When Théodore Géricault, an icon of French Romanticism, painted his ‘Raft of the Medusa’ back in 1818, he didn’t know he was immortalizing a horrific tragedy in which a group of French people were left on a makeshift raft in the middle of the ocean with no means to navigate and no supplies to keep them alive, while the rich were carried to safety in lifeboats following the catastrophe that had befallen their ship. What followed was a dark drama that ended up in ‘survival of the fittest’. Everything was fair game for the survivors, starting with throwing the weak and the wounded into the sea, and ending with cannibalism (because, who said romanticism was about ‘romance’?).
Almost two centuries have passed since Théodore Géricault had depicted this event based, in part, on the discussion he held with some of the survivors. The painting was so intense that the great Eugène Delacroix willingly posed as model for one of the dead figures in the artwork (face down, arm stretched in the middle). Géricault chose a dramatic moment to capture, namely that in which the survivors spot a ship. Hope of deliverance breathes life into half-dead bodies and souls, and the raft turns into a ghastly theatre of earthly horrors. Expectedly, the painting eventually became a universal icon of human struggle for survival and facing the unknown.
Some 200 years after, one is flooded every day with images of migrant boats and drowned refugees. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 3770 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe in 2015 (an average of 10 people / day). I came across a photo that shows a group of Syrian refugees finally reaching the shore after an epic journey across the sea, Mare Nostrum which has become Cemetery Nostrum. The photo supposedly gained some award (I don’t know the photographer), but this is not the important thing. The important thing is that it captures an extreme human condition of mixed feelings following an impossible odyssey. How would Théodore Géricault paint this tragic moment had he been among us today? What other icons of human failure should we be adding to our collection?