By Farrah Gowar
London, United Kingdom
The Raft of the Medusa (in French: Le Radeau de la Méduse), painted by Théodore Géricault in 1818-19, is a depiction of the tragedy of the French frigate Méduse on 12th July 1816. The ship veered off course and ran aground on a sandbank on the coast of West Africa. As was the issue on the Titanic, there were too many passengers for the number of lifeboats, so 146 men and at least one woman clawed their way onto a hastily assembled raft that was barely equipped to carry such a number. The intention was that the raft would be dragged along behind the lifeboats but it soon came loose and was set adrift. The passengers only had a bag of biscuits, two casks of water and six casks of wine to sustain them. The biscuits were consumed on the first day, the casks of water were lost overboard during a fight, and the wine did not last much longer.
As is often the case in great maritime tragedies, such as in William Golding’s Pincher Martin, the situation devolved into mayhem. Packed on top of each other like sardines in a tin, starving and dehydrated, the passengers soon succumbed to violent seaborne frenzy. The casualties were steep. Some died from starvation while others threw themselves into the sea out of despair. Mutineers were slaughtered ruthlessly and others died in fights. Out of desperation, the passengers turned to cannibalism. The passengers were pushed to the very precipice of human sanity. There was no organized effort to save the raft, but by chance a passing ship rescued it thirteen days later. Upon its rescue, only fifteen men remained.
The provocative painting caused huge controversy in France when it was first displayed in 1819, when the event was still fresh in the minds of the public. Géricault’s immortalization of the tragedy became a quintessentially Romantic painting. Its dramatic, contrasting lighting, raw emotion and commitment to depicting struggle and desperation has made the painting attractive to artists looking to modernise classic works. Géricault sought to capture a range of human emotions: pain, fear, anger, and madness. However, stretched out at the top of the painting, waving at a ship on the horizon, is a man who embodies hope as much as he embodies desperation. It is this balance that makes the painting adaptable to modern life
Most famous, perhaps, is Banksy’s recreation of the masterpiece. Known for using art as a medium to comment on social issues, Banksy has censured the French government’s treatment of migrants on multiple occasions. His famous recreation of the poster for Les Misérables, surrounded by gas, criticises the alleged use of tear gas by the French authorities. It has since been painted over, but Banksy’s criticism of the treatment of refugees in Calais remains prevalent. In his recreation of The Raft of the Medusa, Banksy adds a yacht in the background, sailing past the raft uncaring, a criticism of both Britain and France’s lack of aid for the refugees. Similarly, photographer Sergey Ponomarev nodded to the painting in his photo of refugees arriving off the coast of Lesbos, Greece, criticising the lack of engagement of countries with the migrants. While the photo does not resemble the painting as directly as Banksy's interpretation, they capture the same emotion.
The painting is also used to criticise other aspects of modern life. Pascal Boyart created a mural in 2019 on the roof of the former gold foundry of the Banque de France modernising the The Raft of the Medusa. In Boyart’s recreation, the sail is made of US banknotes, the figures are wearing modern clothes and one lies next to a shattered iPhone and another by a spilt bottle of prescription pills. As Géricault did, Boyart reacted to modern society with his recreation. He uses images of modern desperation and fear on a raft which is driven forwards by a sail made of money, perhaps a comment on the consumerism of today.
The painting will continue to remain relevant for generations to come because it encapsulates some of the most primal and everlasting human emotions: fear, desperation, and hope. Géricault’s tragedy is both as poignant in its original form as its modern adaptations.