A Painting for a World in Collapse

What The Raft of the Medusa reveals about contemporary political art.

Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images
Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images
Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images

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The first time the power of art pulled the rug out from under me, I was 19 years old.

It was the early 1970s. I was in Europe for the first time, on my way through Paris to Warsaw with my Polish girlfriend, on a bizarre quest to sell blue jeans behind the Iron Curtain. On that day, during my first pilgrimage to the Louvre, I laid eyes on a painting that seemed the sum of all things. It was a cosmographic perpetual-motion machine, a purgatorial charnel house. The moment I saw it, something like Krakatoa went off within me. That painting was Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa

The Raft of the Medusa is massive in scale, yet its subject matter is as simple as bathers by a river, cows in a field, a birth in a manger. We see a large raft bearing a crowd of male figures at the mercy of heaving seas. Their poses suggest a classical frieze, like Elgin marbles from hell. It is a collective ash heap of individually vivisected souls stripped bare of humanity.

Each of the men is marked by a distinct, unforgettable gesture. Some are reckoning with their wounds; others seem to be coming to terms with death; some appear closer to damnation than to life. Every one of them looks hopeless. Yet the work itself paradoxically gives hope for its very presence. This is what Marianne Moore meant by “hope not being hope / until all ground for hope has / vanished.” This is that moment.

Every work of art tells a story, from outlined hands on cave walls to figures arrayed at a table for a Last Supper. From gleaners in a field to luncheons on the grass. From romping Greek gods to a Sunday in the park to the cutout silhouette of a white man beating a slave. The subject matter of Michelangelo’s David is a biblical tale told in marble. But the deep content of this 500-year-old sculpture — its aesthetic substructure, its crux and lifeblood — includes ideas about sensuality, beauty, majesty, pathos, the power of the self, the potentiality of movement, the grandeur of being alive, inchoate softness of marble, even the awareness of the recently rediscovered Laocoön and His Sons, a Roman statuary so radical it seems to have almost given Michelangelo a nervous breakdown. Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit,” and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now all make you experience alienation, rage, horror, revulsion, love, grace, ugliness, absurdity, hopelessness, bloodlust, bleakness, memories of meetings and partings, nightmares, phantoms, cultural dysmorphia, shapeless inner shadows, the shattering collapse of moral order, and the decay of the soul — all at the same time. 

The painting I saw that day at the Louvre had its origins in a real-life story of the recolonizing of Africa. In June 1816, the French frigate Medusa and three other ships headed to Senegal to resume trade, eventually including the slave trade, which had been interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars. The Medusa’s captain was Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, a 52-year-old royalist who hadn’t been to sea in decades. The people onboard, some 400 in all, were a mix of monarchists, families, merchants, mercenaries, and ex-convicts. The ship was inadequately outfitted, carrying faulty maps and too few lifeboats. Chaumareys separated from the rest of the rest of the fleet and soon was sailing alone. Within days, a man was lost overboard, and with mistrust rising, others began seeking ways to get around Chaumareys.

By July, the Medusa was approaching the deadly Arguin Bank, an expanse of shallower water off the coast of West Africa that had wrecked numerous ships. Members of the crew knew the maneuvers to steer around this grave danger, but the ship’s arrogant leadership ignored them. Fatally, one crucial landmark was mistaken for another, and on July 2, the Medusa headed directly into the bank. The color of the ocean changed from deep blue to lighter green, then turned clear altogether. In denial of the looming disaster, sailors took to fishing the abundant waters. Then the angel of death breathed on them. With a great scraping sound, the Medusa shuddered, shook, and ran aground. Dread came over the crew; the ship fell into hushed terror.

The crew scrambled to free the boat. The ship was far too heavy to pull out by usual means. Barrels of gunpowder were thrown over to lighten the vessel. But Chaumareys refused to jettison the heavy cannon, which likely would have allowed the ship to float free. Thus Medusa’s fate was sealed. Panic set in, recriminations flew, anarchic ransacking broke out. Amid all this, Chaumareys ordered the construction of a very large raft to be pulled to shore by five boats. Soon the captain, along with his officers and their families and friends and others selected by them, boarded the less-than-full boats and prepared to cast off as the raft sat in the water.

With that, everything fell apart. Violence erupted; people panicked. Many filled themselves with wine, water, and food and threw the remainder overboard. People jumped off the ship to board the raft. One hundred forty-seven people, including one woman and a 12-year-old boy, crowded onto the unsteady raft, which had sagged two feet deep in the water when only 40 had boarded. Many had to stand. In the light of early morning, one of the boats tied a line to the raft. When the rope was pulled, the raft barely moved. After more than five hours of struggling unsuccessfully to tow the raft, at 11 o’clock in the morning came the fateful order: The line was cut. The raft and its 147 souls were cast adrift. Chaumareys and his companions sailed off.

The raft had no maps, oars, or navigational instruments. On the first night, wind and white-capped waves wracked the raft. By morning, about a dozen were missing and many others grievously injured. The next day brought three suicides. Then came hallucinations, hunger, thirst, fights, and delirious violence. People were beaten, stabbed, hacked with hatchets, bayoneted, had their eyes gouged out, and were pushed into the sea. In this relentless frenzy, factions slaughtered one another. By dawn, another 60 were dead. On the third day, the hunger was excruciating. Some ate their leather scabbards and portions of their greasy hats, and the cannibalism began. Dead flesh was hung from ropes to dry. Some survivors ate directly from corpses. Those deemed too weak to survive were thrown overboard. Nearly two weeks passed this way.

On the morning of July 17, a tiny white speck was spotted on the horizon: a sail; survivors gestured wildly for help. Then the sail began to disappear. This is the exact moment Géricault seems to give us in The Raft of the Medusa, the one survivors said was darkest of all: a tableau of souls being cast into hell. This is the deep content of the painting — the moment when all hope is lost.

The calamity of the Medusa is a story of abject human failure. Although the sail eventually reappeared on the horizon and 15 surviving passengers were rescued, five of them died within months of reaching land. As the survivors’ stories of malfeasance, cruelty, betrayal, and barbarism poured into France, the wreck of the Medusa became an international scandal, a symbol of a country torn apart. At the subsequent court-martial, Chaumareys blamed delays, bad maps, pressure from his superiors, and faulty equipment for the disaster, taking no responsibility himself. He was not found guilty of the capital crimes of abandonment and was sentenced to three years for simple negligence. No one was really held to account, and no actual justice was served.

There had never been a painting that looked like Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. While its pyramidal composition, figurative skill, and virtuosity recall the neoclassicist art that immediately preceded it, the Medusa is fundamentally different. The surface feels alive and molten like sluicing paint; its tone is darker, its imagery more graphically dramatic and aggressively convulsive, as if Géricault were approaching some new fiery sublime. He began work in a moment when the qualities of 18-century neoclassicism — its enervated smooth surfaces, silky perfections, rote lionizations of male strength, and idealizations of history, myth, revolution, and war — had come to seem insipid and irrelevant. By 1815, when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, some 3 million people had been killed in more than a decade of European wars. The continent was decimated. Great Britain and Russia emerged victorious. France was annihilated, its society in chaos. It was a nation in mourning and at war with itself. Yet after all that, less than a month after Waterloo, the guillotined king’s younger brother was named king. Soon he began reinstating many of the figures of the failed ancien régime: aristocrats, naval commanders, bureaucrats, ministers, and lackeys. This, too, is part of the deep content of The Raft of the Medusa: It marks the dying of one epoch and the start of another.

Géricault turned 27 in 1818, a good-looking, well-off artist who’d recently returned from Rome after an ill-fated affair with his uncle’s wife. The Paris he returned to was seething with rage at its leaders over a slate of new censorship laws and the fate of the Medusa. Galvanized by the survivors’ stories, he resolved to capture the catastrophic implications of the event. Before setting down his vision, he interviewed the authors of the best-selling account of the wreck and met with other survivors. He traveled the English Channel to study waves, even retrieved cadaver parts from a nearby morgue to his studio to better capture the appearance of dead flesh. He made scores of preparatory sketches and studies and even had a replica of the raft constructed in a studio he’d rented just to make this picture. He shaved his head, withdrew from society, and worked alone from morning light to nightfall in complete silence for months. By July 1819, three years after the wreck, the painting was nearly finished. In August, it was on display in that year’s Paris Salon.

At first, the painting was mounted high on a wall, but Géricault soon got the painting moved closer to eye level. It was presented under the generic title of The Scene of the Shipwreck in order to disguise the painting’s political subject, but everyone who saw it recognized what they were looking at: the raft, the faces, the flesh, the horror. One reviewer lambasted the scene as “monstrous” with “nothing touching, nothing honorable.” Many were disturbed by its gruesome imagery and dark implications. But the wisest of Géricault’s contemporaries understood what one French observer later wrote: that “our whole society … loaded on the Medusa.”

The Raft of the Medusa was awarded one of the Salon’s gold medals that year, but the work was not acquired. Its reception at the Salon devastated Géricault, who removed the canvas from its stretcher, rolled it up, and stored it in a friend’s studio. The painting was purchased by the Louvre not long after Géricault died at 32 of spinal tuberculosis. At the time of his death, he was preparing another gigantic work — this one on the annihilating atrocities of slavery.

At the apex of the Medusa, its protagonist and focal point, is one of the three Black figures in the work. Many of the other figures on the raft surround, hold on to, stretch toward, and support him; he is their avatar and savior. Here were three Black men pictured as people, not property. Other faces depict actual individuals on the raft, including survivors Alexandre Corréard and Henri Savigny, who penned the book that fueled the scandal. The model for the figure at center foreground, lying face down with one arm outstretched, was the young painter Eugène Delacroix, who found the painting’s effect so terrifying that after posing for it he “broke into a run and kept running like a fool all the way back.” On the right, we see the twisted body of a possibly drowning man and the remains of a tattered French flag. On the left, a man stares into space as he cradles an iridescent body, in Dylan Thomas’s words, “green and dying.” He is a Pietà for the premodern age.

The Raft of the Medusa helped accelerate the movement called Romanticism. In it, we find the birth of the modern consciousness with its new anxieties: the individual on their own, homesick for other times and places; the violence of war; a rebuke to rationality; an interest in mysticism, fairy tales, and the occult; the worship of youth and innocence; and an ecstasy in sublime states of mind and nature even as the industrial revolution brought the natural world to the verge of destruction. This psychic shattering is reflected in the creations of five other artists working in the same historical moment as Géricault: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “colossal Wreck” of “Ozymandias” (1818), the “Black Paintings” of Francisco Goya (1819–23), the cryptic visions of William Blake, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1822–24).

The elemental power and poetry of Géricault’s Medusa changed me forever. It told me things I’ve known and lived by ever since. To encounter a work of art for the first time is to confront, for an instant, something you’ve never seen in your life. You are reminded that what you’re looking at was once (or perhaps still is) contemporary art in direct conversation with its own time. All art is a kind of exorcism. This is what gives art its power to change the conditions of our life.

Ours is an era of ships of state piloted by mad captains and crews gone crazy. Structures are rotting; one epoch is dying; we do not yet know what is forming. All the art made in the United States from the contested 2000 election to the contested 2020 election to today has been made under extraordinary conditions. The art made in this period has been waist-deep in the mud of politics.

The problem with much so-called political art is that, while their subject matter may be “radical,” the formal tropes, aesthetic grammars, conceptual ticks, and visual idioms they often use have become dogged, predictable, filled with bathos — in a word, generic. “Concerned” art has become a safe-space house style for artists, curators, and collectors. Alas, for critics as well. If the subject matter is deemed “good,” so is the work, even when the work is obvious and banal. No matter; there’s the implication that this sort of art is somehow better, more ethical or valid, than other work. A lot of this art merely does what Bob Dylan in 1964 said he didn’t want to do anymore: write “finger-pointing songs.”

Kara Walker’s 2014 A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Marianne Moore once wrote, “To doubt is merely a part of liking, and of feeling.” But there’s almost no appreciation of this work that isn’t infallibly sure of itself. And to criticize this art is to be seen as being against whatever injustice the work spotlights. The style is marked by highly produced or found objects installed in big galleries, atria, and biennials all over the world. Think of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s 52-ton tank at the 2011 Venice Biennale, placed upside down in front of the American pavilion with a world-class athlete working on a treadmill atop the tank’s wildly spinning treads. You could hear this warlord sculpture all over the Giardini. Or the lottery tickets to win a helicopter ride in 2012 at Documenta that were, I think, about wealth accumulation. Or something. As with most work like this, it protects itself with veiled claims of being anti-market. (I recall even the great Marina Abramovic sniffing at a show for being about the market. I yapped, “But you’re probably a multimillionaire from your work!”) Never mind that their budgets are probably bigger than what would go into making thousands of other artworks.

In 2019, Christoph Büchel placed the retrieved hull of a ship that killed at least 800 desperate Libyan migrants in that year’s Venice Biennale. Not offensive but still wan was Zoe Leonard’s traveling along the U.S.-Mexico border to make more than 500 ho-hum black-and-white pictures of the area. (There’s even a tony two-volume book devoted to it.) The obligatory pictures of helicopters, patrol vehicles, and people in the river perfectly mimic the aesthetically preapproved documentary-style photography of 1970s Conceptualism and post-minimalism and not much else.

We see these and other objects accompanied by photographs, texts, mementos, historical artifacts, documentary material, video/film components, and sound. In many cases, we may see objects scattered on the floor, hung from ceilings, leaned on walls, or spread into nearby galleries — “intervening” with other art. There have been a lot of banners and text things of late. Modernistlike dancers appear often. Much of this work looks like set design and store display.

Simone Leigh’s Sovereignty. Photo: Giuseppe Cottini/Getty Images

The most important component of all is the long wall label that explains what this work is about, usually in hard-to-parse prose. I recommend skipping to the next-to-last sentence, where the actual work might be addressed. This sort of art often insists on one meaning. (It’s like insisting someone have an orgasm.) The tendency is paralyzing, depressing, and annoying. As I looked at one installation of photographs of clouds, a curator whispered, “These photos were taken over Ferguson, Missouri. They’re about the riots. Aren’t they powerful?” I said, “No. These are boring, generic black-and-white photographs.”

We should not generalize. There is great political work being made today. But as with Géricault’s great aesthetic-political accomplishment, this work is not solely and obviously “political.” It is great not for what it’s supposed to be about but for the ways it employs forms, materials, and imagination. Art works in mysterious ways. Neither Donald Judd nor Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley nor Yayoi Kusama, Charles Eames nor Zaha Hadid makes what looks like “political art.” Yet each changed the way the world looks and the ways we look at the world. That’s revolutionary — that’s political. Over the millennia, art has been used to heal, cast spells, ward off evil spirits, prevent or help with pregnancies, speak to God, or allow the dead to look out at the afterlife, as in in the case of eyes painted on Egyptian sarcophagi. The Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment has been seen as a weapon against the Reformation.

Depth charges go off in Sally Mann’s photographs that pull back the curtains of the taboos on adolescent sexuality. Matthew Barney’s protagonist — when he finally fails in his resistance to be gendered — and Deana Lawson’s tableau of bodies pose strong and strange questions about the nature of identity. You don’t need long wall labels to tell you you’re crossing some startling line to know this. It’s embedded in the art. The political content is so strong in Chris Ofili’s glowing painting of a Black Virgin Mary adorned with decorated elephant dung that then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to cut off the Brooklyn Museum’s financing when it showed the work. And even though it’s difficult to find the political message of abstract art, the most successful war memorial of the past half-century is Maya Lin’s all-black Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Consider Simone Leigh’s mind-blowing, shot-through-the-heart indictment of how all things western are built on colonialism. This is her installation Sovereignty, in which she adorned the U.S. pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale with a simple thatched roof and wooden posts in front. It evokes beauty, poetry, cultural revolution, diaspora, and the molten core of western wealth, and it tingles you to the bones. Or Amy Sherald’s smoldering portrait of Michelle Obama with her hair down, shrouded in a white gown with geometric patterns. (It is much stronger than Kehinde Wiley’s clever peekaboo photorealistic portrait of Barack Obama and far superior to the recent hyperrealist portrait of the former president and the saccharine one of the former First Lady.) Sherald’s smooth brushstrokes emit dignity, decorum, and something almost spiritual. The skin is painted in grayscale, which disrupts and undermines the racial lens Obama is so often seen through. Sherald’s mysterious picture is open to interpretation; it starts conversations rather than ends them.

It is also an announcement of artistic intention to break free of something. Sherald paints in the conventional genre of figuration and portraiture. Yet she uses this convention rather than letting it use her. We see an artist who, like her subject, has willed herself to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, allowed herself to stop being self-conscious about being watched.

The best “political” work made this century needed no wall label at all — it was radioactive, dangerous, and transformative on its own. This was Kara Walker’s 2014 A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, her colossal apparition of the universal present. A towering, naked female sphinx made of Styrofoam and some 30 tons of sugar, wrapped in a headscarf and with features of the stereotypical Black mammy, it’s a sepulcher of organized violence and retribution, a deity acquainted with righteous ire and grief. Coming just two years before Donald Trump’s election, it was a harbinger of a country that would find itself in captivity to the past.

I remember thinking, It’s like a god made this. It seemed to land here as witness and a warning. Walker called it “a new world sphinx.” She said she was “trying to get a grasp on history” and to convey the “meaty, unresolved, mucky blood lust of talking about race where … the conversation is inconclusive.” A Subtlety created a space beyond language where audiences slipped into the memories of the dead then reawakened in a broken world that had been coming for a long time. What poet Rene Ricard meant by “democracy gone blind.”

A Painting for a World in Collapse