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.
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.
"The White Horse," painted in 1819, is a good example of the expressive naturalism so admired by the French. In Constable's Wordsworthian idyll, a red-shirted ferryman in the foreground acts as a kind of repoussoir, leading the eye lazily toward a tree-shaded riverbank, and, beyond, to a sky full of billowing clouds. Yet there is no vanishing point. Instead, the painting recedes into the even, gauzy light of the British countryside. The scene is one of perfect bourgeois tranquility, a landscape commensurate with the growing confidence and prosperity of postwar Britain.
But maybe more remarkable is what's not in the picture: No allusions to classical myth; no grand historical theme; no fussy brushwork; no rote color scheme; and none of the crumbly ruins that clutter French academic painting. Not only was Constable giving modern life the kind of grand treatment usually reserved for dead kings and fallen empires; he was also, as though predicting Impressionism, celebrating the eye of the individual artist. To the French, such freedom must have been instantly intoxicating.
The best thing about "Crossing the Channel" is looking at it. In fact, it's hard to imagine a more dramatic presentation for these paintings than the one the MIA has put together. Gericault gets his own room, of course--and "The Raft" does make more sense situated at the exhibit's head than at its tail, as it was in "Crossing the Channel"'s original showing at the Tate Britain. The heart of the exhibit, though, is an enormous, airy gallery designed to evoke the splendor of the Paris Salon. (If you care to compare, there's a painting of the 1824 Salon, by François Joseph Heim, showing French visitors in their plumage.) The gallery design is a masterstroke, since one of the exhibit's points is that the salons of 1824 and 1827--the "British Salons"--were as important an exclamation of aesthetics as the Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s or the Armory Show of 1913. And, like those celebrated Salon exhibitions, "Crossing the Channel" revels in variety: For every Constable or Turner, there's a genre painting of frolicking nymphs or the ravishing of some poor, half-dressed Byronic heroine.
Some of these risqué works may look pretty ripe to modern eyes. But "Crossing the Channel" is also animated by their theatricality. These paintings, we're reminded, were once popular entertainment. "The Raft," for instance, drew 40,000 paying visitors to Piccadilly and touched off--rather like that horrid Titanic craze of a few years ago--a brief fever for Medusa-related plays and dioramas.
"The salon is a kind of movable feast," Noon says. "It's the sort of room Americans don't see, the sort you'd really have to go to Europe to see. And, of course, it's important to remember that art wasn't always just a part of high culture. These paintings were painted for public exhibition."
Take Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's 70-foot-wide diorama of Scotland's Holyrood Chapel, created in 1824, some 14 years before Daguerre invented photography and--at least according to painter Paul Delaroche--killed painting altogether. When exhibited, the diorama would be illuminated from behind, so as to slowly reveal a ghostly figure wandering in the moonlit Gothic ruin. Even from the much smaller oil-painted version in "Crossing the Channel," one gets a sense of the effect such a spectacle must have had on the Romantic-era imagination, with its melancholy bent and appetite for medieval ghoulishness.
One of the pleasures of "Crossing the Channel" is that it opens a small, clear window into this era and its preoccupations: the infatuation with erotica and Orientalism, for instance; or the interest in British sporting life; or the obsession with maritime adventures. Yet the evolution this exhibit describes wasn't just a change in the choice of subject matter or in painterly technique; it was, put simply, a new way of looking at the world.
To understand just how radical a break this was, one might compare Gericault's "The Raft of the Medusa" with Turner's 1835 canvas "A Disaster at Sea." Turner was likely inspired by Gericault's masterpiece, and he chose a similarly infamous subject--in this case, a British ship carrying female convicts to Australia that refused French aid during a storm. The ship was wrecked, and more than a hundred women drowned.
There, the similarities with "The Raft" end. Gone are Gericault's deliberate chiaroscuro and classical composition. Instead, Turner gives us a mass of humanity flailing against the waves. Whereas Gericault's scene is historically specific, Turner's is open to ambiguity. Where Gericault's style is epic and precise, Turner's is expressive and chaotic, with a heavily worked impasto to match the roiling violence of his sea. Seeing the two canvases together, "Crossing the Channel"'s ambition begins to come into focus: What we're witnessing here is nothing less than the birth of modernism.