The Raft of the Méduse was painted by Théodore Géricault in 1819, and is now displayed at the Louvre. To get the tragic image right the painter studied corpses fetched from the Paris morgue. However, among the living models used was Géricault's younger colleague Eugene Delacroix, who posed for the black-haired corpse at the bottom of the painting, with his arm over a beam. Due to the chemicals in the black pigment, the painting is slowly turning darker and darker, a phenomenon that began even during the artist's lifetime.
Théodore Géricault died young – at thirty-three – after a fall, when his spirited horse slipped on a Parisian cobblestone and threw him. Many of his paintings depict horses and horsemen, and his skill as a horseman was at a very high level. After his fall from his horse, this athletic, handsome young man was in a situation like Christopher Reeve after his equestrian accident, a total invalid. Both were heroic in their final moments. Friends who gathered at his deathbed were awed by the serene holiness of this dying man, shrunken and withered like a feeble old man, although he was only thirty-three.
The story of the shipwrecked La Méduse was a hot news item in Paris, and no one was more moved by it than Géricault. He had stood before Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, a metaphor of salvation and damnation in one image, which became a major source of inspiration for his own masterpiece. After very very many sketches and much contemplation as to just which moment of the epic tragedy to depict, Géricault chose the moment when the last survivors on the Raft first see a very distant sail of the ship that would rescue them. At first the artist painted the ship slightly bigger, but to add to the psychological tension, he repainted it very tiny, almost invisible. The main figure in the painting waving the red banner is an African, as was the case in the real story of the Raft, one of the Senegalese subjugated by the French colonial power.
The whole magnificent work has had profound effect on me as a painter. Just as The Last Judgement made Théodore "tremble" in Rome (his own words), The Raft of the Méduse struck me (the other Theodore) with awe when I stood before it in the Louvre. In depicting this epic, Théodore Géricault became an immortal bard of the painted utterance.The true story of the Raft is a metaphor for the terrifying shipwreck of humanity, in which incompetent leaders wreak catastrophe throughout the centuries. The fairy tale ends with the true leaders as chosen by nature taking command, even if a lowly ship’s carpenter as in the story of the Raft, while the pseudo-leaders betray their people, and use all available resources to save their own skins. Now, in times of catastrophic global warming, leading even short-sighted politicians to worry about our future on this planet, I see the above image, in all its horror, as a metaphor for our Earth and its shipwrecked human inhabitants. As the painting gets darker and darker, the rescuing vessel is disappearing.
La Méduse was shipwrecked off the coast of west Africa in 1816. The wreck was located in 1980. According to the Paris peace treaty of 1814, England returned the colony of Senegal to France. The French Navy equipped the frigate La Méduse and three more ships, and in 1816 they left to regain control of the colony. La Méduse carried 395 people, civilian and military. For some reason La Méduse left its nearest accompanying ship, L'Echo, trying to follow a sneak route closer to the coast. Of course she navigated too close to the African coast, and on July 2nd she struck a sand bank off Mauretania. The ship was stuck, L'Echo was out of sight and the two other ships were far behind. The ship had to be abandoned. The three life boats could only take about 250 people, so a raft was constructed for those remaining, led by the ship's carpenter, one of the few survivors of the shipwreck, whom Géricault was to meet in Paris. 17 people decide to stay on the ship, while the rest got into the boats and the Raft.
The raft was made from mast and rigging of La Méduse. Only 20x10 meters, carrying 130-150 people, it was heavily overloaded, and partially submerged. When it was discovered that the life boats attached to the Raft could not pull it, the colonial officials ordered the tow ropes to be cut, and it drifted out of sight. After five days the boats arrive at St. Louis in Senegal and a rescue team was sent to find the Raft and the ship. Meanwhile life on the raft had turned ugly – there was a desperate fight for the remaining water, soldiers began killing civilians, and cannibalism began. Kegs of wine on the Raft, while quenching thirst, also inebriated. Some soldiers had decided to commit suicide and take everyone with them by cutting the lashings that held the Raft together. There was a bloody battle onboard, in which the ship’s carpenter played a leading role in the victory of those still determined to survive.
Forces of mass suicide are also at work in our societies today, with suicide bombers taking tens and hundreds of lives with them, and in the case of the Twin Towers, thousands. The threats of man-made global warming, financial collapse, nuclear terrorism and World War III are also looming spectres of mass suicide, and victory - like that of the ship's carpenter and his comrades - against these suicidal forces among us is not guaranteed. In spite of very many good intentions for decades, the greed that brought us to this point still is all-powerful. It is so deeply rooted after millennia of greedy enterprises, that to lose money, even if it means saving oneself, is not a viable option. Profits are foremost even if the homo sapiens joins all the other extinct species.
Greedy bankers and corrupt politicians are as American as apple pie. In the present global financial crisis, directly caused by greedy bankers, no Islamic terrorists have ever inflicted as much harm on the United States and other western societies as these home-bred terrorists who decide over our lives. The metaphorical significance of the Raft of the Méduse thus takes on new meaning in the present global financial crisis, which is being compared to the Depression years of the 1930s. Many industrialists and bank directors in Sweden and elsewhere can “earn” in one month what I earn in eight years as a menial laborer. In conditions of a shipwreck those who hoard food and water are seen as not only cowards, but the enemy of the collective welfare and risk being thrown overboard to provide food for the sharks. But on our collective life raft, ordinary working people pay the price for the greed and incompetence of the polticians, industrialists and bankers, forever toiling like slaves to increase the wealth and power of those who already have too much.
”We hang the petty thieves and appoint
the great ones to public office.”
Today, at this moment of mass unemployment and financial crisis, there is a public outcry in the USA over $165 million in bonuses paid to executives of the giant insurance corporation American International Group, taxpayer’s money designated to bail out the nation's shipwrecked financial sector. A public outcry over corrupt incompetent leaders was possibly also heard from the survivors on the Raft as the colonial officials cut the tow ropes connecting it to the life boats, leaving them to die as the officials, like today's banking executives, saved their own skins.
When the Raft was found after 14 days adrift, 15 were still alive. Five of those died soon after, leaving 10 survivers from the original 395. (A year or two later Théodore Géricault was able to meet one or two of these survivors in Paris, as he prepared his painting.) Among the survivors was the surgeon Savigny, whose report was to rouse a scandal. The rescue party also returned to the ship, that was still run a ground on the sand bank. But without any drinking water, only five out of the 17 had survived on the ship. And those five were totally insane. In the subsequent court trials in 1817, Captain Chaumareys of La Méduse got 3 years in prison for incompetence. (In those days, deadly incompetent leaders were not kept in office many years after their crimes, and allowed to commit further crimes.)
Michelet was able to see that Théodore Géricault, in his Raft of the Meduse, had painted the shipwreck of all France:...ce radeau sans espoir où elle flottait, faisant signe aux vagues, au vide, ne voyant nul secours. [...] C'est la France elle-même, c'est notre societé toute entière qu'il embarqua sur ce radeau de la Méduse.More than 150 years after the shipwreck, French archaeologist Jean-Yves Blot began to search for La Méduse. The Blot team had 25 square kilometers to search, and to navigate the search pattern, an early French satellite navigation system was used. In 1980 the wreck was located. The site was investigated. About 100 objects were recovered, among those a bronze swivel-gun. All artifacts, which proved the identity of the site, were delivered to the Mauritanian Institute of Scientific Research. Still on the bottom of the ocean, however, are the good intentions of the colonial power and its fateful expedition to Senegal.
(...this raft drifting in hopelessness, making signs to the waves, to the void, seeing no rescue... It is France herself, it is our entire society that he has embarked on this raft of the Medusa.
The metaphor conveyed by Géricault's masterpiece has utmost meaning in the 21st-century breakdown of today, brought about by politicians, bankers, economists, industrialists and law-makers. These can be likened to the colonial officials on the Méduse who confiscated the only lifeboats after the shipwreck to save their own skins and maintain their power and privlege. As our own officials distance themselves more and more from the rest of us – we without power, privilege or wealth – we hear them shout from across the menacing waves: "Take heart! The economy is recovering. The stock market looks promising. The global climate conference has filled luxury hotels with our delegates. Another global summit is scheduled for world poverty. Yes, we are on our way to a better world. Farewell good citizens, and don't drink the sea water." And each day in the news media we behold our officials getting further and further from us on our miserable raft, abandoned by the unworthy scoundrels who abuse the power we have bestowed on them. (November 21, 2009)
Théodore Géricault (self-portrait)
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