Théodore Géricault's 'Raft of the Medusa' (1819), Collection of the Louvre, Paris
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In Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991-2018 (Concordia University Press, 2020), Ken Lum, Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor and chair of fine arts, illuminates late modern, postmodern, and contemporary art practices, as well as debates around issues like race, class, and monumentality. This excerpt of his essay “On Board the Raft of the Medusa” was originally published in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 10 (spring/summer 1999).
Towards the centre a rising, mounting movement begins. Here some of the shipwrecked (among them an Arab), have awakened from their apathy, and with lifted hands push excitedly towards the horizon, where the rescue ship appears. Then the single stream of the composition broadens out towards the sides, like the short arms of the Latin cross, through [sic] all the movement still points forward, and the central axis moves straight on to its triumphant summit, the slim, nude back of the Negro. Mounted on a barrel and supported by his comrades, waving a white cloth into the air, he is the final peak of a pyramid of moving and excited bodies.(1)
—Walter Friedländer, David to Delacroix (1952)
Friedländer’s description of the composition of Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, is rendered in a manner that suggests a kind of longing filled with sexual licence. His notation of an Arab, a Moor to be precise, and a black African is remarkably axiomatic, their racial difference subsumed within the relative benignness of descriptive analysis. Friedländer recognizes the subsumption as a pattern of erotic containment until the eye is directed to the painting’s irruptive point—the handsome back of a young black man.
In Géricault’s painting, everyone is literally on the same boat with hardly a shred of clothing to distinguish officer from seaman and slave from slave trader. Although the depicted scene is a tragic one, the grouping of bodies on the raft can be read unitarily as a community.
The raft functions as a platform of interspersed sexual and racial codes, metonymically split from the false decorousness and rigidly stratified constitution of French society of the period. More particularly, the composition of the human pyramid aboard the raft is meant to mirror the social composition of France’s apparatus of empire, built to a large extent as it was on the backs of male African slaves.
Despite its apparent form as history painting, the viewing public for The Raft of the Medusa at the Salon of 1819 understood in great detail that the painting was essentially social commentary. The source material for Géricault’s great work was a widely disseminated book jointly authored by Alexandre Corréard and B. Henri Savigny, the surgeon on the Medusa.(2) Based on eyewitness accounts of the 1816 disaster, the book, which was first published in 1817, transformed this particular tragedy at sea, a then common occurrence, into a nationwide scandale célèbre that challenged the return to rule of the Bourbon monarchy.
The Salon public was familiar with the events surrounding the Medusa as outlined in the book. They knew that the ship had foundered at sea off the Atlantic coast of Africa in part because of the incompetence of an inexperienced captain undeserving of his position but for his aristocratic birth. They knew that the Medusa was but a single link in their nation’s extensive slave operations within which Arab Moors and French were instrumental in brokering new supplies of slaves. They would have discerned no irony in seeing Blacks represented aboard a frigate departed from France and headed for Senegal’s Cap Vert, the infamous peninsula from which millions of slaves embarked for the Americas. The presence of the African had by Géricault’s time become a not uncommon sight in France as the process of colonization increasingly effected, however unintentionally, a closer proximity of the races.
The resonance in Géricault’s masterpiece owes considerably to its performance as a liminal picture. The image is of a moment between the aftermath of a disaster wrought by scandalous social conditions and the impending return to the same social conditions. The depicted scene is situated within an interregnum of deculturation far from the insistent and invariant structure of the then current world of European society. The hierarchy of differences that was inscribed prior to departure from Rochefort, France also existed, of course, aboard the frigate in terms of its segregated sleeping quarters and the quality and allotment of food that was given according to the varying degrees of birthright, status, and rank. This social classification was enforced right up until the moment of the shipwreck. The published narratives on the tragedy all charge there were insufficient lifeboats aboard. A state official, a new French governor of Senegal, his wife, and two daughters took two of the lifeboats, one for themselves and another for their trunks. As noted by Maureen Ryan, those left on the raft, about one hundred and fifty, were mostly workers and lower-ranked officers.(3) Their weapons had been removed from them amid mutinous episodes against the bourgeois passengers and officers. There were a few higher-ranked officers, including the original co-authors of the shipwreck narrative, the engineer Corréard and the ship’s surgeon Savigny, who insisted on going on the raft with the work crew. But it is important to note here that upon being rescued and in a Senegal hospital, Corréard complained bitterly that he as a gentleman was given the same treatment and food as were given his enlisted or lower-ranked colleagues.
The Medusa painting is an image that upsets power relations because it articulated modern ideas of multiple social roles but it could only do so on the largely imaginary and deculturated setting of Géricault's canvas. The drama at sea, in faraway African waters and on a primitive platform, provided the artist with a tabula rasa for his ideas of transforming racial and sexual consciousness; ideas that Géricault recognized would be difficult to express except as a conjuncture of communion and crisis. It is well documented by Anglas de Praviel, the royalist who submitted a conservative account of the events on the Medusa, that difference did exist aboard the raft, despite the ensuing chaos. The point is constituting a political transgression in art, a risk he understood to exist in his Medusa work. In a feeble move to mitigate the political efficacy of his monumental work, Géricault entered his painting into the Salon with the simple title Le Naufrage (or The Shipwreck) without reference at all to the narrative whence it derived.
The knowledge that the Salon public possessed about the Medusa narrative shaped their expectations about Le Naufrage which would later be renamed with its present title.
Conversely, Géricault understood as well the common terrain on which he and the public could meet. The important artistic problem for Géricault was how to negotiate a meeting of mutuality without ceding his art to mere illustration of historical fact. His solution was to highlight the salience of race and male sexuality in the raft narrative by dislodging both terms from their normative and socially fixed meanings. Throughout his career, Géricault insisted on the prominence of both discursive terms in the configuration of modernity.
The rationalization for a full realization of human freedom for slaves was consistently compromised by the faith invested in the guidance provided by positivistic thought and the empirical sciences that in Gericault’s time made many racist claims on the person of the slave. A common view among Europeans held that the black body was a savage body, descended from a tribe of cannibals. Homologies between racist science and the slave trade were widely accepted because the equation of blacks with cannibalism, for example, offered the convenience of one more racial justification for slavery.(4) Both Géricault and the Salon public were familiar with the accounts of cannibalism that had taken place on the raft, measures taken out of desperation to survive. But in the artist’s Medusa painting, cannibalism is not essentialized as a property intrinsic to the black person. Rather, it is something generalized to both the white body and black body. The artist seems to be saying that in a diseased situation anyone can become a cannibal.
Set against French contemporary ethos of the period, the raft operates as a notational model in which social identities are damaged and less than whole for want of a non-repressed accommodation of sexual and racial differences within culture. In this context, it is interesting to cite the many paintings and lithographs Géricault produced involving injured soldiers, one- legged men, and disembodied human parts. Equally significant are his many eloquent images of black men often depicted in equal terms to white men, of which lithographs such as Le marechal- ferrant anglais and Boxeurs are good examples. Tete de Negresse and Tete de noir are portraitures full of compassion and almost shocking in their straightforward treatment of persons who could have been considered as less than full citizens in a racially and status conscious Bourbon society. For Géricault, the repressed modes of race and sex represented the structuring principle for becoming undamaged and for the possible emergence of a new and wholesome subjectivity.
The Raft of the Medusa did not conform neatly to contemporary perceptions about alterity; what it more accurately conformed to were contemporary facts about alterity not yet understood. The discourse of colonization meant the increasing inscription of the Other within the space of the same. Géricault’s Medusa functioned as a signpost of multi-racial hybridity, one that effected what Homi Bhabha has described as the unfixing of the authority of colonial discourse by the voice of the Other.(5) As such, The Raft of the Medusa operates in what bell hooks refers to as a counter-hegemonic cultural production.(6) The painting is an expression of Géricault’s reflection on the profound precariousness of traditional conceptions of race and sexuality at the dawn of the modern industrial age. He understood that to think historically about slavery was to grapple with a profound ambiguity, that slavery continued to thrive in a period marked by profound opposition.
This led Géricault to draw upon the subconscious force of the image of the black African in order to challenge its basis. His challenge came at a time when debates about the slave trade coincided with what Heinrich Heine has called the new revolutionary force of money. Norbert Elias has pointed out that “the reproduction of capital is tied to the reproduction of slaves, and thus directly or indirectly to the success of military campaigns.”(7) It has been argued that international finance entered into the modern era after the French debacle at Waterloo in 1815, merely a year before the Medusa tragedy, when there was a decisive shift in influence from nation-states to financial institutions such as the House of Rothschild and Baring Brothers.
The penetration of European money into Africa, Asia, and the Americas spurred new entrepreneurial agencies of European colonialism that established a global division of labour of unprecedented exploitative power. Despite its language of indignity, opposition to slavery was often in practice an argument for a new form of indentured labour. The work of slaves would be recast in new terms, as agricultural labourers legally and economically bonded to France, free only to the extent of the slave wages offered.(8)
In an environment of such moral ambiguity, most art historical treatments of The Raft of the Medusa have concentrated on the allegorical functioning of the painting; its image of despair and degeneracy is interpreted as Gericault’s criticism of the social body. The sub-theme of slavery is read dually as either an expression of liberal sentiment against the enslavement of the bourgeoisie by the aristocratic values of the restored Bourbon order or as a caution against enslavement by the emerging factory economy. In fact there has been surprisingly little analysis in terms of the painting’s other functioning as a radical expression of racial and sexual permutability within modernity.(9)
(1) Walter Friedländer, David to Delacroix (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), 100.
(2) Michel Régis, Géricault (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1992), 136.
(3) Maureen Ryan, “Liberal Ironies, Colonial Narratives, and the Rhetoric of Art,” in Théodore Géricault: The Alien Body: Tradition in Chaos (Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 1997), 18–51.
(4) Robert J.C. Young, Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race (London: Routledge, 1995), 6–19.
(5) Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28 (spring 1984): 125–33.
(6) bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990), 173–84.
(7) Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 305.
(8) James Walwin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery (London: HarperCollins, 1992): 301–16.
(9) Ryan, “Liberal Ironies.”