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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Not quite what you think of as #'rafting'

What a story! The #Medusa sails from France toward Senegal, along with three other frigates, carrying the rudimentary population of a new coastal settlement meant to abet the slave trade. Thanks to the preposterous know-nothingness of the ‘captain’, a candy appointment of the recent #Bourbon Restoration in France, the ship wrecks in shallow water well off the coast of Africa.

The life boats can carry fewer than half of those aboard. So a #raft is constructed for the rest. The raft will be towed by the life boats to the African shore. When every one is on the raft––standing room only––the raft sinks so far its passengers are up to their waists in ocean water. Even so, some passengers lift #white handkerchiefs aloft and shout #vive le roi. Long live the king. Such was monarchist militancy that you adored your king even when he left you in a stormy ocean half way under water with a negligible chance of survival. Sound familiar?

Not long into the voyage, the tow rope is cut and the raft is abandoned. Captain and his élite sail on.

Things grow quickly, drastically worse. Over thirteen days of hilly sea-drift, most of the 150 rafters would perish under squalidly inhuman conditions. Mutinies would erupt. Massacres befall. Starvation would impel people to consume urine, excrement and the flesh of those who had perished. Storms would almost tip the raft over. A bayonet is curved into a crude hook meant to snare a shark. The shark takes it in his mouth, bends it straight and swims away laughing. At one point, with supplies of sodden biscuits and wine declining, those with any chance of survival push those deemed to be without (more than half) into the sea.

Fifteen would ultimately be rescued. Many of those would die within days. But some lived to pass on the lurid chronicle. Of course it made the #monarchy in Paris look revoltingly bad; of course the king and his ministers denied it all. Just a republican hoax.

A young painter, wanting a killer painting for the next #mythology-mongering Salon but disinclined to paint another Bible story, chose instead to depict a story he’d first encountered in the papers. True, all the appalling hallmarks of romanticism were there, but there were equally dire facts to unveil. By all accounts, #Géricault was an entrancing young man about town, deeply in love with his married aunt (with whom he had a child), fathomlessly talented, well liked, and with a certain morbid penchant well suited to his undertaking. He interviewed the survivors, one of whom was a carpenter who agreed to reconstruct the raft; he even procured cadavers from a Paris morgue to get the look of death just right. What, in the long, upheaving ordeal, should he paint? He tried different episodes, even the #cannibalism, but in the end elected to show the moment when the salvation ship, the #Argus, appeared on the horizon––though in fact the Argus would then disappear for several more hours.

The painting of The Raft of the Medusa is almost as noir as the raft story itself. Shaving off his hair, Géricault secluded himself in a large studio and, eating and sleeping as little as he could (an asceticism that continued for the next ten months), he set to work. Though now regarded as one of the #greatest paintings of the 19th century, when done it was not well received in Salon circles any more than a portrayal of, say, the president with elephant dung in place of his head would be received in Columbia, South Carolina today. Out of bounds. Too discomfiting. Not the French, not this! The desolating failure undid the young artist. He died at 32.

I was recently at the Louvre, standing in front of this prairie-sized work. A thick crowd had pooled in front of the painting, a hundred forearms extending phones like so many communion wafers. Yeah, it’s grim, like Shakespeare’s The Tempest gone horrifyingly wrong. Still, on the bright side stands the courage of an artist who helped to uncover a #cover-up, including, obliquely, the truth about #slavery. In so doing he made painting #current, critical, modern. And––such is the alchemy of romanticism––he fused from terror a wrenching moral grandeur, a vivid desperation of hope that stops your feet and galvanizes your gaze till some yappy viewer from Albuquerque tips you out of your place.

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