Tag Archives: GERICAULT

Raft of the Medusa – the exciting disaster movie we are all waiting for?

The Raft of the Medusa,  (1818–1819) by the French painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) is a massive painting, well over life size. The closest thing I can compare it to is literally the cinema screen.

It depicts a true story. On 2 July 1816 (that’s 201 years and 4 days ago) the French naval frigate Méduse ran aground off the African coast (what is now Mauritania). Three days later a group of  at least 147 people set out on a hurriedly constructed raft. IN the 13 days they drifted, all but 15 died.  Those who survived were starved and dehydrated, and finally some of them succumbed to cannibalism.

Then as now, the press went into paroxysms of titillation, and the story was widely reported. It was also a scandal because the ineptness of the ship’s captain (and implicitly, the French Navy) was blamed. Géricault was as interested as everyone else in this story and he decided that this would be the narrative that – on canvas – would really  launch his career. And so he began to produce on the of the largest scale uncommissioned works on a modern topic ever painted. Perhaps THE largest.

Géricault did a lot of research. He got body parts from the morgue and copied them, trying to get the right shade and pulpiness of a drowned human body. He interviewed survivors. He cleverly combined Classical compositions with the dynamism that came to be called “Romantic” (I hate these labels and try to avoid them, but that’s what they call Géricault when you look him up) – and manages to convey both the pathos of the situation and the moment of hope as the survivors at the front of the raft spot a tiny ship in the distance (they ship that did in the end rescue them).  By the way, unless you go to the Louvre and see the picture in real life you probably won’t see the tiny rescue ship.

The tonality is dark and Géricault uses the dramatic lighting style associated with Caravaggio – chiaroscuro – though it is probably fair to say that the original picture may have been somewhat brighter. The  paints used at that particular time never aged very well (see Philip Ball’s brilliant book Bright Earth, on colour) so you’re not seeing exactly what Géricault painted. But clearly he did mean to have strong contrasts and dark tonality as the sea is rough and the sky is louring, though there is brightness ahead.

Aside from its film screen size, the painting is highly cinematic: dramatic, realistic, with a sense of the epic-heroic tragedy and a dynamic composition with a strong diagonal pyramidal structure. When you go and see it, you’ll really look at it for ages

So where is the exciting Titanic-like feature film based on Raft of the Medusa? It’s a  great story with everything a filmmaker would want. It turns out that there IS one, a French film directed by Iradj Azimi (1998). But I can’t seem to find it. There’s a French graphic novel that looks good. But the film seems to have disappeared. Anyone up for doing another version? I’m available!

raft

However the Raft of the Medusa I like the most is this preliminary sketch that the artist made. It’s also in the Louvre and it’s much smaller. Here we relay get to see the brilliance of Géricault’s composition and his storytelling ability

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seeking the sublime in Paris

“the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

OK so I’m going to go and do some research in Paris soon. Am going to bunk down in the Large Scale 19th Century Paintings room in the Louvre and analyse what’s ‘cinematic’ about them.

Théodore_Géricault.jpg

[Gericault, Raft of the Medusa, wikimedia commons]

However back in the day, these gigantic pictures  were often exhibited more like movies: in darkened rooms, covered by a velvet curtain, tickets and at timed entry points.

I’m researching the relationship between realism and the sublime in these pictures and how this relates to the relationship between realism and the sublime in cinema, in films that present historical subjects.

Gericault researched the subject of his great painting, Raft of the Medusa, very thoroughly. he ended up knowing more about the real life shipwreck and the resulting cannibalism than even those who had survived it. Yet when he came to painting it he didn’t try to just replicate the scene, he made it truly terrifying yet awe-fully riveting. Cinema (and present day high-quality TV) does the same thing.

I’m presently compelled by the dramatic fact-ion of Black Sails, for example – a heady mixture of realism and sublime, of historical and material research and high-drama fictive imagination.Many people have been similarly stirred by Gladiator, for instance – a film famously inspired by a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Jean-Leon_Gerome_Pollice_Verso

[Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, wikimedia commons]

Ridley Scott therefore had Gérôme, uncredited, on boards as a kind of proto production designer.  It was Gérôme who imagined and worked out how the picture the roaring crowds at the Colosseum and the dire moment of imperial whim over life and death. He exhaustively researched Ancient Rome, but he also must have had a pretty sage understanding of how crowds operate.

Imagine how Gericault might have  production designed for a blockbuster film or series of the Raft of the Medusa story! The writer Jonathan Crary pointed out that about the only in depth research the painter didn’t conduct, was sampling a bite of human flesh from the cadavers he was studying to see what drowned flesh looked like.

“…whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling … ” Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Of course, Burke also noted that “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passions.” And he is right: it is precisely our personal ignorance of what it would be like to experience being shipwrecked on a  raft and forced eat my colleague’s dead flesh (hint: awful) – or what it would be like to be a pirate in the early 18th century Caribbean (hint: horrible, by today’s luxe standards)  – that make these scenarios appealing through the medium of art.

So, let’s see what I find. Am not just going to look at Gericault and his friends in Denon 77- I’m also going to see the many dramatic murals that are spread around the city. Paris has many more interior murals than London.

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