December 2010

There is a phenomenon in modern popular fiction, increasingly pronounced, that I call ‘other people’s sex’.  The author, usually but not always avoiding the vocabulary of pornography, describes the carnal act in graphic detail, often adding a few practical tips.  If you find that sort of thing off-putting or simply dull, just skip the first chapter.  The Raft is a historical novel based on the life and work of the French painter, Théodore Géricault.  True to life, he did have an affair with his uncle’s wife, but this book is about the making of his masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa.  It’s an absorbing, but gut-wrenching tale.

His mother’s death when Géricault was a teenager left him a house in rural Montmartre and sufficient income for a life of leisure; however, his ambition was to be a great artist.  Economic independence turned out to be both a boon and a curse. Without the need to please fashion-conscious patrons, he was able to break away from the old neoclassical style, popular with the newly restored Bourbon Court, but emotionally sterile.  At the age of 20 he dazzled the Paris Salon with his vibrant Charging Chasseur.  But, increasingly distracted by his affair, the choice of another original and inspiring subject was proving elusive.

Edge’s story opens in 1818 when, recently returned from Italy, he hears for the first time of the disgraceful shipwreck of the frigate Méduse and the ghastly fate of half its crew and passengers.  Abandoned on a makeshift raft by the incompetent captain and his cronies, 150 people were set adrift with little food or hope.  After 13 days at sea only 15 were alive.  Stirred by the horror and injustice of their fate, Géricault had found his subject. With obsessive determination he sought out survivors, so that little by little, study by study, he collected the details he needed to make their nightmare a reality on canvas. Géricault’s monumental Raft shows, not only man’s struggle against nature, but also his struggle against his own kind.

The Raft is certainly a story worth telling.  By winning the gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1819 it initiated a political sea change; it encouraged a new artistic movement; it framed universal themes within contemporary events and thus took on a critical role underscoring man’s responsibility to man. You can see the painting in the Louvre today; it has been imitated, updated and parodied by artists in every generation.  Six of ten in our group would recommend The Raft, but four found the subject matter very unpleasant.

On Thursday, 6th January, we will read the play, Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel.

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