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What Gericault, Delacroix and Turner Say to Our Time

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When you view the current crop of Pow!Wow! paintings in Kaka‘ako, remember, that throughout history, artworks have revealed a lot about the societies that produced them.  Next week, a noted social historian will show how three famous Romantic paintings reflect the upheaval, and hope of their times. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, these messages from the Romantic period may resonate today.

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Theodore Gericault. The Raft of the Medusa (1819).

Marcus Rediker is this semester’s Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair of Democratic Ideals at the University of Hawai'i-M?noa.  He is also Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and Guest Curator at the J.M.W. Turner Gallery at Tate Britain.

His illustrated lecture, Art History from Below: Géricault, Delacroix, Turner is set for Tuesday, February 26, 2019, 4:30pm at the Art Building lecture hall, UH M?noa.  

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J.M.W. Turner. A Disaster at Sea (c.1835).

The Western Romantic Movement, grew out of the Enlightenment's aristocratic social and political norms and its fascination with reason.  Beginning in the late 18th century and peaking in the first half of the 19th century, Romantics were big on nature, the supernatural, the individual, and the common person.  Heroism, emotion, the sublime, were all part of a more sensual worldview.

Marcus Rediker, this semester’s Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair of Democratic Ideals at the University of Hawai'i-M?noa, says the rise of romanticism is closely linked to the rise of political democracy.

Rediker:  In my view, the power of the Romantic movement and relatedly, the power of the Realist movement, Courbet and other painters who come along later, is closely linked up with the rise of a movement for political democracy.

Rediker:   In other words, you’re talking about a period in history in the late 18th and early 19th century, when the power of aristocratic and upper class groups throughout Europe is coming under ferocious attack.  The movement towards a more democratic society is expressed through the trade union movement, through an early women’s movement.  It’s expressed through all kinds of social movements from below and I think the power of these movements actually affects the artistic trends.  I think that’s the case in all three of these paintings that there are movements behind them.  (In reference to the Turner painting of female convicts on a ship to Australia) There are struggles over the sentencing of poor people in England to 7 and 14 years at labor in Australia because they stole a loaf of bread.  That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.  These extreme crimes of property, those things are being contested.

In his upcoming illustrated lecture, Rediker will discuss three masterpieces of Western art:  Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, (1819),  you’ve seen it---twenty men in rags slide desperately off a churning raft.  Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) shows bare breasted Liberty in classical drapery hoisting the blue, white and red banner of the sans culottes, the commoners who fueled the French Revolution of 1789.  Finally, J.W. Turner’s A Disaster at Sea (c.1835), is a brushy, tempestuous brown/yellow depiction of the sinking of the Amphitrite, a boat loaded with women prisoners, off the coast of France in 1833.   

Rediker contends all three paintings depict events of the period in ways that challenge power and authority.

Noe Tanigawa
Credit Noe Tanigawa
Marcus Rediker is the Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair of Democratic Ideals at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, and Guest Curator at the J.M.W. Turner Gallery at Tate Britain. Rediker is a social historian of Early America and the Atlantic world, with a longstanding interest in art history.

Rediker:  One level of causation in thinking about the art is the broader turmoil that is resulting from the people rising up.

Rediker:  The French revolution has a lot to do with that.  The people are a political force in ways they had not been earlier.  Similar things were going on in England, similar things had gone on in the American Revolution.  We need to link these paintings to the broader movements of the people so we can then see how art has become democratized.

Rediker:  The Age of Revolution has within it, a more elite element and a more popular element.

Rediker:  The more elite element wants to emphasize individual rights, with I think is an important thing.  But the more popular element is about collective rights.  The rights of working people, the rights of people who may not be great individuals.  That‘s one of the things going on and is reflected in the art

One of the things that draws me to these paintings in particular, they’re all about collective subjects.

Rediker:  They’re all about soldiers and sailors on the raft, they’re all about the people in the street, they’re all about the women convicts on board the ship.  I think this is very important for understanding where the motive force for change comes from in the Age of Revolution.  It comes from below.

Rediker:  This was a period of tremendous fermentation, of radical ideas of all kinds about all sorts of different things.     The world is changing, and it fact, we still live with the consequences of the institutional change of the Age of Revolution.   These are the kinds of things great artists were a part of, and were responding to all around them every day of their lives.

Rediker:  Delacroix himself said, of Liberty Leading the People, I didn’t protest in the street, but at least I could paint and could support the protest in that way.

Rediker:  The Raft of the Medusa caused a tremendous scandal with the art critics.  Because they took one look at his painting and they said, Where’s the hero?  Where’s the individual hero, where’s the great man who is going to save the day?  Gericault’s answer was, There is no individual hero.  To the extent that there’s a hero, it’s the group, it’s the people.

Rediker:  What a lot of these art critics were actually saying is, How is a proper bourgeois gentleman like me supposed to identify with this painting?  I don’t see myself in this painting. 

Rediker:  Gericault said, You’re right.  That’s not you in that painting.  That’s the motley crew of workers who are in fact, our greatest hope.

Noe Tanigawa covers art, culture and ideas for Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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