Picture of a Lifetime: The Raft Of The Medusa by Géricault
I first went to the Louvre as a 13-year-old vagrant: bored with Paris, all big avenues and roundabouts; bored with my expectations of the Mona Lisa and not surprised to find it indecipherable behind bullet-proof glass and a screen of tourists; bored with walking down long corridors with too many paintings stacked up like cards in a game that has already been played.
Until I got to The Raft Of The Medusa — which, for a start, is too big to ignore: over twenty feet wide, more theatrical backdrop than painting, a showstopper since 1819 when Géricault first exhibited it to capacity crowds in Paris and London. It was like finding a rock band playing in the lift.
As a painting it’s perfectly pitched to appeal to the adolescent sensibility: contorted naked flesh in various poses of despair and ecstasy. Some survivors of the shipwreck are slumped on the raft, looking at the water or have turned their heads to the deck; others, led by a heroic black man, are pointing ahead out of the picture at some unspecified salvation – land perhaps, or rescue.
It’s the mixture of hopeless despair and possibly deluded hope that so suits the adolescent – and romantic – mindset. The wild surmise. The boy looked at Johnny. If the painting was indeed a rock band, it would be playing an anthem, and with a lot of guitar.
But a steely classicism underpins the iconography. The public who first viewed the painting knew the story well. After thirteen desperate days at sea – during which time they had lost their water bottles in a fight and eaten most of their colleagues – the few survivors do see a boat approaching. Not, as it happens, a rescue mission – they have long since been abandoned – but a chance, passing craft.
However, it doesn’t see them. The boat passes. The moment of ecstasy that Géricault portrays is a deluded one. The survivors will slump back down into their pyramid of the dead and dying.
The boat will finally return some hours later; and their story will be told (and painted); but that first ecstasy of the jubilant survivors pointing to the horizon is a false one.
When I next see the painting, over 30 years later, Paris has changed for me. It is now a nexus of emotional lacunae and memories: the Left Bank cafe where a lover and I outraged the waiter by having coffee before and with lunch, so great was our hangover; the walk down the Champs-Élysées with a beguiling German mermaid when we took our photo together in a booth; filming and tracing Oscar Wilde’s sad last days and death in L’Hotel.
And I see the painting with different eyes. What attracts me now is not the intensity of the different emotions on display; it is that in the face of death, the responses of the survivors should be so divergent. We can choose to give up, to turn our faces to the wall, or deck. Or keep looking straight ahead, however bleak the reality, for that small slim sliver of chance and salvation that might still remain. We are all born the same way; but each man finds the manner of his death. Truly the painting of a lifetime.