Different strokes: Painting a tragedy

An image painted nearly 200 years ago holds up a mirror to the world about human suffering

The Raft of The Medusa

“If there is something certain for us on earth, it is our sufferings. Suffering is real; pleasures are only imaginary.”

Théodore Géricault

One of the biggest museums in the world, the Louvre in Paris, is home to thousands of classic and modern art masterpieces. A major tourist attraction, it is said to have attracted approximately 81 lakh visitors in 2017, up from 73 lakh the previous year.

On March 12 this year, there was high drama when a dozen black-clad environmental activists chose to lie down on the floor in front of an iconic 19th-century painting by French artist Theodore Gericault, The Raft of The Medusa, shouting slogans against oil giant Total’s patronage of the Louvre. The unexpected incident forced the management to evacuate museum-goers from the room for a few minutes. The protesters were members of the activist group 350.org which supposedly “uses online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects; take money out of the companies that are heating up the planet; and build 100% clean energy solutions that work for all.”

In December 2015, 10 activists belonging to the same group had remonstrated against oil sponsorship by walking barefoot through an ‘oil spill’ created by molasses poured on the museum’s marble floor.

Life & death

A large 16 ft-by-23 ft painting, The Raft of The Medusa, is hung in the Louvre’s Denon Wing/Room no 77 (not far from Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa). Painted in 1819, it depicts a wrenching scene of shipwrecked men helplessly caught in the grip of a ferocious ocean. The tragic event had actually occurred in summer of 1816, when the frigate Medusa, with about 150 seamen on board, was taking French officials to assume control of Senegal, ceded to France by Britain after the fall of Napoleon. The soldiers on the raft reportedly began dying quickly and gruesomely — initially from suicide, infighting, and being thrown overboard.

By the fourth day, only 67 remained; later, unbearable hunger and desperation led to cannibalism. By the eighth day, stronger survivors were brutally assaulting the weak and wounded. Finally, only 10 men survived on the 23 ft-by-66 ft life-saving raft, and lived through the catastrophe. The tragedy infuriated the French society, which vent its anger against the Medusa’s captain for absconding from the scene and leaving his ill-starred crew to their fate.

Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), who was just 25 when the great catastrophe occurred, became obsessed with the incident. He researched on the subject in great detail, interviewed and sketched the Medusa crew-mates, and even got a life-size model of the raft installed in his studio. Despite ill-health, he travelled to the coast several times to witness and study violent storms lashing on the shore. His mission was to isolate a single pictorially effective moment that captured the inherent drama of the tragic event. This he achieved by setting the image under a fiercely gathering storm on a dark, raging sea, and focussing on the greater truth of human suffering.

When The Raft of The Medusa was first shown at Paris’s ‘Salon of 1819’, it attracted both praise (‘it strikes and attracts all eyes’) and derision (it is just a picture of ‘pile of corpses’).

The painting did win a gold medal, but Géricault felt defeated feeling that his painstaking efforts were wasted. He was also dejected that the salon did not show interest in acquiring the painting for its collection.

The following year, however, when he went to London, he received wide success, with hundreds of visitors thronging to see The Raft of The Medusa. Sadly, the promising artist himself did not last long; he was only 32 when spinal tuberculosis took away his life in 1824. Ironically, that very year, The Raft of The Medusa was bought by the Louvre from the painter’s heirs for the museum’s coveted collection. It has since occupied a significant place in the museum, and is regarded a masterpiece for nearly 200 years. 

Speaking to the soul

The political implication of the painting is not lost, and in fact, continues to reverberate in contemporary times. “The Raft of The Medusa is one of the most startling and powerful paintings in the world,” wrote art critic Jonathan Jones when the migration crisis was brewing in Europe (The Guardian/August 11, 2015). “It calls for compassion, humanity and common decency. Striking in reproduction, it is truly harrowing in real life… Darkness is literally eating up this painting; a deathly shadow seems to suck you into it. There is a black hole of horror at its heart. And now I have to ask: why can’t we modern Europeans show the same compassion and humanity that made our forebears flock to see this protest against callous indifference to people abandoned at sea? Are we really, as a nation, so heartless that when desperate people risk their lives to try and get in our country, we don’t ask why, but merely resent interference with holidays and hassle for lorry drivers? We have lost the basic human decency that should be synonymous with Europe, and Britain. The Raft of The Medusa condemns us.”

The refugee crisis inspired elusive street artist Banksy to create four artworks in and around Calais, France. In one of them, he adapted The Raft of The Medusa by showing a group of crowded immigrants sailing on high seas, and waving frantically to catch the attention of a passing cruise ship. In January 2017, when French artist Pierre Delavie set his new work on the banks of the Seine in Paris, he called it The Lampedusa Raft. The gigantic painting depicted the view of a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, teeming with a group of helpless refugees desperately trying to save themselves from injury and death.

“Two hundred years ago, our society was shocked by a similar tragedy,” Delavie told TV channel France 24. “Everyone felt personally affected and real debate ensued around the issue. Today we respond (to a similar tragedy) with utter apathy.”

  • paintings