Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A black man and a woman on a sinking raft

The original Raft of the Medusa

Senator Obama and the Raft of the Medusa
On July 2, 1816, the Medusa got stuck on shoals in the Arguin Bank. Of the 400 passengers, most of the well-to-do escaped in the six life-boats. The crew, about 150, settled for a 65 by 23 foot raft. Mayhem ensued –murder, mutiny and cannibalism. About two weeks later, just four miles from shore, fifteen survivors were picked up by the Argus (the Medusa’s sister ship)—ten made it home to tell their stories to the press.

The black sailor who energetically waves his shirt toward the Argus may represent the military conscripts brought along to patrol France’s territory in Senegal. More likely, he serves to remind the viewer of France’s slave trade, which Géricault actively opposed and Leutenant-Colonel Schmaltz meant to profit from in Africa. Therefore, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa is more than a dramatic record of this event and a symbol of hope in the face adversity, it questions the body politic when its practice leads to corruption and human degradation. The artist’s choice of a black man leading the fight for survival called attention to those who had been abandoned by society, like the Medusa sailors left to fend for themselves on the open sea.

Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa
At the 1819 Salon, the painting was titled Scene of a Shipwreck in order to avoid criticism from the French government; a disconcerting decision considering how obsessed Géricault was with the creation of the work. Unable to find a buyer, Géricault exhibited the painting to the public in continental Europe and England and charged an admission fee, a popular trend at the time. 40,000 people came to see the work in London and it was viewed with horrified fascination. Eventually, the work did sell. It was saved by the French government from a group of French nobility who intended to cut the work up and sell it piecemeal. It can now be seen at the Louvre. Géricault died about five years after its completion at the age of thirty-two.

Reflections on Gericault's Face of Envy, Or: For Everyone Who Wants But Doesn't Get

The Raft of the Medusa

The artist avoided showing the most horrific aspects of the tragedy, which actually included murder. Instead he chose to depict the dramatic moment when the frantic castaways attempted to attract the attention of a distant ship that was eventually to rescue them. All are piled onto one another in every attitude of suffering, despair, and death, arranged in a powerful X-shaped composition. It is sublime and terrible at the same time, expressing such horror, yet with a glimmer of hope. Géricault placed remarkable value on accuracy in Raft of the Medusa: he carried out prodigious research and completed numerous preliminary studies for the work, even going so far as to seek and interview survivors of the wreck.

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