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excerpt from essay on Géricault's Raft of the Medusa

Monday 4/8/19

Finished 2200 word essay on Géricault's most famous painting, which was completed 200 years ago. Excerpt:

I don’t know about you, but when I rank the worst physical ways to die, I put dying of thirst near the top of the “Good Christ no” list. Ever been on a long bus ride and forgotten to take a water bottle? Painful, right? Extend that over days, and now add in the possibility of murder, being consumed by sharks, starvation, and you have what went on with the death raft, to say nothing of the greatest terror: the thoughts teeming, breeding within the mind as they then probe, like tiny, sensitive, soft baby hands, the rows and rows of sharpened teeth of the gaping maw.

Géricault’s painting featured figures both as large and larger than life. He was prepped to the gills, and knew, better than any artist ever had, exactly what became of human flesh as it decayed. This was Dante’s Inferno at sea, with spume replacing flame, bodies piled atop each other in an agonal death orgy. Not exactly an easy sail around the bay. He interviewed two of the fifteen survivors, including a doctor, who certainly owed his life to his profession, as it just made sense to keep the doctor alive rather than pitch him into the sea.

The size of the canvas itself was shocking. It was like hitting the full screen option on a Pornhub close-up video and then voila, right in your face were the folds, trenches, divots, puckerings, hollows, of the human body, writ large at its most vulnerable.

We rarely admit this even within our darkest thoughts—and there is truth in the dark, just as there is truth in in the light—let alone aloud, but it is the fear of death that stops it from being erotic, as its mystery and vulnerability edge it towards. It is the final climax of life; it is the Thanatos orgasm.

There were elements of the traditional history painting in Géricault’s canvas, and certainly of the ancient Grecian and Roman plastic arts, as these figures had the look of statuary come to life, simply to die, but with muscles and definition, not ineffectuality and enervation. They will not break—they will end. In that distinction is encoded the paradoxically human miracle of human endurance. That visual paradox of statuary having become flesh lent drama, as if humans had mounted a counterattack on nature: Specifically, against the enfolding, silencing arms of death, the choke-forces that halt years and years of heartbeats in a solitary fraction of a second, as though momentum meant and counted for nothing.


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