Géricault’s work, like that of Ingres’, forces us as scholars of art to closely examine the differences between Neoclassicism and Romanticism.
On the Neoclassicist side of the work, it pays homage to the Renaissance masters with its traditional pyramidical composition, recalling Masaccio and da Vinci. Moreover, it references the high tradition of French Baroque grand-scale history painting. The figures themselves are academically rendered – after all, it took Géricault all of eight months to complete the huge canvas (it’s about 16 feet by 23 feet.)
The catch is, the Neoclassical-loving critics in France hated it!
They thought the subject was crass, even crude, as the wreck of the Méduse and its aftermath was such a hot political potato, and not nearly dated enough for such stringent parameters about subject matter to be forgiven.
(You can read about the real-life subject of this work here.)
After all, one could easily depict mythological warfare and violence (and even non-fictive, non-religious violent subject matter) and be blessed by the critics for doing so – just as long as the real event happened so long ago that it passed muster for the status-quo. But Géricault chose an event that was practically contemporaneous.
We deal with the same issue almost two hundred years later. For example, look at the glut of horror movies that have soaked the movie market in recent years.
Yes, I’m the mom that won’t let her children scroll through the Red Box offerings…instead, I stand there, in the rain, yelling out titles for thumbs up or thumbs down…
…while I am forced to contend with the very graphic images on the screen that, for reasons beyond my understanding, seem intent on dismembering young women, or turning seven-year old children into gruesome demon-possessed murderers.
So why the glut in recent years?
I think that it’s because after 9/11, many filmmakers either halted production or postponed the release of many of the horror movies that were in the pipeline. I suppose a 3+ year waiting period was all they could handle in terms of their [failed, I think] attempt to be sensitive to a grieving culture in the middle of a war. Now everyone’s releasing horror movies left and right; the New York Times wrote about this anomaly of pop culture in 2007 – a very interesting article.
Back to Géricault. The parallel I’m trying to draw is that many culture-vultures and policy types have always demanded (overtly and insidiously) that there should be a proper “waiting period” for art that depicts real events.
For example, it took centuries for artists to depict Christ on the cross. For hundreds of years He was shown primarily as a shepherd or as a lamb,
and God as a hand somewhere in the upper register of any given work.
In short, there has historically been a time of mourning, so to speak, in depicting tragic events in an artistic voice. Note that the nightly news, or even cable news, are distinct from movies, art, and literature in terms of ‘authoritative voice’ – one is [supposedly] information-driven (that is, without bias); and the other is usually politically, or at least emotionally, charged.
But as time goes on, it seems that this so-called “waiting period” or mourning period for artistically presenting forms dealing with contemporaneous events of violence, terror, war, etc., has grown shorter and shorter – we now have digital and satellite images that can be carried live to paying viewers. Images of war, natural disasters, genocide, persecution, executions – they can all be viewed live if you’re connected, and in some cases, in the know.
And contemporary artists, whether they are visual artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, singers and songwriters, composers, actors or poets – they are all busy interpreting events as they occur.
That said, if Géricault entered his Raft of the Medusa into a Salon exhibition today, it would be successful only if the news were still current. Eight months – that’s like a thousand years in 2013 newspeak.
But what this artist did with Raft is directly related to our own tendency today to artistically express ourselves about current [horrific] events. This is largely what Romantic art is about – and it is why it is rapidly displaced by Realism in 19th century art. Social injustice, real events, reform movements – these are what the Romantic mind and the Realist intent insisted upon.
Géricault’s breaking away from tradition by combining traditional art forms with radical new current-event subject matter is what set him apart. It helped to pave the way for the Realists, such as Daumier, to illustrate cutting-edge stories in the newspapers and to also imbue art in general from the mid-19th century with a satiric, scathing voice for the first time in history. Romantic art begins with Goya and Géricault, and in some ways is very much alive and well today.
One last quick note – the figure at the top of the pyramid is meant to represent Jean Charles, a black soldier who was one of the few survivors of the Medusa disaster. The portrait study below is one of many that Géricault made in preparation for the Raft of the Medusa.
Did I mention that Géricault was an abolitionist?
Happy Birthday, Théodore. You had far too few of them for my taste.