Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Romantic Era (pt. 7)

Perhaps this ever-changing movement of the times influenced the Romantic style, which often included diagonal design, twisting figures, strong emotion, and dramatic use of light.  We see this best in Théodore Géricault's masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa.  This painting, produced in 1819, signaled the birth of a new art style in France.
The Raft of the Medusa was based on a real event in which a French ship, the Medusa, wrecked and was abandoned by her crew.  Those crewmembers who could not fit into the inadequate lifeboat quickly built a raft of their own and escaped the sinking vessel.  These men (some estimated 149 passengers) drifted at sea for almost two weeks without food or clean drinking water.  When they were finally found, there were only 15 survivors left.  During their two-week voyage, many of the crew had starved to death, drowned, or committed suicide.  These shipwrecked men were brought to the very limits of what human nature can bear: starvation, desolation, dementia.  It is reported that the men even sunk to cannibalism.
Nothing but the most dramatic depiction of this event could do for a painting—or, at least, such was the way the great Romantic painter Géricault saw it.  The Raft of the Medusa displays a theatrically staged scene of epic emotional depth and powerful imagery.  We see naked bodies strewn across the hard wood and tossed against the cold sea, some discolored with sickness, others faceless, maimed, and inhuman-looking.  One man poises against the lifeless corpse of his neighbor, deep in thought, with a hard face that is covered in shadow, no doubt contemplating the deep questions of human suffering which such an occasion would generate.  One can see reference to the solemnest of subjects, the Crucifixion, in the tattered arms that stretch across the raft's wooden boards.  Agony, despair, death—this painting is a gritty tableau of human pain and emotion.  The dramatic lighting sets the mood of our thoughts when we look at it.  A major diagonal (from the lower left to the upper right of the painting) carries our eyes through the scene, ranging in between places of despair and hope.  At the upper right we see men looking ahead and stretching their arms toward something they see on the horizon (probably the rescuing ship).  For those men's faces shadowed from our view, the display of human emotion is expressed in the stormy sea and dramatic sky.  Huge, billowing clouds drift across the sky much as the raft drifts across the surface of the water; and great waves swell up in fury no doubt equaling the passion of the men through this unimaginable circumstance.  The painting reflects the style of Rubens and Michelangelo, but it showcases a contemporary event as it actually happened, rather than a scene from the Classical past.  Of course, this image is no realistic snapshot to be completely trusted.  We can see that Géricault's painting is heavily infused with emotion, but this emotion is different than propaganda, like the works of David.  Romantic emotionalism, unconcerned with political causes, instead speaks to deeper matters of the heart, the broader spectrum of human emotion, the pathos of mankind.  All of this is most archetypally exemplified in Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, making it a staple work of Romantic art.

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