This photograph in the Winnipeg Art Gallery quickly draws visitors’ attention when they walk into the room where it is displayed. Ever since I started giving tours at the gallery I’ve wanted to learn its story. This week I finally did. The photo is actually a re-staging of a famous painting called The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault which is in the Louvre in Paris. Gericault painted it in 1818 when he was just twenty-seven years old. It depicted a true event- the wreck of the frigate Medusa which ran aground in Maruitania in 1816. 147 people escaped from the boat on a quickly constructed raft. Thirteen days later when they were rescued there were only 15 survivors, the rest had died of starvation, cannibalism, suicide, drowning and dehydration.
Gericault read interviews with the survivors, built a model of the raft and visited a morgue to study cadavers before he began his painting. The captain of the Medusa was charged with incompetency. When Gericault created The Raft of the Medusa it was a very controversial current work and because of that his painting gained a wide audience and helped establish his reputation as an artist. The painting shows the moment the raft is being approached by a rescue vehicle. It is on a huge canvas so the figures are almost life size. In 2008 Canadian artist Adad Hannah was asked by art collector Gus Horn to come to his home town of 100 Mile House in British Columbia to stage a version of the The Raft of Medusa that would involve the people of his community. Hannah agreed and in 2009 spent three months in 100 Mile House working together with the citizens to make costumes, build sets, paint a back drop, figure out make-up and do yoga so they could hold the poses in the painting long enough for Hannah to film and photograph them. Finally they were ready and the elaborate tableau was staged. The photo in the Winnipeg Art Gallery is one that Hannah took that day. Adad Hannah’s photos weren’t the first or last time Gericault’s famous painting has been re-enacted. This version was staged by a New York artists collective called The Bruce High Quality Foundation in 2007. Chinese artist Hu Jeiming chose to use the Gericault painting as inspiration for his commentary on the impact of the Cultural Revolution on China and how the country is now being driven by consumerism.
These are just two of many works of art inspired by The Raft of the Medusa that continue to be created.
Other posts about works in the Winnipeg Art Gallery Collection……..