Why Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa Captured the Minds of Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, Max Ernst, and So Many More
Max Ernst, Vik Muniz, Sandra Cinto, Louise Fishman, and Kristin Baker have all created their own variations of it. Martin Kippenberger made an extensive self-portrait series based on it. Paul McCarthy has proclaimed it one of his favorite paintings. Bruce High Quality Foundation re-enacted it in New York’s East River. And, coincidentally, Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, and Peter Saul all have very different versions of this icon of Romanticism on view around New York City at the moment. Why has Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) captured the imaginations of so many contemporary artists—perhaps more than any other work throughout the history of art?
When Géricault first unveiled the painting at the Salon of 1819 in Paris, at the age of 27, critics saw it as a repellant pile of corpses. For a respected artist to treat such an abject subject—dying survivors of a shipwreck—with such dignity was beyond shocking at the time. Such a large format (at nearly 23-by-16 feet) was usually reserved for heroic depictions of scenes and narratives from history, religion, or classical mythology. But the painting, which has hung in the Louvre since 1824, the same year as the artist’s untimely death, had more fans than detractors, and it remains relevant nearly 200 years later. Today, it could be read as a disturbing reminder of capsized vessels that have spilled hundreds of migrants into the Mediterranean Sea and of the grim reality of the current refugee crisis at large.
The painting depicts a moment of hope in the tragic saga of the Medusa, a French Royal naval ship that broke apart off the coast of West Africa in 1816 while on a mission to retake Senegal from the British after the Napoleonic Wars. After hitting a sandbar, the French captain filled the limited lifeboats with officers, politicians, and others deemed worthy of rescue, and then ordered a raft to be constructed for the 147 remaining men (and one woman)—including many Algerian immigrants—from the wood scraps of the sinking vessel. Lifeboats briefly towed the raft until, in an infamous act of cowardice and cruelty, the captain cut it loose in order to hasten the rescue of the men on the boats. When the raft was found 13 days later, only 15 of the 147 had survived.
An international scandal ensued from the moment news of the disaster broke, and Géricault took great interest. He interviewed two of the survivors to gather details for his work, and visited the morgue to study cadavers. He made numerous preparatory sketches as he obsessively dug into the details of the incident. As the harrowing tale leaked out, report after report emerged, each more gruesome than the last. As legend has it, the men, waist high in water, without room to sit down, resorted to murder, cannibalism, and drinking their own urine to survive. Some supposedly jumped into the sea in hopes of being eaten by sharks, only to be stung by swarms of jellyfish before hauling themselves back onto the raft.
“There are so many wild anecdotes surrounding the painting, which is partly why I chose it,” says the artist Peter Saul, whose version, Last Moments on the Raft of the Medusa (2015), is currently on view at Mary Boone Gallery, along with five other art-historically inspired paintings. The work, a brightly colored, painterly-yet-graphic take, is actually Saul’s second version of Géricault’s masterpiece, the first of which was painted in the 1990s. In true Saul fashion, it merges biting humor, social commentary, and tragedy, taking Géricault’s scene to a comically exaggerated level. One figure is swallowing pink intestines while feeding a raft-mate to the sharks. “I wanted to make it more contemporary, but my first version was too cartoony to be a menace, so I redid it,” says Saul. “The main thing is that I want to make an interesting painting that’s good to look at.”
Making an interesting painting was certainly on Géricault’s mind as well. In a pre-photography era, his cinematic composition of writhing bodies served as the closest thing to documentation of the incident. The artist employed dramatic, Baroque chiaroscuro and a Michelangelo-esque modeling of forms to convey what was, in effect, a fierce indictment of the French government. The painting pointed blame for the disaster at the reinstated Bourbon monarchy, which took over after Napoleon’s fall in 1815. The captain who ran the ship aground was an inexperienced member of the ancien régime who had been installed in a position of military power in exchange for his loyalty to the crown. Meanwhile, the artist’s decision to render the most hopeful figure black perhaps communicates the artist’s openly abolitionist position in an era when the slave trade was a hot-button topic in Europe.
“It’s a very compelling metaphor for the ship of state out of control,” says Louvre collection expert Ellen McBreen, a professor of art history at Wheaton College, in Norton, MA, and the founder of Paris Muse, an education company that guides visitors through the museum. “Of all the large-format paintings in the Louvre, The Raft of the Medusa is the one that appeals because here’s this young artist taking something from the headlines. The shipwreck was absolutely contemporary, and it’s the first time you see a French artist being critical of the regime.” As opposition to the restoration monarchy grew, appreciation for the painting increased, even long after the artist’s death.
Géricault’s detractors—including the Neoclassical history painter Jacques-Louis David—were appalled not only by the grim subject matter, but by the work’s radical composition. One critic was distraught, in particular, over the painting’s lack of a center. The structure is more like a pyramid, with all the drama surging from the pale corpse on the lower left up to the brawny, idealized pinnacle of hope waving his tattered shirt to a barely discernable ship in the distance on the upper right. It’s this intensely expressive tangle of emotional energy that comes through in many of the abstract versions of the painting.
Stella’s sculpture Raft of the Medusa Part I (1990), for instance, currently on view in his retrospective at the Whitney (on loan from the Glass House in New Canaan, CT), is an enormous, twisting gray mass. It marks the artist’s early experimentation with steel and aluminum, and brilliantly translates the cacophony of the dilapidated raft, suffering bodies, and crashing waves into one fragile yet hulking carcass-like heap. “You have the grid-like structure that holds the more fluid qualities of the junk-like material that floats on the surface,” says Whitney director Adam Weinberg in the audio guide to the show. There is “a sense that the molten material and wire is clinging to that grid for dear life. It’s as if things are falling off, exploding, hanging on to what might be seen as the raft, which is that rectilinear structure behind it.”
Above all, Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa conveys profound human drama. That’s partly why Jeff Koons’s version of the painting, currently hanging at Gagosian’s 21st Street gallery, feels oddly apt. For his “Gazing Ball Paintings,” Koons copied—albeit in a flat, unpainterly style—35 paintings he has admired throughout the history of art, including Géricault’s Raft. To each canvas Koons attached a little shelf, which holds a blue glass “gazing ball”—a hand-blown sphere that you might normally associate with Christmas decorations or garden ornaments.
“This experience is about you: your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image,” said Koons on a walk-through of the show. Looking into the ball, viewers see their own reflections, creating the sensation of having entered the painting. With some of the works on view—the Mona Lisa (1503-06), for instance—the insertion of viewers into the picture plane doesn’t quite fit. But with The Raft of the Medusa, it feels meaningful—a reminder of our own human mortality.
For his part, Kippenberger took this theme to exaggerated new heights by substituting himself for various figures in Géricault’s original in a series of 16 paintings, 19 drawings, 9 photographs, 14 lithographs, and a large woven rug (showing the raft’s floor plan), on view last year at Skarstedt Gallery. The works take a distorted, expressionistic approach to the subject, and the line between humor and horror is extremely dicey, in true Kippenberger fashion. The theme of imminent death is particularly poignant in relation to the German artist. The notoriously self-destructive Kippenberger created the series a year before his own death from liver cancer. In one of the Medusa prints, the bloated artist, hardly idealized, appears to be waving his shirt like the figure in Géricault’s painting. But here the background is composed of alcohol labels. While it seems a far cry from Géricault’s version, that blend of dark humor and gravity perhaps relates to the 19th-century French artist’s own intentions: to create a serious, monumental work of art, with all the attributes of a salon masterpiece, while taking the establishment to task.