French Kissing the U.K.

The MIA's new painting show documents how French and British artists swapped style (if not spit). Isn't it romantic?

On the afternoon of July 2, 1816, the frigate Medusa, sailing in calm seas off the west coast of Africa, ran aground on the Arguin Reef. In the ensuing chaos, 150 passengers--soldiers and settlers bound for the recently reestablished French colony in Senegal--were herded aboard a leaking raft and set adrift. What followed has become one of the more infamous passages in maritime history. The undisciplined soldiers

quickly staged a murderous mutiny; the dying were pitched into the sea to make room for the barely living; and, within four days, the starving and deranged survivors, subsisting on feces and urine, began to eat the flesh of the dead. When the raft was rescued 13 days later by the British brigantine Argus, only 15 of its original complement remained alive.

The wreck and cruel abandonment of the Medusa--amplified by the macabre account of two survivors--created an immediate scandal in Restoration France. But the incident is now known primarily through Théodore Géricault's monumental painting, "The Raft of the Medusa," which serves as a centerpiece to "Crossing the Channel," the MIA's dazzling survey of British and French Romantic-era painting. Even looking at the exhibit's 1859 copy of "The Raft"--the original is too fragile to leave the Louvre, in part because of Gericault's experimental use of bitumen to create deep, brooding shadow--it's not hard to understand the sensation that attended the painting's London premiere.

Monomania: Portrait of a Kleptomaniac, c. 1819/1822, Théodore Géricault
Monomania: Portrait of a Kleptomaniac, c. 1819/1822, Théodore Géricault

The canvas, which fills an entire gallery, places the viewer amid the Medusa's survivors at the moment of their salvation, as they strain heavenward to signal the Argus on the distant horizon. Yet there's nothing triumphant about the scene: The bodies of the living and the dead are shown in perfect counterpoise, a reminder that we are all, in the larger sense, in the same boat. Gericault, a bit of a melancholic obsessive to begin with, turned his rue des Martyrs studio into a virtual charnel house during the intense 18-month production of "The Raft"--his studies of decaying human heads and limbs hang in a gallery adjacent to the finished painting. It's this intimate identification with the plight of the sailors--"suspended," as one survivor wrote, "between hope and fear"--that turns the painting into a meditation on human struggle and mortality.

Yet "Crossing the Channel" makes the point that "The Raft of the Medusa" was also a political watershed, an indictment of French corruption as provocative and controversial as Zola's "J'Accuse." The painting's focal figure--presumably a slave bound for Senegal, given Gericault's abolitionist sympathies--immediately brings to mind Eugène Delacroix's well-known 1830 image of bare-breasted Liberty manning the revolutionary ramparts. The scene's implicit class strife even inspired a song by those contemporary poets of discontent, the Pogues, on 1990's Hell's Ditch: "The architects of our doom/Around their tables sit/And in their thrones of power/Condemn those they've cast adrift."

"The Raft" also serves to illustrate "Crossing the Channel"'s larger point--namely, that British painting, with its looser technique and democratic instincts, helped to liberate French artists from the chilling conformity of neoclassicism. In the image of the British rescuing France from aimless drift, "Crossing the Channel" finds its working metaphor.

"These paintings were partially born out of a period of great turmoil," explains the exhibit's curator, Patrick Noon. "The French had recently tried to destroy their history by obliterating the aristocracy. Then you had Napoleon, who was this great hero, this demigod. Everybody aspired to emulate him. There was a reason hundreds of thousands of people would march off to be killed. They believed in him."

After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, French culture lost both its major patron and its raison d'être. "There was a generation of artists that came of age around this time, including Delacroix, that was completely disillusioned. There were no heroes left: Napoleon was history, and at the same time antiquity and classical literature had become passé. So British culture offered something that filled a vacuum."

In times past, Noon explains, the official line of art history has tended to diminish British art's influence on later French movements like the Barbizon School and Impressionism. (Such continental chauvinism suggests that the French were never too demure about cannibalism.) But, as this exhibit's scholarly catalog makes clear, the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 signaled the beginning of a surprisingly productive congress between the two nations, with British tourists flooding Paris, and Parisians clamoring for the poems of Byron and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Byron even had a popular French cologne named after him. Given the ancient enmity between Britain and (if you'll pardon the Rumsfeldian locution) Old Europe, the détente was naturally not without friction: "Crossing the Channel" includes one 1814 illustration by Carle Vernet that depicts British tourists in Paris as comically piggish burghers.

Likewise, France's admiration for British painting was sometimes coupled with disdain for the painters themselves. Upon meeting J.M.W Turner, for instance, Delacroix recorded that Turner had "the look of an English farmer, black coat of a rather coarse type, thick shoes--and a cold, hard face." Still, surveying the luminous seascapes of Turner and Richard Parkes Bonington, or a John Constable canvas like "The White Horse," you get a sense of why Delacroix and company were attracted to the fresh landscapes of their cross-channel colleagues. Here was a style that exploded the neoclassical dogma of David and Gros, simply by ignoring it.

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