THE RAFT OF LA MÉDUSE (The Raft of the Medusa) - 1819 - Théodore Géricault



Twelve reflections on Géricault’s The Raft of La Méduse

1. This is the account of a topic of news, a very old topic, of which remains only the image painted by Géricault, rumours of cannibalism, a taste of scandal, of which one does not know any more if it is linked to the historical event or to the painting exhibited at the 1819 Salon.

2. The composition is a pyramidal structure whose base is the sea surface. A pyramid of human, dead or dying, meat. Some of the protagonists carry bandages or plasters on their feet. Vanity, useless precaution or artifice to avoid the multiplication of awkward feet? Are we on a raft or at a butcher’s stall?

3. Yet, this is about hope. The saving vessel is in sight. One waves a piece of clothing to make oneself visible. The top of the pyramid consists of a black man who waves a red rag. A black man, quite alive, shown as a carrier of hope for a cargo of distressing white men. Quite unacceptable for the 1819 spectators. The slavery system is still in place. Only in 1848 will Lamartine sign the abolitionary decree.

4. Géricault sounds like Jericho. No trumpet, yet, but one sees the broken down wall, a wall of human meat, like the corner of a rampart with its blown in buttress.

5. This was also a violent indictment against the incompetence, the irresponsibility and the corruption of the administration of Louis XVIII, who entrusted commands based on patents of nobility rather than on technical capabilities. Yet this is too old for us to be understood today.

6. Tradition tells that Delacroix was used as model for the young man lying on his belly, with his left arm resting on a diagonal beam. The body seems dead, but remains tense, as if alive. This is not the rigor mortis. The Master, without a face, lying in the death throes. Isn’t this a means of releasing the mooring ropes in order to claim one’s independence?

7. The pale bodies lie in caravagesque chiaroscuro. Unconsciousness, sudden strikes of anguish, distortions of disappointed hope. An anticipation of the Theatre of Cruelty so dear to Artaud.

8. Provocation or journalism? The question remains open, even if, today, the debate is outmoded and the painting is now analysed and perceived only as a proclamation of a romanticism that has become classical and almost asepticized.

9. Michelet wrote: “It is France, it is our very whole society that embarks on this Raft of La Méduse” This is probably because it deals with question of social, political and artistic tensions, with protests against the governing bodies. Quite a French practice… Since a long time ago…

10. An object of dispute that becomes an aesthetic object of delight. The by-products of the topical news pass. The sublime of art remains.

11. The saving vessel turned into an indistinguishable point on the horizon. The sails of the raft lead it in the opposite direction. Image of contrariety? Prefiguration of hell, an abyss of horror, where the will of man is subjugated by the hostile elements?

12. The hero, black or mongrel, supported by a white man, gives a picture of fraternity in distress. The story is however quite different: brawls under the influence of alcohol, elimination of weakest and of the casualties, carving out corpses used as food. Under the Géricault’s brush, animality becomes humanity. Fraud or foolish hope?







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