Men and Wild Horses: Théodore Géricault

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Yes, I’ve been watching a lot of films about art recently, and here’s another one. Artists and Models was the series title for three 80-minute drama-documentaries broadcast by the BBC in 1986: The Passing Show, Slaves of Fashion, and Men and Wild Horses. The writer and director of all three productions was Leslie Megahey, a name I always looked out for in TV listings throughout the 1980s, and still do in the case of films such as these. I watched the series at the time, and taped the episode about Géricault but the tape went astray many years ago so it’s great to find again.

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Art, especially painting, was a recurrent theme in Megahey’s work going back to the 1960s. In his later films he combined this interest with careful period recreations, the most celebrated example of which is his superb supernatural drama, Schalcken the Painter, an adaptation of the Sheridan Le Fanu ghost story. Artists and Models favours art history over drama, being an examination of the connected careers of three French painters of the late-18th and early-19th centuries: Jacques-Louis David, the Neoclassicist who was probably the only artist in history to sign the execution warrants of his own king and queen; Jean-Auguste Ingres, the Academician and painter of sensual nudes; and Théodore Géricault, the gloomiest of all the French Romantic artists. Being partial to the Romantics, especially the gloomy ones, I was always going to be more interested in the Géricault film. But all three films are worth seeing, each depicting an aspect of French art during a time of great historical upheaval: state propaganda (David), meticulous Orientalism (Ingres), and tormented realism (Géricault).

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The Raft of the Medusa (1819). All photo reproductions of this painting are compromised by the bitumen that Géricault painted into the shadows, a substance that degrades badly over time.

Men and Wild Horses uses the researches of Géricault’s first biographer, Charles Clément, to investigate the life of an artist whose bouts of depression and early death cut short a career that promised much but delivered less than the artist hoped. Clément, portrayed by Alan Dobie, informs us that Géricault only exhibited three paintings in the Paris Salon, none of which sold while the artist was alive. The largest of the three, The Raft of the Medusa, is recognised now as one of the great paintings of its age, but the Paris art world didn’t think so at the time. The story of the shipwreck survivors, and Géricault’s obsession with depicting their plight, forms the centrepiece of Megahey’s film which avoids too much awkward historical recreation. Géricault himself is only present via Clément’s account of his life, the memories of the artist’s friends, and the voiceover by Martin Jarvis which provides detail that the biographer was unable to find. The camerman for all three films in this series was Megahey’s regular collaborator, John Hooper, a real artist himself in his manipulation of light and shade. Men and Wild Horses is filled with many beautiful chiaroscuro compositions, so it’s a shame that the copy at YouTube isn’t better quality. The same account also has a copy of the Ingres film, Slaves of Fashion, while the David film, The Passing Show, may be seen here.

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One of the “interviewees” in the film is Antoine Étex, the creator of Géricault’s monument in Père Lachaise cemetery. I took a few photos of this when I was there in 2006; it’s easier to stumble across than some of the other famous tombs, and includes among its details bronze reliefs of Géricault’s three major paintings. British readers will know that “gee-gee” is a colloquial term for a horse so there’s some wry amusement for les rosbifs in the sight of the letters surrounding the monument of a horse-obsessed painter. Despite snapping a close-up of the bronze Raft of the Medusa I was more interested in chasing Symbolist paintings in the Musée d’Orsay and the Gustave Moreau Museum so I didn’t go to look at the original in the Louvre. Maybe next time.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Complete Citizen Kane
Schalcken the Painter revisited
Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

Weekend links 540

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A century before William Burroughs: The Wild Boys of London (1866). No author credited.

• “Acid, nudity and sci-fi nightmares: why Hawkwind were the radicals of 1970s rock.” I like a headline guaranteed to upset old punks, even though many old punks had been Hawkwind fans. As noted last week, Joe Banks’ Hawkwind: Days of the Underground is now officially in print, hence this substantial Guardian feature in which the author reprises his core thesis. Mathew Lyons reviewed the book for The Quietus.

• “Roy Ayers and Fela Kuti each explored Pan-Africanism and diasporic solidarity their own way before their meeting in 1979.” John Morrison on the Roy Ayers and Fela Kuti collaboration, Music Of Many Colours.

• “In 1938, Joan Harrison read a galley of Daphne Du Maurier’s masterpiece. She wouldn’t rest until she had the rights to adapt it.” Christina Lane on Rebecca at 80, and the women behind the Hitchcock classic.

Each page features a distinct moment, seen from one perspective on the front, and from a diametrically opposed angle on the back, occasionally pivoting, for instance, between interior and exterior spaces. This organizing principle is complicated by the fact that a given image might be a depiction of the physical environment surrounding the camera or, at other times, a photograph of a photograph. Midway through, the scene is inverted such that the volume must be turned upside-down to be looked at right-side up. The result is an elegant, disorienting study in simultaneity that allows the viewer to enter the work from either end.

Cover to Cover (1975), a book by Michael Snow, has been republished by Light Industry and Primary Information

• At Public Domain Review: The Uncertain Heavens—Christiaan Huygens’ Ideas of Extraterrestrial Life by Hugh Aldersey-Williams.

• Penny Dreadfuls and Murder Broadsides: John Boardley explores the early days of pulp fiction and what he calls “murder fonts”.

• The lesbian partnership that changed literature: Emma Garman on Jane Heap, Margaret C. Anderson and The Little Review.

The 10th Tom of Finland Emerging Artist Competition is now open to entries. (Titter ye not.)

• Death Barge Life: Colin Fleming on Gericault’s grim masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…The Grand Grimoire: The Red Dragon (1702).

Music To Be Murdered By (1958) Jeff Alexander With Alfred Hitchcock | Murder Boy (1991) by Rain Parade | Murder In The Red Barn (1992) by Tom Waits

Decapitations

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Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1520–1540) by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

It doesn’t take much effort to refute the jeremiads of those who complain that popular culture is exclusively violent, all that’s usually required is to direct attention to Titus Andronicus or The Revenger’s Tragedy. Compared to the stage, the art world seems at first to be more circumspect, especially in the 19th century when the battles scenes of history painters sprawled across acres of canvas, all of them devoid of the physical trauma of warfare.

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The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1455–60) by Giovanni di Paolo.

There are exceptions, however, and the nearer you move to Shakespeare’s time the more examples you’ll find. Paintings produced in an age when violent street executions were still a common sight would have seemed less surprising to their intended audience than they do to our eyes. Several of the paintings here provide a useful contrast with the many sanitised depictions of John the Baptist’s severed head in the Salomé archive.

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Medusa (c. 1590) by Caravaggio.

Of all the paintings of Medusa’s head the one by Caravaggio is the sole example with a gout of spurting blood. It’s also unusual for being painted on a convex panel intended to resemble the reflecting shield of the Gorgon’s killer, Perseus. Given the violent life of the artist the gore isn’t so surprising although the jet of red in his painting of Judith beheading Holofernes still seems shocking if you’ve never seen it before.

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Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598–99) by Caravaggio.

The Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes may be the poor cousin to the more popular story of Salomé but depictions of the crucial event make an impression by being consistently gruesome. I suspect the reason is less to do with the story itself than with the success of Caravaggio’s paintings among cultured Europeans. The copying or imitation of celebrated works became a thriving industry in the days of the Grand Tour with the result that 17th- and 18th-century art is overburdened with variations on earlier paintings.

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