Art and Photography Editor Hanabi gives us an art history lesson by sharing how her two favourite paintings made big splashes in nineteenth century political spheres.
Ophelia by John Everett Millais and The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault have always been my two favourite paintings. I met Géricault’s masterpiece when visiting the Louvre with my parents when I was ten. I was struck with awe upon experiencing the strength of the waves beyond the fragmented ship, looking so destructive yet refraining from taking the spotlight away from the carved, stressed, lean muscles of the passengers of the wrecked. Ophelia has a completely different air. Completely envisioning Shakespeare’s famous description of her death, Ophelia looks limp and pale but retains her beauty as she sinks, without a fight, into the still and engulfing waters. Her dress is weighted around her hips by the water, and the viewer becomes a voyeur, watching her take her unhurried last breath. The slow and tranquil death in Ophelia seems not to know of the wreckage and chaos depicted by Géricault.
Making art allows me to depict political ideas visually, so naturally I am interested in the political context of art pieces. To me, an artist should take it upon themselves to be the reporters of current political turmoils. My fascination for The Raft of the Medusa grew when I was told by my dad of its controversy when hitting the public, and that such a dramatic, artful piece was in fact reportage.
It is well known that the political purpose of this piece was to expose the horrors unleashed upon the inhabitants of the ship at the hands of an incompetent captain and bring awareness to the subsequent mutinies against him due to the ship’s disintegration. Duroys, the captain, never cared to send a rescue vessel for his lost men. A further agenda is revealed in accordance with the visual guide. Through the angles and positioning of the other bodies, Géricault intends to draw attention to the black slave at the top. This sense of hope manifesting in the black crew member is a clear expression of the artist’s abolitionist sympathies.
In all of this wreckage, we glimpse a glimmer of desperate hope as the bodies seem to twist to view what could possibly be another ship. The African crew member Jean Charles stands on an empty barrel, desperately signalling with his handkerchief. In the context of 1818, slavery was just formally abolished by a decree from Napoleon. Géricault may well have been depicting hope for emancipation, and for a pivotal moment in history when the stature of a black man is equal to anyone else. So, The Raft of The Medusa is a stunning example of a water painting used politically. By depicting such a tragedy, Gericault conveyed a scenario in which a hero could arise, enabling a black person to be depicted as a symbol of hope and thus generating much controversy from his contemporaries.
It would seem as though Ophelia, being a Pre-Raphaelite painting, would be the antithesis of a political work of art as the movement popularised the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’. However, I was surprised to learn that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood held an ethos in defiant opposition to the contemporary utilitarianism movement. Their nostalgic revival of medieval styles, stories, and methods of production harked back to a more ideal time. Additionally, their preference for natural forms served as an antidote to the mechanical compositions in the age of industrialism. This is particularly significant in the Brotherhood’s handling of natural landscape, influenced by Romantic painters such as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, shifting attention away from the ugly and monstrously un-emotional and unforgiving cityscapes to a nostalgic horizon of agricultural life that was slowly diminishing, espousing the power of nature in contrast to the human.
Ophelia takes on a new meaning in this context. She seems to be totally overwhelmed by the water as she beautifully, in passivity, passes away – conveying the insignificance of the human figure compared to the enormous natural strength.
My two favourite pieces of art, which I admired purely for their aesthetic awe at first glance, are actually incredibly political and both use the symbol of water. Water is fluid, it envelops and it drowns. Its capacity to be tranquil or destructive renders it one of the most powerful iconographies in art, which will continue to inform my own artistic practice for years to come.