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Out of the Frame: Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa

The act of representing the truth is something which is made more complicated than it needs to be: we post pictures of ourselves after we have edited and applied a filter, we read Wikipedia articles that have been reworked because someone thought they knew better. The fact of the matter is that we cannot bear to be faced with the ugly truth- because ugly is exactly what it usually is. This week’s painting is the 1819 work by the French artist Gericault, the Raft of the Medusa which poses a similar kind of problem. Known first and foremost as a Romantic painter, he uses the individualistic emphasis of the movement to confront the viewer with individual cases of human suffering and achieves it through macabre detail. The subject matter was taken from an incident in 1816, when a French ship off the coast of Senegal ran aground only for the crew to find that there were not enough lifeboats. The captain and the senior officers decided to prioritise themselves, leaving the rest to face a gruesome fate: left on a makeshift raft, 147 men were left to survive. In the 13 days before their rescue, the men were faced with starvation and dehydration, resulting in mass death and cannibalism. By the time they were rescued, only 15 survived. The painting caused a real scandal when it was unveiled at the Paris Salon in 1819, due to the bleakness of the subject matter and the controversy arising as to the incompetence of the captain, who had left most of his men to die.

What is it about the painting, other than the political connotations, which caused such a stir? Gericault supposedly interviewed some of the survivors so he could capture the true horror of the experience to the best of his ability—perhaps it is the truth behind the work that we find so difficult to digest, a sentiment just as valid now as it was back in the time of Gericault. While we see a traditionally dramatic pyramidal composition, framed by dark clouds looming overhead and waves ready to engulf the raft at any moment, we are made aware that this is a very real scene which is being put into fantastical context. When we watch a horror movie, we get that much more uncomfortable when the narrative is preceded by the words ‘based on a true story’; in viewing this painting, we are aware that the pile of bodies, that melee of living and dead, draws upon the horror of reality.  Suffering is found in numerous forms: men can be seen on their knees, looking desperately towards their one hope of salvation, another appears in a state of hopelessness as he mourns for the loss of his son, resigning himself to the same fate and abandoning any effort to help, shrouding himself with a red piece of fabric. The earthy colour palette, reminiscent of those found in Renaissance depictions of Hell (See Jan van Eyck’s Last Judgement), drains any expectation of hope, and washes their flesh with a green tinge as decay begins to set in. This is the reality of disaster, a living Hell, heightened through the drama of the Romantic style, which vividly encapsulates the intense emotions that the men must have experienced. The raft extends beyond the frame of the work, inviting the viewer themselves to become an actor in the scene, sharing in the ambience of desperation.

 Yet, there is hope on the horizon, quite literally. The top of the pyramid sees a crew member being raised aloft, signalling a ship which is just visible in the background of the painting, bringing with it clearer skies. Gericault’s protagonist, who takes charge of the desperate attempt to save their lives, is an African crew member from the ship. The narrative transcends the prejudices of the time and sees the men for what they all are: just men. Whilst we do not see the face of the African crew member, this detail can reinforce his heroism rather than making him invisible. In fact, the eyes of those few remaining look up and reach towards him, making him a central figure of the piece. Gericault equated the struggles of the black population of the time more generally with the struggle for freedom, also taking the opportunity to criticise the continuing and highly profitable slave trade which was still happening in the French colonies after its abolition in 1794. In a world where liberty, equality and fraternity were so valued, what better way could he communicate this than through a scene of social harmony in the face of adversity? This resonates particularly with today’s social climate as we work still towards a more cohesive, tolerant, and accepting society.

The immediate consequence of such social harmony is the rescue of the crew members, whose salvation relies almost entirely upon a character that society at the time would consider inferior. Gericault combats this view and takes on a modern approach, advocating for the equality of all. His work provokes us to face a number of harsh truths: he confronts us with the gruesome reality of the events of the early 19th C, exposing members of the French upper classes for their shockingly selfish and inconsiderate actions, while also commenting on the illegal slave trade which continued at the time. This is all conveyed in a tableau of torment, exposing us to the realities that we would rather ignore, using it as a sharp contrast to elevate the positive consequences of unity and fraternity. An audience today is made just as uncomfortable at such an explicit depiction of suffering, accompanied by the implied comments on class and race. Just as fraternity is the saving grace of the men of the Medusa, our society today can also embrace the same outlook in the face of our modern adversities.

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