Published  02/10/2003

Book review: The Raft of the Medusa: G

The Raft of the Medusa: Géricault, Art, and Race

Albert Alhadeff. Munich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel Publishing 2002.

Géricault's masterpiece will always have more secrets to reveal about itself than any of its Napoleonic companion pieces, even those on a similarly grand scale by David and Delacroix, which hang near it in the Louvre. Albert Alhadeff's skilfully plotted The Raft of the Medusa suggests why this should be so. Alhadeff's book, subtitled Géricault, Art and Race, is the first study to examine, and suggest a reason for the presence - and prominence - in the painting of the black survivors of the tragedy, in particular the figure at the apex of the composition who hails the rescue ship, the Argos. Although Lorenz Eitner was the first to document the political web of Napoleonic corruption and intrigue that ultimately abandoned the Medusa's passengers to their fate in 1817, Alhadeff has much to add which is revealingly new and original on the subject of the actual suffering of the castaways, Géricault's sources and, in particular, the climate of abolitionism, including the French government's colonial response and involvement in West Africa. These subjects lie at the heart of this new reading, argued across four well documented chapters.

As the first modern history painting 'The Raft of the Medusa' retains its immediacy the more we learn about the actual events that gave rise to it. This new interpretation implicitly shows why 'The Raft of the Medusa' still retains its power as the Romantic masterpiece par excellence, as well as marking the beginning of the modernist spirit in Western painting. At its heart is an ambiguity of perception on several levels, including the perception of its creator and of those who viewed it when the 'Raft' was first seen at the Salon of 1819. Ostensibly a modern history painting cast in the language of Michelangelo, the subject matter is in itself as ambiguous as the representation of the minute ship on a distant horizon - though in the early studies and related works, the Argos appears proportionately much larger. Why, in the 'Raft', did Géricault make the Argos so inconspicuous that it is almost invisible? The appearance of the vessel, experienced repeatedly as a mirage, drove the shipwrecked victims to further hallucinations. Some said they were going to get help, or believed the sea was a wine shop, before plunging off the raft to their deaths. Alhadeff shows this condition to be what was then defined medically as Phrenetis calenture - 'Presence of an Absence' - the manic experience of delusion from which only a handful of those shipwrecked would survive. The experience of seeing something unique in nature that does not in fact exist, along with the subject of madness itself, is a defining feature of Romantic art. It also provides a new context for Géricault's pictorial interests in insanity and his portraits of the mentally ill.

What marks this out as being more than a study of the pathology of French Romanticism is Alhadeff's reconstruction of the workings of French colonialism in West African Senegal. This retrospectively throws new light on Géricault's political engagement in the 'Raft of the Medusa'. Géricault's watercolours of 1821 of the ruler of Senegal, King Zaide and his retinue were made no more than two years after the 'Raft' but have never been previously examined in this context. What emerges from Alhadeff's evidence is that Géricault plays off the enlightened 'savage' King who cares for his people, with the despotic colonial French rule of Napoleon who abandons his subjects to their fate. One of Géricault's watercolours shows the British invaders of Africa in a sympathetic light, thereby similarly contrasting French hypocrisy with British humanity, a radical commentary by Géricault in light of the proximity to the Napoleonic Wars; and a further key to his Anglophilia and experiences of London.

According to the historian Michelet, writing in 1848, the 'Raft' symbolised, 'the shipwreck of France' and the dashed hopes of '89, first betrayed by the Empire, and then by the Bourbons. By metaphorically abandoning the raft and sliding off its deck, Géricault embraced an early death himself, dying (so Michelet believed) because his faith in France had died. Alhadeff joins a growing band of modern day scholars who reject Michelet's pessimism of 1848 and, instead, see Géricault's 'Raft' as an image of hope for the future. To make his case Alhadeff enlists the support of, among others, the fervent abolitionist Abbé Grégoire, who urged France to change her policy towards the Africans. There can be little doubt that Géricault would have shared such humanitarian sentiments. Whether or not they were sufficient to motivate him to give the most prominent place to a black man on the 'Raft' must still be a matter for speculation, as Alhadeff himself admits. There is, however, sufficiently impressive evidence gathered here to suggest that this may well have been the case. Moreover, the contextual presentation of the documentation and visual evidence suggests new approaches to Géricault, and fresh avenues for the exploration of Romanticism, for which future scholars will be grateful.

Robin Spencer

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