points. However it can be that what is believed to be remembered is actually imagined. Again it is merely the connections that are tangible.

References to landscape, still life, the natural and the architectural, are unavoidable, and remain within the core of the oil paintings, at times filtering out through the work. Writing about the sources of these works is more difficult because the content is not so much in the subject matter but contained in the painting activity. What is remembered or worked through here is not an image or a time and a place, but a process suggesting or presenting different ways to use form, colour, tone and space, creating the conditions for the fusion between mood and form, whilst allowing space for something still to be revealed. Again the process relates to the connections that arise between these various elements extracting which has more importance and how they should relate.

When asked, which artists have inspired me most, I could surely supply a good list. But this would only be a part of the story, the tip of an iceberg of influences, with the rest remaining submerged. Perhaps, then, another pertinent way to see these connections is to quote Ad Reinhardt: ‘An artist is related to the artists that have gone before him and the artists that come after him.’

Ralph Freeman, April 2012

Millennium St Ives 2010

'Postmemory is a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through representation, projection, and creation – often based on silence rather than speech, on the invisible rather than the visible.'
Marianne Hirsche

'The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.'
Walter Benjamin

In conversation Ralph Freeman states: 'If I paint a tree, am I painting the memory of the tree as I saw it or am I creating an interpretation inspired by those who have created such paintings before me ... as an artist I am building on foundations that others have set before me.' Are we all responding to a collective memory, connected through shared experience gathered by the passing of time?

The title of this exhibition relates closely to the term ‘Postmemory’ coined by Marianne Hirsch in her written work Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory – a work focusing specifically on the effects of inherited memory on second generation Holocaust survivors. Hirsch uses the term to distinguish first hand memory from the powerful effects felt by those acquiring memory second hand creating a reverberation of those initial events. However, Freeman is emphatic in stating that this body of work is not related to this text or directly to specifics of his own experience as a second-generation survivor. That territory corresponds more directly to previous works - those who are familiar with Freeman’s oeuvre may recollect the ‘Foundations and Fragments’ series that was exhibited at Tate St Ives and the Freud Museum, where he dealt with this issue directly. It is clear when looking at Freeman’s work since, that a clear process of transcendence continues to take place.

It is evident that this collection of paintings is not obviously related to any specific event – at the same time it is also clear that we are witnessing the passing of time on and under the surface of the work. A theatre is provided in which all events have a relevant place. These paintings are a tableau through which one can meditate time as a trace through the use of physical matter, a lens through which the past can be experienced and memories relived. Whilst a history is demonstrated, a strong sense of displacement is created by the discord between formality and detail, and that which is elusive.

If we search for a literal interpretation in works such as ‘Sliding Through’ or ‘Connected Still’, then perhaps we can interpret a broken timeline, a faded or incomplete memory, life’s conflict of loss and discovery. The physical presence of form and the glowing aura remaining from that which has escaped from view. These paintings are melancholic but also reassuring. They affirm the strength of boundaries and structures that remain standing despite or because of time and experience.

As with his other love – modern jazz, Freeman deals with formal structure and the intuitive process of impromptu escape and discovery. Through Freeman’s personal journey we are reminded of the connectivity of time, even when it appears broken, like with musical improvisation, the link is reformed at a given point, through reinterpretation, the evolution remains intact.

These paintings are testament to memory but, importantly, also acknowledge that which remains obscure or appears lost forever. We are reminded that we are the product of that which we remember alongside that which we forget. So how can we ever know ourselves?

Joseph Clarke, 2010

Artist's Statement
As with all improvised music – particulary jazz, with its voicings and rhythmic variations – it seems that in my work, sequential elements develop or impose themselves time and again.

On the one hand, these sequences deal with formal and tonal relationships; their patterns and movement, their minor but distinguishing differences, their desire for unity whilst being disparate and contrary. On the other hand, because sequences are successive and therefore linear (as in music), they are time-based, and so reflect something of the idea of time passing.

Painting is a process that lives on hope. Intent and process go hand in hand, but for me are often part of a journey that must be fed, encouraged, pushed, abused, and re-built until something emerges. I work mostly on the periphery of things, on the nearly there. The way paint is applied and removed is my accident, awkwardness, inability, weakness, but in the end, my signature.

The last thing we ever learn about ourselves is our effect.

In this recent work, the dilemma between city and landscape, man and nature, as well as the abrupt death of two of my closest friends have all become intrinsically connected both through this process and the material of paint.

Ralph Freeman, 2010

Extracts from
Working through Transit Documents,
Postmemory and the Holocaust

by Giovanna Morra

These are paragraphs from a comprehensive academic paper, Part V of which is entitled
'Ralph Freeman: Situating an Ambivalent Postmemory Practice'.

Click for a pdf of the full version or abridged version (Part V only) in a new window.

Postmemory most specifically describes the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they 'remember' only as the narratives and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right. (...)

The term 'postmemory' is meant to convey its temporal and qualitative difference from survivor memory, its secondary, or second-generation memory quality, its basis in displacement, its vicariousness and belatedness. Postmemory is a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through representation, projection, and creation - often based on silence rather than speech, on the invisible rather than the visible. (...)

In this article, I focus on the work of one artist only - Ralph Freeman, because his work activates the problematic at the heart of postmemory representation: the debates between aesthetics and politics, between the individual and the collective, between the past, present and future.

New Millennium Gallery St Ives 2008

For Ralph's fourth exhibition with the gallery, we see no change of philosophy with regard to his practice, but I believe that we see an exciting shift which seems to give the paintings a renewed vigour. My lasting memory of his previous exhibition was of veils of colour, rectangular shapes of colour emerging through clouds of muslin, creating a sense of shimmering light hovering with a perfect symmetry. The new work, too, has that same wonderful atmosphere and transparency, but the symmetry seems to have been replaced by what I can only describe as a perfect imbalance. Shapes of brilliant colour shining through curtains of quieter colour, but now the shapes are suspended asymmetrically on the canvas. The works still have that beauty and atmosphere that marks out a Ralph Freeman painting, but also they have an extra tension that adds to their excitement.

I have known other artists who have aimed for this perfect imbalance, indeed Sandra Blow spoke of this as being an important aim in her work. A friend of Ralph’s perceptively made a drawing to show how she saw the paintings:


The drawing shows that despite the apparent imbalance, the end result creates equilibrium and a harmony.

Ralph quotes Einstein that 'everything should be as simple as possible but not simpler', and says, 'I have to keep asking myself the question, "Is this too comfortable? Surprising myself is a constant challenge." He says of the process: 'It's like a spatial conversation with a silent partner – a slow dance. The work stays still whilst you move around the studio between paints, kettle, chair, window and back again. A dance in which you make all the moves – eye, heart and hand.”

Ralph does not want to create something that is jarring, but it should never be predictable. 'I try for unity between composition and surface as well as some kind of transparency in the whole illusion. It’s through this process that I may perhaps discover or see something the work has not yet revealed.' I find that when I live with one of Ralph’s paintings it is like a series of doors gradually being opened over time, each one revealing to me some new feeling or sensation.

It can be very difficult to be objective about the quality of abstract painting, that is why Ralph believes that craft is so important; it must underpin everything that you do. He always looks to the Renaissance and the Dutch masters for inspiration because their handling of paint is so inspiring. Time is an important part of the process: 'Each work maintains its own journey in its own time – not your time. It's often the painting that decides.' He is aware through long experience that whenever he tries to hurry the process, maybe because of deadlines or because he has already worked on a painting for a long time, it will always haunt him and, even without looking at the painting, he will know it needs more work.

Despite the huge investment of time and emotion in a painting, he recognizes that at some stage he will accept that he will have to “bring life and transparency back into it”. It is for this reason that he tries not to build walls for himself, ie. creating restrictions for the work too early on which will inevitably need time to dismantle. He believes that trust in the process and openness to new ideas is vital. Although the process includes inevitable angst, Ralph believes that painting should be full of hope and that it should be a celebratory affair. Every day in the studio has a promise and an expectation of something new, fresh and exciting.

Recently reading an essay by Norman Rosenthal written for the catalogue of Auerbach’s exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2001, I was struck that the following quote could apply to Ralph. ‘The question is one of contemporaneity which, coupled with an implicit understanding of tradition, is vital to the relevance of an artist's work. It is not possible to paint like a Rembrandt or like Soutine or Giocometti or even like de Kooning. An artist is compelled to find his own language by which he is recognized and through which he recognizes himself, as in a mirror. Above all, he must constantly take the language which his has developed to new heights.' I believe Ralph has achieved these new heights with the work for this exhibition and I hope that you will visit to judge for yourself.

David Falconer, July 2008.

New Millennium Gallery St Ives 2006

This is Ralph Freeman’s third solo exhibition with the gallery and at first sight there has been a major shift in the work. Ralph has left the fragments of his family history behind, expanded his colour palette and produced an inspiring body of work that seems to be full of hope and light. Although the work appears very different with only a hint of past collages, in actual fact Ralph still seems to be following his own personal process – allowing himself total creative freedom, trying not to be pigeon-holed or categorised and very much following his own inclinations. Ralph started the Foundations and Fragments series in 1993. His father had died in 1985 and it was this sense of responsibility to the past that led to him incorporating family documents into a series of works. The culmination of this was an exhibition in 1997 at Tate St Ives. He says of his new work that it has ‘taken me this long to exorcise that whole thing’, the use of the word 'exorcise' seeming to indicate the level of emotion involved in working on such a sensitive area of his past. However the new work benefits greatly from all this reflection; it is almost as though without the dark, it would be impossible to have the light. I asked Ralph whether he was nervous about how this new body of work will be received. ‘No, it’s what I do; this is me at this moment in time.’ It is this openness to new possibilities within his practice which seems to give the work a sense of freedom. He does not see himself as an abstract or figurative painter or any other such definition. Instead he says, it is about ‘honesty within my own limitations. If it is sustaining me, then I will carry on doing it. The blue paintings didn’t sustain me any more so I stopped. Enjoyment is important in art.’

This body of work started with a visit to Pompeii and another to Herculaneum. ‘I have always been drawn to Italian art and culture, to Renaissance and Roman art. It has such a rich palette, rusts, reds, oxides and ochres.’ Although he is still interested in the challenge of working with a limited colour range, he acknowledges that this work is broader in colour palette. Ralph has not extended this range to include green. However, when I suggest this, with a little naughtiness and a sense of challenge, he tells me that he may make a green painting one day. I am reminded of the words of Kandinsky: ‘Blue is heavenly, the ultimate feeling blue creates is one of rest; when it sinks to black it echoes a grief that is hardly human; whereas green is a neutral colour; pictures painted in shades of green are passive and tend to be wearisome. In the hierarchy of colours, green is bourgeoisie – self satisfied, immovable, narrow.’ (Modern Painters, Charles Pickstone, June 2006). Although Ralph wouldn’t necessarily agree with this challenging statement, it may help us to understand why perhaps he has consistently used the colours he has. Form is important: the rectangular forms that dominate this series go back long before he started the Fragments, for it was partly the forms of the documents that attracted him initially. For this series Ralph says he is thinking about ‘form, colour and light. I’m trying to make something really simple that has a oneness about it. At the same time it should surprise me, and if I’m not surprising myself, something’s very wrong.’ It was suggested to me by another artist that Ralph’s work is about still life and the way he uses the interior space within the canvas. Whilst it is not still life in the traditional sense of placing objects as an artist like Morandi would do, the forms Ralph uses are placed with a precision and assurance, and the lasting effect is one of beauty and depth. Certainly, Ralph is modest enough to acknowledge that the forms could be very simple or very profound. As we look at the paintings in his studio on Porthmeor Beach with the beautiful windows facing out to sea, I suggest that the forms could be like these windows, looking through to another space. Laughing he says, ‘Maybe it is as simple as that. It is just the studio windows in the end.’

Ralph is acutely aware of process in the development of his work. ‘Every painting is just a series of very small steps that go on and on and on. It is the eye the heart and the hand and not the mind; a whole series of yes no, yes no, ending with a yes.’ He uses the term ‘management of errors’ to describe the importance he places of making mistakes. ‘Your mistakes, your errors, when you make a botch of it then you are really being yourself.’ There seems to me a tremendous sense of humility underlying these statements. Some artists seem to imply that everything they do is mapped out and thought through, or at least if there are mistakes, they are not mentioned. Here, however, is an artist who sees his mistakes as a vital part of the artistic process.

Ralph says it is fear that produces the underlying reticence. ‘The only reason you don’t make errors is because you are afraid to; if you’re not afraid to make errors you won’t be surprised by much in life.’ In this time of machine- or computer-generated paintings, where pieces are being mass-produced for the ultimate interior, it is this idea of the error that for me makes the difference between something which is meaningless and something which is art. It is like the mistake that a musician can make in a live concert and yet despite that, the performance is more vital and has that extra indefinable something.

Music, as many reading this will know, is a very important part of Ralph’s creative life. As well as being a painter, he is also a very fine jazz pianist. Although he seems to keep the two worlds quite separate, he definitely needs both to sustain him. I try to draw him, perhaps unfairly, on which he would choose if he had to. Whether unconsciously, or to please me, he says he would choose painting, but it is clear that each art form satisfies a different aspect of Ralph’s personality. Music is a collective activity and painting is very isolated and insular. Ralph believes music requires more emphasis on technique. ‘With music, technique goes hand-in-hand with your ability to express more complex and developed ideas.’ Ralph agrees that with painting you need technique to mix colour, to draw, to observe but he says that something extra is required. ‘It is to do with your unconscious; you have to keep fit with painting, keep doing it everyday; painting is a complete body exercise, you are exercising your creative being.’

Ralph believes that art doesn’t come from nature; it comes from other art. ‘What artists have done before you and what artists are going to do after you; everything you have seen and which has inspired you, the way artists use colours, the power of the line of Max Beckmann, the simplicity of Leger and Piero. That inspires you to work more than anything. You emulate what they did; how did they see that?’ It seems not to be about creating similar or derivative work, but about inspiration which enables the artist to spend long hours in the studio making work in isolation. Even the artist who works directly from nature, painting the landscape en plein air, is following a long tradition of artists who have gone before.

Although Ralph’s work seems to involve the building of many layers of paint, he doesn’t see that as anything extraordinary. Quite the reverse in fact. ‘Every artist paints over layers, it’s what you do.’ He tells me a story about Matisse who would spend many hours drawing heads, academically, very beautifully, painstakingly. He would after a time become so tense that he would take paper and brush and ink and in a couple of movements he would produce a beautiful head. ‘Where are all the layers in that? It is all the experience and feeling in that one line, not in all that preparatory work.’ In fact Ralph believes that the only time you do good things is when you no longer know what you are doing. ‘Suddenly something happens because you are no longer thinking about it, it only lasts a few minutes and then you think, "Ah! the painting".’ The overriding feeling I was left with from the interview was the sense of modesty and humility. It is summed up for me when Ralph quotes the composer John Cage who said, ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it.’ It’s a message for us all, and it says, ‘I don’t have to have something to say. I am doing this because I need to do it.’

David Falconer, June 2006


The series of collage works, Foundations and Fragments uses documents, photographs, letters, and books, that belonged to my family. It includes visual and typographical motifs from identity papers and bureaucratic decrees. These materials evidence the change from life in settled security to the imposition and ordeals of state bureaucracy and the traumas of refugee status. The work is grounded in the story of European Jewry in the period of the Third Reich, although it refers more widely to how, even today, racism globally continues to transform innocent people into refugees.

'It is not the use of fragments from family letters that is the most memorable feature of Ralph Freeman’s work, but the leitmotif of the envelope – an evocative form which simultaneously expresses plenitude and emptiness, irrepressible longing and irretrievable loss.'

Professor Edward Timms

Foundations & Fragments Solo Exhibitions
Tate St Ives, Freud Museum London, Gardner Arts Centre University of Sussex, Sternberg Centre London, New Millennium Gallery St Ives.

New Millennium Gallery St Ives 2003

There is a wall-piece in Ralph Freeman’s studio, made from the backs of books. Their stiff carapaces have been spreadeagled, tiled over each other, like a section of ancient terracotta roof, then whitened. You notice the formal rhythms released from the backs of ordinary books – two equal rectangles separated by a narrow rectangle that rises into a half cylinder, reiterated until you forget what these objects are or were. The formal patterning asserts itself, tries to take over from the elements within the pattern, but these subordinate elements resist. They are objects that retain at least some shreds of their function, and therefore their history. They are not simply shapes that the artist has created for his own aesthetic satisfaction.

Nevertheless, these books have relinquished almost everything. They contain no words, no story, no messages. Or rather, they contain nothing but time, because they are clearly old. And some are stamped with Hebrew letters. Evidently, these are the remains of holy books.

How can it not be important? I think of the first line of a poem by Peter Redgrove, ‘I chuck my Bible in the parlour fire’. If ‘Bible’ bothers you, put ‘paper’ – it’s not the same. But what Freeman means, I think, is that how you feel about the typography is your business. Just because you see these letter-forms, don’t jump to the conclusion that his work is about religion.

It is not about religion, or about the Holocaust or any of that, although some would say that it is political in a wider sense, in that it deals with bureaucratic procedures that still affect many lives today. It is about using materials that enable me to work. 

Looking at art, we’re too concerned with subject-matter, with meaning and with what art is ‘about’. Artists, on the other hand, talk about materials and process, about how art is made. Often, they find the idea of subject-matter as something separate from process not very interesting at all.

Standing in the National Gallery, I watch the tour guide in front of a painting tell people about the story, rather than about the way the painting is made. In fact, the story is just like collage, really. It’s material you find and bring into your painting. 

This helps to explain why the materials that Freeman brings into his paintings and constructions – family letters and documents, books, envelopes – always have some personal connection. These materials are vested with a significance that stuff trawled from a beach or roadside would not have.

Think for a moment of the ways that Renaissance painters in the National Gallery used the narrative moment – Titian, say, in his episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There is always the feeling that the story serves the painting, not the other way round, as in illustrative art. The story has been brought into the painting in order to give form to something else. To do this, it must have a contemporary resonance of its own. In those days, mythological or biblical narratives were an inexhaustible seam of material for art. Today, we’re much more attuned to the aura of ordinary documents – headlines, lists of names, graffiti – less spellbound by the murderous mythical chastity of the goddess Diana.

Painting – any painting that’s worth doing and looking at – takes its material, whether mythographic or quotidian, over a transformative threshold where it becomes a completely wordless something else. This is not a question of achieving intellectual meaning – no one spends their days moving viscous oil paint around on canvas in pursuit of rational meaning. Freeman works in different media, including construction and collage as well as oil paint, but it is the interrelationship between the painting process and the documentary-collage fragments that is perhaps the primary site of transformation at this moment.

You can’t ignore the recurrence of specific source material for these fragments. In the catalogue essay for his exhibition at Tate St Ives in 1997–98, titled Foundations & Fragments, David Cohen wrote eloquently about his use of family documents – or copies of them – often greatly enlarged, torn, abraded, overpainted. This series, or mode of working, is playing into its final phase. Like actors lined up for a curtain call, it’s not mechanical copies but the original documents that are now appearing one last time – books, mottled cards and envelopes, the punctilious knitting of handwritten scraps of letters or passages punched out in typescript.

Through Freeman’s years of involvement with this material, it has metamorphosed from graphic motifs back into authentic artefacts – the poetic opposite of the usual life-cycle of visual imagery. There are other changes, too. Compared with the austere tones of his earlier collage-paintings – blacks, dark reds, browns and greys – the paint colours are mostly lighter, cooler, and the emblems and logos not nearly so insistent. Under layers of pale grey, pale blue paint, they are sinking or surfacing, indefinite subcutaneous presences, like the shadows of underwater rocks.

Many of these pieces (and this is true of Freeman’s work more generally) are compositionally based on a subtly reticulated orthogonal grid. This structure sets up complex symmetries and rhythms of a kind that aren’t available through freer compositional approaches. It also creates a rhythmic play-off between different works seen side by side or across a room. There is also the not-to-be-argued-with authority of the frame: this rectangle is part of the work’s foundation – not just where a painting happens to end.

Eight years ago, when Freeman first showed the work that developed into 'Foundations and Fragments', there was good reason to talk about the historical moment in 1930s Germany where much of the collaged material originated. Its ordering in art could never be neutral, since it inevitably struck an echo with the methodical marshalling of bureaucratic information at which the Third Reich excelled – the passport stamps, the brisk signatures, alles in ordnung! But the documentary intensity of this project has been superseded by a less historically specific meditation.

And the gravitas of the grid is this: in the arena of extremes, once certain boundaries are broken, any of us could equally become the ones doing or the ones being done to. There remains only and always the ethical question about the strength of whatever kind of order it is that you can balance against the corrupt order of the state and the inverted order of lies. Order versus dissolution, containment versus release – I’m trying out these contraries as a way of thinking about his painting, when Ralph says, apropos not of its meaning but of its making.

It’s all about finding the balance between hard edge and expression.

Hard edge and expression come together in Freeman’s work in one particular form that is shared by his collages, constructions and (often much larger) oil paintings. The envelope – a shape that, either open or closed, is composed of a symmetrical arrangement of squares and triangles – appears in many guises, sometimes as an actual envelope, or a three-dimensional package, or a refulgent, upward-moving geometrical form. Its fragile contents are, perhaps, opened out in Freeman’s spare, lyrical watercolours (which he calls drawings). Here the network-grid often gives over to a simplified balance of vertical or horizontal registers. There is a dialogue – this is what the ‘drawing’ is about – between deliberate design and the effusive, uncontrollable effects of watercolour pigment seeping into wet paper.

The envelope is a symbol of time. It contains something that is created in the present, sent to the future and received from the past.

Is the envelope a metaphor for art? Maybe. In Freeman’s work you find it as a graphic shape, a sign and a material object. And it functions by uniting the visual, the semantic and the documentary, making the point that art (unlike letters or logos) is always more than the messages it contains.

Michael Bird, July 2003

Freud Museum London 2002, Gardner Arts Centre Sussex 1999

In every decade of the tumultuous twentieth century, the plight of the refugee touched every continent. War, persecution, and disasters both natural and man-made drove great numbers of people from their homelands. Every decade seemed to add a new nomenclature to the status of refugee: emigré, expatriate, displaced person, boat person. Ralph Freeman has been drawn to explore the narrative of this seemingly endless trans­migration of peoples. His initial inspiration was his parents’ personal archives; their documents of transit, and their treasured paper fragments of a lost existence. As his immersion in this material developed, his work became more structural. The envelope, the packaging of an identity became the focus of his interest. This abstraction from the original documents has produced a series of powerfully evocative reliefs, recalling lost lives, and a whole civilisation.

Placing this work in the context of the Freud Museum produces an extraordinary wealth of associations. Freud’s work was forever preoccupied within identity and narrative, and his own series of nationalities reflect the fragmentation and coalescences of European nation states. Born in Moravia under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the end of his life driven into exile by Nazi persecution, he then strenuously tried to become British.

The rich context of the Freud Museum and the strength of Ralph Freeman’s work produce a powerful resonance. Here we can dwell on the destructive forces that drove so many to pack their past, present and future into an envelope and flee for their lives.

Erica Davies, Director, Freud Museum


Citizens of an open society can have little grasp of what official papers mean in oppressive regimes. Passports, driving licences, students cards, senior citizen cards - for us these are enabling devices. For people who lived in Europe through much of this turbulent century, enduring dictatorships, wars, military occupations, changes of boundaries, the division of communities, papers took on for weightier significance. For Jews living under the Third Reich stripped of their citizenship and human rights, papers become an unwelcome extra patch of skin. Once the programme of deportation and ultimately of extermination was under way, identity cards become incriminating racial fingerprints.

Ralph Freeman is the son of Jewish parents who escaped Hitler's Germany between the Nuremburg racial laws of 1938 and the outbreak of World War Two. They were able to settle in this country as 'Refugees from Oppression', this neatly typed categorization on their coveted new papers replacing the bold red 'J' on their old passports. After his father died in 1985 Freeman found among his parents' effects a range of official papers, filed away, from different governments and situations, belonging to various members of his family. A grandfather had a set of papers, for example, issued by the British Army of the Rhine from a period of occupation after the Great War, while his mother's birth certificate had to be reissued in 1938, to secure an exit visa no doubt.

Freeman continued to preserve them, out of respect, but he began to relate to them too, artistically as well as filially. Of course these papers were affecting symbols of his parents fractured lives, but there was also something about their graphic quality, their officious neatness, which intrigued him, appealed to him even: the rubber stamps in English and German, the copperplate handwriting from a bygone age of bureaucratic elegance, the various typewriter fonts. The trappings of Nazi state must have exacted considerable ambivalence as he studied the slickness of their insignia, the gothic letters, streamlined eagles, swastikas.

Eventually, some years after his father's death, Freeman decided to begin using these materials in his work. He made a collage each for his mother and father, creating an assemblage of their respective passports, birth certificates, visas and so forth. But the result did not satisfy him, so instead he set about using the materials more discriminatingly. He also responded to other things from his parents archives other than official documents: press cuttings and sheet music that related to his mother's truncated operatic career; letters relating to his grandfather's trade in horses; a missive from family who had emigrated to Detroit at the end of the last century. He progressed through various phases, treating the source material in different ways. The body of work from which the collages in the present exhibition are drawn dates from 1993.

Generally, Freeman is an abstract painter. His works are open to the suggestions of environment, the elements, sea and sky, but his practice does not entail natural observation, nor has he ever used found materials. The collages therefore represent a departure from his painterly preoccupations. However, the break was not precipitated by dissatisfaction with what he had been doing at the time; he has continued with his cool, ethereal paintings, working on the collages in tandem, alternating spells on each pursuit. Nor is one activity in conflict with the other: his sensibility as an abstract painter has informed decisions within the collage work, while discoveries in the collage work have fed back into his paintings. The most striking example of this latter is the way the structure of an inverted triangle within a rectangle In paintings like 'Return', 'The Seventh' and 'Solo' (oil 1997) recall collages which used the original envelopes with family letters.

The visitor seeing this work at the Tate St Ives will follow the course of Freeman's exhibition from the ground floor rotunda, up the spiral of the staircase, to the brightly lit coffee shop roof level, and so there will be a temptation to view his recent work as an emotional progression from fragmentation to unity, from roots to sea and sky, from persecution to freedom. Sentimental and reductive though this sounds, it's a tempting interpretation, not least because it arises from the form as much as the content of the works. Historically, collage has often been used to signify the confusion and perplexity of modern life. To the Cubists, besides operating as a device to confound the separation between artifice and reality, it married formal dislocation with the psychology of alienation. To the Futurists, it could evoke the whirligig of new technology and the city. To the Dadaists it was a means to provoke the irrational. Abstraction, by contrast, generally represents a very different disposition. Of course, abstraction can express a whole range of emotions - one can be 'driven to abstraction' after all - but the kind of abstraction that Freeman practises is calm and meditative, the result of clarity and distillation. In turning to collage Freeman effectively created a space for the particularity of his family history that eluded abstraction, a language better suited to the expression of generalizations about nature, time and space. As if to anticipate this development, a line from the song 'To an Island Far Away', sung by his mother and used in the collage of the same title, mocks the aloofness of Freeman's (often blue) abstractions: 'Some day your travels will take you/ Beneath the wonder of the blue skies'.

From the outset - or rather, from his first works within the series with which Freeman was happy - the collages concerned themselves with formal relationship, atmosphere, tone, mood: that is to say, with abstract qualities. There is almost a sense, indeed, in his most recent collages, of abstraction claiming back ground from collage. In 'Aliens II (1939)', 1996-97, the grey-blue surrounding paint seems to be in the process of submerging the documents, as If to say that painterly abstraction is ready now to absorb the message and energies of the documents which have done their job. Invariably when paint meets document in a Freeman collage it looks as if the document is sinking into the colour rather than emerging from it. At the same time, however, the source material is often preserved intact where one might expect the collage process to dismember it. In 'Single Journey (1939)', 1996-97, a page of Freeman's mother's precious residency papers remains inviolate even as tears and abrasions tease its sides. The motifs - mugshots, rubber stamps, official signatures - are abstracted through repetition rather than through cutting or obliteration.

Repetition abstracts by turning something that has a specific meaning and reference into a decorative motif, but at the some time it does nothing to deny the origins of the motif. Freeman's neatly regimented serial repetition of his mother's photo from the identity card issued by the Nazi Government ('R.J.K. Ausweiskarte VII (1936-37)', 1997), with its overlapping stamp will recall the cool nihilism of Andy Worhol's multiple portraits. But whereas the American pop artist could reduce the worst tragedies (car crashes, electric chair executions) to their stark banality as mass-produced images, Freeman's relationship to his subject - his mother's enforced racial classification - is necessarily more poignant and problematic. He is closer In spirit to Joseph Cornell, who maintained an Intense personal rapport with his source materials And yet the topicality of racism and the ongoing tragedy of refugee crises, which Freeman cites as motivations for making this series, do have a political, public import beyond the elaboration of the artist's personal feelings towards his parents.

It Is telling how the style of anti-fascist monuments is changing as a new generation of artists takes up the task. Previously the style was, typically of anguished expressionism; now it's elegant muteness. In a recent commission for the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, Anish Kapoor chose to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust with a dark void carved into stone; as much as representing the lost millions, the void signifies the conceptual and spiritual impossibility of giving shape to the inexpressible, of visualising the incomprehensible. Freeman is rightly anxious to stress that he is not a 'Holocaust artist': his project is at once more particular (his relationship to his family's travails) and general (the ongoing scourge of ethnic and racial victimization). But he shares with Kapoor and other sensitive artists a need to deal fittingly with the post while steering clear of history lessons, histrionics, and theme park solutions. With great dignity, Freeman has managed to find order and poetry among the detritus of an anguished past.

If the viewer experiences discomfort at the sheer beauty of Freeman's collages that must in part reflect the artist's original ambivalence towards his materials and conflicting impulses once he was embarked upon his project. The documents belonged to his family, and yet some of them were issued by murderous authorities. They are imbued at once with gravity and grace. A frisson of guilt inevitably attends to any aesthetic pleasure taken from these documents, even in their subsequent manipulation by the artist. These private monuments to his parents' fractured lives are as much a celebration as a protest, but such contrasting emotions do not neatly divide between images.

'Hör Mit Mir (1931)', 1996, which uses a magazine (a German equivalent of the 'Radio Times') featuring a broadcast of his mother's alongside articles on unemployment and space rockets, is among the most violently dislocated of his collages, whereas 'Nr 00697 (1938)', 1997, which repeats in triplicate a Nazi bureaucrat's signature over a 20 pfennig stamp, is pictorially exquisite: the reverse of expectations, as the first should be joyous, the second chilling.

Freeman's strangely beautiful, highly ambiguous collages recall a phrase used by the poet André Breton when describing the paintings of Picasso: 'tragic toys for adults'. Aestheticizing these relics of victimization is a strange kind of play, but play is the right word. It was the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott who insisted that art, as other adult pursuits, re-enacts the infant's psychologically crucial 'transitional phase' - when the comforter, doll or blanket stands in for 'moment of illusion' at feeding time. As talismans of his parents' and grandparents' persecution, exile, and displacement, the documents that have come into Ralph Freeman's possession are like transitional objects too. Their subsequent manipulation in his hands sometimes has a child-like quality: the act of stamping an official seal over and over again, for instance, eliminates the pomposity and aura of a single impression, taking it out of history and into the aesthetic present. The painting and colouring of these fateful documents softens and pacifies them, too. No doubt a psychoanalyst would comment on the artist's duplication and splicing of images of his mother. The important viewer, however, is not a psychoanalyst but someone lured by the collages to join in the play - the object of such 'tragic' and 'adult' play being a sense of transformation, of personal and historical catharsis.

David Cohen