Tate St Ives

David Cohen 1997

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.