(In which it takes more than talent to be an artist.)
Reading art fiction has always been a good experience in feeding the artist in me, and the frustrated one at that. To discover how masterpieces were made, how big sacrifices were done in their creation makes me swell with respect to the trembling hands that wielded brushes of colors to last centuries and make people relive pasts and memories. Their lives, these artists, make me believe even more to the proposition that artists are indeed born. I haven’t read much yet and I don’t know a lot of names whose signatures appear on famous paintings. But through pages of biographical, albeit a little fictional, account of their lives, I am able to know and understand how artists pursue their greatest artistic dreams. I thought I knew and understood enough. Until I read The God of Spring.
The God of Spring is one of the most subtle art fictions in my book pile, i.e., it’s not easy to quickly discern its inclusion to the subgenre. Having found it on a tall pile of cheap books in a bargain bookstore, the only thing that I could heavily rely on is the title printed on the book’s spine. The God of Spring. It doesn’t ring a bell. Nothing to immediately indicate that it’s about a painter and his famous masterpiece. But perhaps it’s the glimpse of what appears to be a small fraction of a painting that compelled me to pick up the book and read the blurb, much to my glee.
The novel opened with the arrival of the French painter Théodore Géricault from Rome. Welcoming him were his benefactor-uncle Monsieur Caruel and his lovely young wife, Alexandrine –whom Géricault had an illicit relationship with. His uncle was oblivious to this betrayal and even commissioned him another portrait of his lovely, philandering wife to show his support and appreciation for the artist’s previous work. And in return, Géricault made love to his aunt with a feverish desire that tormented him abroad.
In the house of his friend (and rival) Horace Vernet, Géricault learned of a political scandal that shook France when he was away – the tragedy of the frigate Medusa. Driven by an intense desire for a magnificent tableau and an opportunity to reel away from Alexandrine and his lustful thoughts of her, Géricault set forth in tracking down the survivors of the shipwreck for the narrative. Then he found out the horrible stories of murder, betrayal and cannibalism that led to the creation of The Raft of the Medusa, the painting that made him known as the Father of French Romanticism.
The painting, with its huge scale of 24 feet long by 18 feet high, dramatically depicts a mass of bodies lunged forward with a great desire to live, their weakened arms waving signals to the blurred vision of their last hope at the first sighting of the Argus, one of the convoy ships to the frigate Medusa. The first sighting. For it will disappear again, leaving the survivors two hours away from rescue. (See the Louvre site for a larger image.)
Deeply moved by this tragedy, Géricault was even more eager to paint. He hired the ship’s carpenter to make a replica of the raft; he studied cadavers in morgues to observe the texture and color of death and even went so far as taking home corpses to observe the deterioration of human flesh. His obsession for his tableau made him able to resist Alexandrine and lose her forever. No distractions and detractions stopped him from completing his life’s work. During a hard emotional blow, he displays an impressive determination by choosing the glory of art over giving in to human pain.
There, it is done, he said aloud, staring at his shaved head in the mirror, proof that he would renounce all society, friends and pleasure of any sort until he had completed his tableau.
He too would incarcerate himself behind thick stone walls. Never venture outside except for the purpose of his work.
– page 210 – 211
At the completion of his work, he didn’t just paint a scene of a shipwreck. He made viewers share the suffering of the wretched men in the raft. His painting offered no redemption. What it showed was a constant battle and struggle for survival. When most artists in his generation painted reclining nudes and Napoleon’s victories in wars, Géricault painted people who fought, not as national heroes for they fought for themselves, strengthened by hope and weakened by the sudden loss of it. How else can an artist show truth? How else can an artwork be more human?