The Raft of the Medusa

One of the best things about childhood was listening to fairy-tales, often terrifying and lurid, involving the abandonment and anguish of young children. Hearing about the Babes in the Wood, The Little Mermaid, Hansel and Gretel and Blue Beard, infants could only feel a thrill of fear concurrent with a deep contentment at knowing that the story was taking place far away, in a distant time and place, while you the listener was safely tucked up at home in the real world, where such horrors didn’t really happen.

There was also a certain amount of erotic entertainment and fear to be gained from looking at ancient sculpture and paintings. Images in marble of an old man writhing with snakes, and still lives with their strange and stylised forms and depictions of dark buildings and Gothic looking Victorian streets could be extremely disturbing.

When I was twelve I discovered an image of The Raft of the Medusa, painted in 1818 by the French painter, Theodore Gericault, who also liked painting the severed heads of executed criminals.

The vast canvas, 491 _ 716 cm or 193.3 _ 282.3 inches, shows desperate people set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft after the French frigate, Medusa ran aground bound for Senegal. The frightened 145 passengers and crew tried to travel the 60 miles to the African coast. All but fifteen of them died after prolonged starvation, dehydration and cannibalism.

The captain and crew of the Medusa, safely aboard proper life boats intended to tow the raft, after only a few miles cut the raft loose to avoid encumbering their boats. The raft was provided with only a bag of ship’s biscuit (consumed on the first day), two casks of water (lost overboard during fighting) and a few casks of wine.

According to critic Jonathan Miles, the raft carried the survivors, ‘to the frontiers of human experience.’ Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest. The painting shows a survivor spotting a ship on the distant horizon, which we know will sail right past and leave most of them to die.

After thirteen days at sea, on July 17, 1816, the raft was rescued by the Argus by chance, no particular search effort was made by the French for the raft. The incident became a huge public embarrassment for the French, and an international incident.

The painting left its home in the Paris Louvre for London in 1820 and again in 2007 when it came to the National Gallery in London. I was pleased to see it there, looking especially dramatic, in a small room, hung very low. The best way to view it was to lie on the floor and look up, just like being on the raft itself. The painting is on such a monumental scale that most of the figures rendered are life-sized and those in the foreground almost twice life-size, pushed close to the picture plane and crowding onto the viewer, who is drawn into the physical action as a participant.

I lay there during my visit next to a recumbent Brian Sewell. Around me people were shocked at the horror they could see above them in the painting, but also slightly thrilled at its overwhelming scene, which was highly theatrical and almost melodramatic. There was also a smaller show of paintings by Gericault, showing severed heads and limbs used for medical dissection. Many people viewing these images were appalled and disgusted at how our ancestors used to behave. None of us seeing the painting in London that day could imagine that within a few years we would all be cast back in time by at least 200 years to an age of similar savagery.

If some soothsayer had come along and explained it, he might have said: ‘It’s like this you see, there was something called an ‘Arab Spring,’ but that led to the fall of a lot of evil but secular Caliphs and rulers as cruel as Blue Beard, which in turn led to Islamic tribes going to war with each other, sect against sect, and that and the Diaspora created led to a new, globalised criminality.’

No doubt we would all have dismissed his ideas as the ramblings of a demented pessimist, and gone on lying there on the National Gallery carpet, enjoying the view of the leaking, sinking raft and the struggles of its dying passengers, like seeing a horror film frozen at one particular frame. Who could have forecast that the internecine hatreds of the Middle East were going to unleash a new kind of pestilence called ‘people traffickers,’ the modern day equivalent of slavers, who would freely practise their trade from the middle east and Africa, across oceans to the west? Or that we in Europe would one day stand, unprotected by borders, watching as helpless on lookers as the raft of everything we knew is cut loose and the dead and the dying plunge into the waves.

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