Monday, 14 November 2011

The Raft of the Medusa

Choppy waters, torrential rain, howling wind, and a battling ship are all  pictorial elements that have been used time and time again to depict inner turmoil and anguish in artworks of all eras, this standing to be especially true of the Romantic Era in the nineteenth century. One of my favorite-ist paintings of all time (well, ever since that art history course), has been Gericault's The Raft of The Medusa (1819)The painting depicts the human condition so well, so poignantly and of course the technique and craftsmanship are beyond praise. You can spend hours staring at it, discovering new facets, new nuances and still not be able to encompass all its glory.

The Raft of the Medusa

The funnest thing about art history is discovering little linkages and connections between paintings and artists of different eras. For example, Delacroix actually posed for The Raft of The Medusa, and was thoroughly inspired by Gericault's masterpiece - and you see its influence in his own masterpieces- The Barque of Dante (1822),and  Massacre at Chios (1824).

Barque of Dante detail, and comparison w Raft of Medusa

Similarly, you see strong influences of The Raft of the Medusa on many artworks to follow in different eras.
Its awesome terribilità has been a constant source of inspiration for generations to follow and continues to be, not to mention its unique composition for the time, and the revolutionary subject matter. The Raft of the Medusa was based on the real tragedy of a ship, Medusa that took place in 1816, two years before the painting was revealed in 1818. The tragedy, due to the nature of the event became a scandal  in its day, and was a major news event. Gericault's painting was a massive, thoroughly researched depiction of the horrors of the incident. It set out to portray ordinary  people , with ordinary lives in the face of an extraordinary tragedy thereby making, for the first time, common folk  important subject matter.With no real ' heroes' or protagonists as was normal in historical paintings of the time, with 'humanity' being termed as the real hero by the artist himself; the painting successfully challenged many aesthetic rules that were taken for granted at the time, and set new rules for those to follow.                                      
Massacre of Chios, 1824, Delacroix

The composition o the twin human pyramids, is inspired by similar composition in The Raft- which was considered groundbreaking at the time.

Additionally, the concept of depicting a fairly recent event was something that had not been attempted before, and the bold display of repulsive imagery- the pallid skin tones, the death, the cannibalism- the grotesqueness of  all elements, went against the concept of beauty and splendor that the  french Neoclassical movement (that romanticism closely followed) had come to define and represent. Basically, in essence this painting was a game changer, one that evoked varied responses, from immense criticism to immense support . For me,the real achievement of this painting was that through the depiction of this larger than life event, this horrible, horrible tragedy, where there are no heroes only victims- it brought to light the eternal reality of the human condition.The existential drama in all our lives. Julian Barnes describes it beautifully in his novel, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters- 

“We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.”

That's lovely right?

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