Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Sinking Of Neoclassicism

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) - The Raft of the Medusa (early drawing)

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) - The Raft of the Medusa, 1816 (1st sketch)

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) - The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19

At the beginning of the 19th century, the theme of the shipwreck, so masterfully illustrated by Géricault, was not an entirely new one in Europe. J.M.W. Turner had treated it before in his 1805 Shipwreck, and would return to it again and again, developing it throughout his career.

One name, however, was to be enduringly associated with the appearance of Romanticism on the scene in 1819: that of the "Medusa." Bound for Senegal in 1816, this ship had been given the fateful name of one of the three Gorgons, the dreaded sisters of Greek mythology.

The frigate "Medusa," accompanied by the corvette "Echo," the sloop "La Loire" and the brig "Argus," was part of a small convoy transporting the Governor of Senegal and other colonial administrators. Aboard the "Medusa" were four hundred passengers and crew members. The ship had been placed under the command of Hugues Duroy du Chaumareys, an émigré and an inexperienced naval officer who had not sailed in twenty-five years. In the early afternoon of July 2, the vessel foundered one hundred and twenty kilometers off Cape Blanc on the coast of Senegal. The lifeboats were pressed into service and a makeshift raft was constructed to carry one hundred and fifty people, mostly military personnel. The raft should have been towed by the lifeboats, but the cables were cut and the hapless craft was cast adrift on the open sea. In a romantic drama fit for the tabloids, nature suddenly turned into a deadly foe, unleashing in the men their lowest instincts.

The tragedy that ensued on this frail stage measuring only seven by twenty meters lasted thirteen days and was of both the most ferocious and the most ordinary kind.

Almost immediately, prodded by hunger, thirst and alcohol the struggle between the men began, and within only a few days, half of the original hundred and fifty survivors were dead. The others slowly wasted away, decaying both physically and morally, only to be devoured by their own shipmates, half-crazed with hunger. By the 11th of July, all that remained were fifteen haggard shadows, hovering between life and death. Class and age differences had been abolished in a community of nakedness, suffering, filth, disease and murder. A state of complete equality had been achieved, yet only those with a deep faith and a strong cultural base could face their fates with dignity and maintain a spark of hope. On July 17, with morale at its lowest level ever, a sail was spotted on the horizon, heaving into and out of sight. What the rescuers from the "Argus" finally found on this improbable floating morgue were fifteen men in an unimaginable state of depravity.

The captain of the "Medusa" was tried by a court of justice in Rochefort and sentenced to loss of rank and three years' imprisonment. The trial quickly took a political turn as the liberal opposition transformed the "Medusa" tragedy into a symbol of Monarchic incompetence and Royalist decay. In that same year, two survivors, the engineer Corréard and the surgeon Savigny, published their personal accounts of the disaster. Their tale became an inspiration for Theodore Géricault, a young, unknown painter just back from a journey to Italy and Rome.

Seven years older than Delacroix and a former pupil of Guérin, Géricault sensed in this human drama the seeds of a new epic; a historical backdrop for a great pictorial "machine" that would stage the dynamic and varied dimensions of death, human otherness, and the responses - ranging from madness to stoicism - displayed by men suddenly at odds with nature and their destiny.

The first question was: which moment of this atavistic saga to depict? From his sketches, we see that the artist long hesitated between the rescue - which he considered too descriptive - the mutiny of the soldiers - considered too fierce - and the acts of cannibalism that would have dramatized the depths of savagery to which they had stooped.

He was very thorough in his research, interviewed Corréard, Savigny and other survivors, and built a scale model of the raft. In the autumn of 1818, feeling the need to withdraw from the rush of his Parisian social life, he secluded himself in a house in the Faubourg du Roule. He believed that solitude and a monastic-like existence would create the moral conditions necessary for him to relate to the event and develop a new aesthetic of cold horror.

Working on a scale as vast as his subject, he slowly put the protagonists of this modern tragedy into place. He used his friends as models, Eugéne Delacroix among them, and also Corréard, Savigny, the negro Joseph, and former soldiers of Napoleon's army. Still not satisfied, Géricault went on to compose uncanny still-lives of actual human remains salvaged from the Beaujon Hospital nearby. For the sake of absolute realism, he even brought dead bodies into his studio and posed them.

The moment he finally chose was the climax of this symphonie funèbre: when the ghoulish survivors finally catch a glimpse of hope in the form of the brig "Argus," rising providentially above the horizon like a star. This peak moment was intended to be a metaphor for the precarity of the human condition. Although under full sail, the "Argus" appears impossibly small in the distance, at the apex of despair, the only grace note in this drama.

The composition is Neoclassical in its language, but modern in its message. In the foreground is the lozenge-shaped raft, a makeshift construction of beams and planks. The pictorial space is spanned by an imaginary diagonal rising from left to right, creating a moral axis ranging from despair to hope. The result is two human pyramids, with the one on the right culminating in the figure of a negro waving a white and red cloth. The theme of hope was linked, in Géricault's mind, with the struggle against slavery. The sea is full of looming, wind-lashed waves, under a lowering sky brimming with the threat of storms to come. The craft groups nineteen figures, both living and dead.

In moral terms, the pyramid on the right represents life, the upward surge of life, reinforced by the view of the "Argus" in the distance, however minute. Next to the mast, with outstretched arm, Corréard indicates the horizon to the surgeon Savigny. The left side of the composition is the realm of death; sitting among the corpses is the stoic figure of an old man, a quotation from Marcus Sextus by Géricault's teacher, Guérin.

The poses and muscular bodies are fully in keeping with the "academies" of the Beaux-Arts curriculum, while the chiaroscuro treatment derives from the tradition of Caravaggio. Nonetheless, the artist performed the amazing feat of raising a sensational current event to the same level as the great historical compositions of Gros, who celebrated the Napoleonic epic. But there are no enemy camps here, for the battle is against fate and a forbidding nature. The details may be realistic enough, but the artist suffused the scene with an emotional, heroic, almost abstract energy. In this way the obsession with death is transfigured into a symbol of fate assumed, the struggle to regain human dignity.

The critics were anything but subdued by this unusual "pictorial machine" when it was presented at the Salon of 1819, and their comments ranged from anathema to cautious praise. This may have been a momentary setback for the nascent Romantics, but it was a triumph for the painter, who was suddenly the focus of public sensation and aesthetic attention. In any event, this pivotal composition marked the true demise of Neoclassicism and formed the necessary foundation for the innovative approach of Eugéne Delacroix.

Charles Sala

Musique du Jour: John Corigliano, Altered States (Soundtrack)

Addendum XII

A Bloody Bicentenary

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) - Massacre in Korea, 1951

Yue Minjun (b. 1962) - Execution, 1995