“I have known John Beard for a number of years and have followed his work with interest. In February 2020, he asked me if I might consider writing something about a work he was creating, inspired by Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. I was intrigued, in part because it sounded so different from John’s other paintings, but then COVID hit and travel restrictions meant that there was no way I could see what he had made. Digital images were available, but I didn’t feel I could form an opinion on the basis of reproductions, no matter how faithful they might be to the original.
A year later (this year) I finally did see John’s version of the Raft, displayed on the far wall of the immense medieval tithe barn near Salisbury which Johnny Messum has adapted for use as a contemporary art gallery. I found the experience extremely moving, all the more so because of the conjunction of work and setting. John’s monumental, monochrome version of Gericault’s masterpiece, shown in low light in a vast timbered space of great antiquity, at once grand and functional, struck me as a kind of contemporary altarpiece.
But how to write about it? To me, it was an invitation to speak once more (as John’s work itself does) to the work of art that had originally inspired it, and to discover where that might lead. So what follows is not really a conventional catalogue essay, in the sense that it is not so much a piece of writing about John’s work, as a piece of writing inspired by it. I begin, as John did, with The Raft of Medusa itself; and I end up, as I believe John does, wondering what it might have to say to us now.
If I had to distil that message to its essence, I would say this. The Raft demands that we remember what empathy truly is. Beyond that it, demands that we understand that fellow feeling comes at a necessary cost: namely, the duty to help those who suffer shipwreck on the ocean of life, not just stand and watch the spectacle of their struggles. This is the tithe it exacts from us.” Andrew Graham-Dixon, June 2021
by Andrew Graham-Dixon
The generation of Frenchmen who reached maturity in the aftermath of Napoleon’s rise and fall shared one emotion above all others: a profound disillusionment. All their hopes and beliefs had been shattered by 1815, and all that: the Hundred Days, followed by Waterloo and total defeat. Traumatised by a failed dream of glory, on which they had been reared as if it were mother’s milk, they struggled to find a sense of purpose in a world that seemed suddenly devoid of meaning.
The Romantic playwright and essayist Alfred de Musset became the spokesman of this chastened generation, which was his own, and he gave it a name: “The Children of the Century”. He also wrote its biography, in the form of an epitaph: The Confession of a Child of the Century.
De Musset began by describing the infancy to which he and his peers had been condemned by the history of their times:
“During the wars of the Empire, while the husbands and brothers were in Germany, the anxious mothers brought forth an ardent, pale, nervous generation. Conceived between two battles, educated amidst the noises of war, thousands of children looked about them with a sombre eye while testing their puny muscles. From time to time their blood-stained fathers would appear, raise them on their gold-laced bosoms, then place them on the ground and remount their horses.”
He went on to describe the heady climate of their youth:
“The life of Europe was centred in one man; all were trying to fill their lungs with the air which he had breathed. Every year France presented that man with three hundred thousand of her young men; it was the tax paid to Caesar, and, without that troop behind him, he could not follow his fortune… And yet never was there such joy, such life, such fanfares of war, in all hearts. Never was there such pure sunlight as that which dried all this blood… It was this air of the spotless sky, which shone with so much glory, where glistened so many swords, that the youth of the time breathed.”
Lastly, he recalled the moment of their disappointment:
“They were told that the war was ended, that Caesar was dead, and that the portraits of Wellington and of Blucher were suspended in the antechambers of the consulates and the embassies… Then there seated itself on a world in ruins an anxious youth. All the children were drops of burning blood which had inundated the earth; they were born in the bosom of war, for war. For fifteen years they had dreamed of the snows of Moscow and the sun of the pyramids… They once had in their heads all the world; but now they beheld the earth, the sky, the streets and the highways and all these were empty; and the bells of parish churches resounded faintly in the distance.”
De Musset concluded his gloomy reflections by comparing his generation to the uncertain survivors of a shipwreck, rudderless in a rising sea:
“Behind them lay a past forever destroyed, moving uneasily on its ruins with all the fossils of centuries of absolutism; before them the aurora of an immense horizon, the first gleams of the future; and between these two worlds – something like the Ocean which separates the old world from Young America , something vague and floating, a troubled sea filled with wreckage, traversed from time to time by some distant sail or some ship breathing out a heavy vapour; the present, in a word, which separates the past from the future, which is neither the one nor the other, which resembles both, and where one cannot know whether, at each step, one is treading on a seed or a piece of rubbish. It is was in this chaos that choice must be made; this was the aspect presented to children full of spirit and audacity, sons of the Empire and grandsons of the Revolution.”
What inspired the author’s choice of metaphor? Why might he have thought to compare the plight of his generation to that of men lost at sea? A likely answer is the brooding presence of Theodore Gericault’s monumental painting The Raft of the Medusa in the collective imagination of the French Romantics. By the middle of the nineteenth century (when De Musset’s Confession was written) Gericault’s disconcerting depiction of straining, stranded men was firmly established as one of the defining creations of the post-Napoleonic age. This bleak and disquieting image of men marooned at sea, frantically signalling to a distant ship as waves threaten to engulf them, had first been exhibited at the annual Paris Salon of 1819. Gericault’s contemporaries were both mystified and intrigued by it. Painted on the scale of state propaganda and recalling, in its heroic disposition of struggling figures, the monumental canvases created a few years earlier out to laud the victories of Napoleon, its exact meaning proved hard to fathom.
Inspired by newspaper accounts of a distinctly unedifying maritime disaster, it was certainly no battle painting. But just what it was, exactly, remained open to debate. It bore a passing resemblance to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, in the Sistine Chapel, but were the struggling bodies shown those of the saved or the damned? No one could tell. If its subject matter and composition recalled Michelangelo, the style was closer to that of his namesake, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: a tenebrous chiaroscuro in which gestures (like a single outstretched hand) or expressions (from resignation to despair) had been given such stark and spotlit emphasis that it was as if the language of painting had been reduced to a form of morse code, capable only of spelling out messages of distress and anxiety.
Gericault himself was not quite one of the “Children of the Century”. He was born in 1791, just two years after the outbreak of the French Revolution. But his early maturity coincided with the beginning of the decline of Napoleon’s fortunes, and his first ambitious paintings wer already infected with the spirit of disillusionment that pervades De Musset’s Confession; at the very least, they convey a profound distrust of the imperial thirst for gloire at all costs. The Wounded Cuirassier of 1814 is the most striking example of such a picture. The fact that it was a battle painting, and created on a monumental scale – some ten feet high by nine feet wide – would have led any audience of the time to expect some form of resounding patriotic affirmation of French military might and prowess. Pictures of such subject matter and of such a size were simply not supposed to do anything other than heap praise on the Napoleonic project and boost national morale. But Gericault’s Cuirassier does neither. Instead, it offers an image of pain, defeat and surrender. Under a lowering sky, the painter shows a single anonymous soldier, limping from the field of battle. Too badly hurt to mount his war-weary horse, he leads it by the bridle away from the field of battle. The animal, which rolls its eyes and swishes its tail, looks traumatised. So does the unknown soldier, who uses his sword, sheathed, as a walking stick.
The Wounded Cuirassier is the most extreme example of a peculiar genre of painting that developed during the later years of the Napoleonic regime: the failed (or deliberately sabotaged) propaganda painting. The master of this unhappy form of art was a painter whom Gericault idolised, Baron Jean-Antoine Gros, whose most enduring legacy was a series of truly enormous history paintings overtly intended to celebrate Napoleon’s victories and achievements – but which covertly revealed the painter’s terror and disgust when confronted by the actual horrors of war. Their format was invariable, their effect disquieting. Above a foreground littered with the bodies of dead and the dying men, Napoleon appears as if in apotheosis, like the Saviour himself in military fancy dress, bringing order and ensuring ultimate victory. The problem with such pictures – several of which, including The Battle of Eylau and The Pest House at Jaffa, still hang in the Louvre today – is that their visible effects are so at odds with their official meanings. The painter reveals his barely suppressed horror in a number of ways: manipulating scale relationships so that Napoleon is dwarfed by the suffering men around him (the principal plague victim in the painting of the hospital Jaffa would be some nine feet tall, to Napoleon’s five, were he ever to heave himself to his feet); or arranging his foregrounds into horrific repoussoirs from which the figures of the dead (who are frozen stiff in the Eylau picture, with petrified hair and beards) seem on the verge of tumbling out of the canvas, whether to expire, or putrefy, at the very feet of the viewer.
The extremity and desperation that can still be sensed behind the art of Jean-Antoine Gros, painter-in-chief to Napoleon, found its starkest expression in the circumstances of the artist’s death. In 1835, when he was 64 years old, Gros’s body was found on a shore of the Seine, together with a scribbled note indicating that he grown “tired of living”. The coroner concluded that he had managed to drown himself in a puddle of water only a few inches deep.
Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa was painted some two years after the fall of Napoleon but it clearly bears a kinship to the vast and paroxysmically convulsive works of abortive propaganda created by Gros. It is painted on the same enormous scale, considerably larger than even the enormous Wounded Cuirassier, and is designed according to exactly the same organising principle. What it shows is precisely what Gros had shown, namely a great mass of male bodies, some dead and seeming as though about to fall out of the pictorial space that confines them, into our own. Above this dominant scene of suffering, as Gros had done in his own pictures, Gericault has suspended a small image of hope: not, in this case, the image of an ineffectively gesticulating Napoleon, but that of a distant sail, barely more than a speck on the horizon, towards which a small group of men have roused themselves to signal with frantic intensity.
The Raft of the Medusa was, in effect, a completely hollowed-out answer to the already hollowed-out parodies of French nationalistic painting involuntarily created by Gros in the years preceding his terminal decline. It is one of the darkest pictures in the history of French art, because it proclaims itself by definition as the last of its kind. After a full stop as emphatic as this this there could be no more grandes machines, no more grand heroic statements of national destiny dressed up in the language of history painting: no more fancy- dress epics like those painted by LeBrun for Louis XIV, by Jacques-Louis David for the France of Revolution, by Gros and his contemporaries for Napoleon. (Such pictures would be painted again, of course – notably in Mao’s Russia and Stalin’s China – but only under duress and never with any genuine conviction.) Gericault had killed all that off by painting the ultimate example of the genre and robbing it of all nationalistic meaning whatsoever.
His subject was universal and anonymous human suffering, make of it what you will, experienced beneath a sky without memory of morning or hope of night. The most outrageous thing of all about The Raft was its total lack of an evident, consoling narrative. It does not have – it never had, even in Gericault’s time – a single, evident meaning. In other words, there has always been a perfect symmetry between the painting itself and its subject: it exists in the same relation to meaning as a raft exists in relation to the ocean. There can be no resolution to the enigma that it presents to the eye, save that which each viewer chooses, personally to give to it.
The Raft of the Medusa was inspired by a particularly horrible story of real-life shipwreck, widely reported in the press during the years (1816-19) when Gericault conceived his picture. In July 1816 La Meduse, flagship of a convoy travelling to the French colony of Senegal, became grounded in the sandbanks of Arguin off the West Coast of Africa. The captain of the ship, whose inefficiency and inexperience had led to the shipwreck in the first place, compounded his sins by commandeering the few serviceable lifeboats for himself and his senior officers, leaving more than 150 passengers and crew to fend for themselves on a makeshift raft formed from lengths of mast lashed together with rigging. Adrift on the open sea, with barely any provisions, their numbers dwindled daily. Some perished by falling through the interstices of the hastily constructed raft and drowning; many more died in a pitched battle over the limited supplies of food and water; others, too weakened by hunger, thirst and exposure to defend themselves, were simply thrown overboard by their companions, to preserve the dwindling rations and improve the increasingly compromised buoyancy of the vessel. Some corpses of the dead were kept on board, to be cannibalised – as they eventually were – as a measure of last resort. Two weeks passed before the raft was finally spotted, by another ship from the original convoy, The Argus. Just fifteen men had survived. Of those, five more died within days of being rescued.
From this tawdry tale of unremitting suffering, Gericault omitted almost all the specifics: virtually all anecdote and almost all precise relationship to the depressingly unedifying facts of the case. He toyed with depicting a number of different incidents from the victims’ journey into a living hell, in particular the battle for the food and the moment of rescue. But neither were sufficiently ambiguous for his purposes. In the end he chose the sighting of The Argus by the men on the raft, and in so doing preserved only two visual details from the written accounts: that of an empty brandy barrel, on which the men were said to have balanced in order to attract the attention of their rescuers; and that of a bloodied axe (bottom right, close to the edge of the raft), used first in the battle for food and secondly as a cannibal’s carving implement. But such details, while they suggest on the one hand collective endeavour and, on the other, complicity in violence, do little to diminish the universality – and deliberate ambiguity – of the picture. Its essential subject is a universal human predicament: suffering, the struggle to survive, the search to be saved, on the part both of sinners and those who have been sinned against. It is surely important that the figure at the very apex of Gericault’s pyramid of signallers – the man waving the tattered rag that is their distress signal – should be one of three black men on the raft. This detail is all the more striking given that in the tradition which Gericault’s painting occupies, that of the monumental French history painting, black men rarely appear, let alone take on leading roles. Why has he been given such prominence? In part, perhaps, because Senegal, the frigate Medusa’s destination, had for centuries been a centre of the international slave trade: a dirty business which Gericault abhorred. But he has surely been placed there to emphasise, above all, that the men on the raft stand for all humanity, regardless of colour or creed. They are us: all of us.
Attempts have been made to twist a more particular political intention into The Raft of the Medusa. Many of Gericault’s contemporaries interpreted the story itself as an indictment of post-Napoleonic France and its governing regime, the new Bourbon Monarchy. In some quarters of the press it was proclaimed a scandal, various writers asserting that the Ministry of Defence would never have appointed a captain of such moral turpitude in the days of Napoleon. But when such interpretations were foisted in turn on to his painting, Gericault made his feelings clear in no uncertain terms. “I have been accused by a certain journalist of having slandered the entire Ministry of Navy by the expression of one of the heads in my picture,” he commented in a letter to a friend. “The wretches who write such nonsense have certainly never gone without food for two weeks on end, otherwise they would realise that neither poetry not painting can ever do justice to the horror and anguish of the men on the Raft.”
The painter’s remarks go to the heart of the matter, which is empathy. Gericault did not wish to score a point, nor indeed to make any kind of propagandistic claim about the specific events that served as his inspiration. If there was any moral to be drawn from the long and bloody years of Napoleon’s ascendancy and defeat, it was that people needed now to rouse themselves from disillusionment and disappointment – and to find space for something other than De Musset’s obsolete “fanfares of war” in their hearts. They needed to rediscover some sense of fellow-feeling, to put pity and love in place of hatred, and to learn how to give rather than conquer.
The Raft of the Medusa is not a painting to be interpreted but a place to be occupied. It is hardly inviting, threatened as it is by waves and stormy skies, tossed around by misfortune, but unless we pluck up the courage to stand on it – even only by an act of imagination – how can we ever hope to rediscover the empathy that is mankind’s saving grace? If Gericault had a message for De Musset and the rest of his generation, “The Children of the Century”, this was it. Stand on the raft, feel what suffering is, and relieve it rather than adding to it. Of course the picture can be judged in other ways, but to do so is to fail to live up to its challenge.
John Beard’s unsettlingly dark and mosaic-like homage to Gericault’s great painting is both reminder and warning. It presents an occluded version of the original Raft of the Medusa, recreated to scale but broken up into carefully squared-up monochrome fragments. The pieces are arranged on the wall according to the order determined by Gericault’s own composition, so it is less like a picture puzzle than a raft that has come to pieces. There are gaps for the eye to fall through (like the interstices in the original raft of La Meduse, through which some slipped on their way to drowning).
Integral to the work is the very low light level prescribed by the artist as part of the experience of looking at it. So low is it that some time is needed for the eyes to adjust sufficiently to distinguish the forms for what they are: bodies on a raft, bodied forth in light and dark, their contours emphasised by myriad cross-hatchings that recall etching more than painting.
The artist has not said much about his work, other than that he wants those looking at it to feel as though they might actually be on the raft – but perhaps that is enough. The subject of his melancholy creation is surely the difficulty of re-seeing The Raft of the Medusa, and therefore re-feeling the sense of the universal human predicament that it embodies, at all this distance of time.
The artist’s devices – the fracturing and colour-purging of Gericault’s original image, the lighting, the evocations of printmaking and, by association, reproduction – are all obstacles of a kind. But they might also be metaphors for all that stands between us and a true perception of what is going on in the world: our failures of attention, the distractions caused to us by all the white noise produced by our many and relentless information technologies.
To see the picture, we have to put it together in our minds, light it with our imaginations. Only then can we try to decide what it means; and deciding that is surely just the beginning of what we are supposed to do with the whole experience. There are works of art which invite looking, and there are works of art which incite action. The distinction matters. There are still people who need our help. The Raft of the Medusa is not some old story. The suffering that it reveals has not gone away.