Welcome to GIBBIN HOUSE!

When I first started this blog about the misadventures of a nascent author, I had only a small novel under my belt, titled Gibbin House. The building that bears the name is a fictitious postwar era safe-house, as many might have existed, and the London home of my motley crew of exiles. I could not anticipate then the degree to which I would join its ranks of writers and artists, but since publishing my book in 2011, I have had the greatest privilege of opening my own art gallery and of exploring my love of the written word through visual poetry and paper sculptures. Yet much like the girl who first started blogging two years ago, I suspect I don't know what I'm doing half the time. As such, Gibbin House remains a refuge for ramblings...and on occasion a haven for little triumphs.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Visual Inspirations - Aboard Gericault's Raft of the Medusa

Raft of the Medusa
Gericault's Raft of the Medusa

Excerpt from GIBBIN HOUSE:

...But after hours of vigilance and wide-eyed awake-ness, one adopts patience.  Or as it ought to be known, the self-congratulatory brother of fatigue.  Patience then gives way to indifference, and in time one becomes a heretic to the creed of goals and ends and satin-ribboned resolutions.  One stops caring about the names of foreign cities, stops seeking out their hearts from window seats.  Eventually one realizes they are all disfigured, all the same sketch of blasted glass and ruins and fire-retardant weeds, anonymous to the fickle gazes that graze them.  One drifts among them, a shipwrecked figure on Gericault’s raft, gaunt and delirious, running one’s arm through the air outside without hope or aim. 
In the past week I have not been alone on this Medusa. 
There were soldiers on my train, boys in pieces - paralyzed by the fear of not recognizing the home they were headed back to, and of not being recognized by it.  They knew the damage that awaited them, because they had inflicted the same damage somewhere else.  And there were the older veterans, those who proved the fears of the younger ones founded, having been rejected, because they had the misfortune to return during the phase of recrimination which always follows the initial relief of having survived.  They now wandered in a transfixed state, as if all they saw anymore were memories superimposed on the actual life around them.  Erratic in sleep as in consciousness, they sometimes snarled and gawked and other times pounced on kindness with the eerie licentiousness of a ghost starved for a soul. (Page 37-38)

Gericault Study
The above belongs to Anka's reflections shortly after her arrival in London.  In this instance,  she likens train travel through a war-ravaged Europe to what she imagines it must have been like aboard the raft of the Medusa - the French vessel that so infamously shipwrecked in 1816 and was interpreted by the young Romantic painter Theodore Gericault two years later.  
We assume that she knows the painting from a book or postcard her art-minded parents might have kept at home, and that they would have related the background story of the horrific incident.  Gericault's painting would easily have stood out to Anka for the isolation, despair and inhumanity the image represents - much of what she feels as she comes to term with her unwanted relocation - and so she draws on it now, picturing herself floating aimlessly and uncertain, on trains filled with men as desperate as those French passengers a century before her.

I will never forget the day I first encountered this painting.  It was the autumn of 98' and I was sitting in Professor W.'s 19th Century Art class - we had just finished up Neo-Classicism and endured three days of W. pronouncing Ingre's name 'ang' (took me half of that to recognize who the heck she was talking about...oh, 'ongrrr'...)  In any case, the next movement was Romanticism, that wild and vivid era of Delacroix, chockabock full of Morroccan brothels, moody seascapes and revolutionary battle scenes (Anka references artists like Delacroix, Turner, and Goya in later passages.)  But Gericault, whom I was not familiar with, came as a surprise.

Professor W. went into great detail about the shipwreck that inspired it, the Meduse Frigate that capsized near Mauritania on July 5, 1816.  127 people set adrift a roughly constructed raft.  13 days before their rescue, only 15 remained alive.  What transpired between the wreck and the raft's rescue was a grotesque tale of madness, illness, and cannibalism that shocked the French public.

Gericault's decision to paint a life-size version of this incident, so fresh in the public's memory, was indeed audacious - such giant canvases had until then been reserved for political figures, military triumphs, and religious themes.  But here he was, elevating a contemporary subject and everyday people, and moreover, capturing them at the brink of their health and sanity.  He met with survivors to learn about the men on board and their intimate tragedies.  He conducted extensive research into the stages of starvation and decomposition, visiting hospital wards and morgues.  Professor W. showed us slides of these early sketches.  I knew very well that previous artists had drawn from corpses, but Gericault's obsession with morbid authenticity was luridly fascinating. 
But what really struck me, was the composition of the painting.  Because, as it happens, there was a point before the raft's rescue, when they were passed by the Argus without being seen.  And it is this moment Gericault focuses on, rather than the eventual rescue, when the men attempt to flag down a ship that is blind to them.  One has to imagine the utter utter despondency of knowing their one chance of survival is lost.

Liberation - Photo Frank ScherschelTime & Life PicturesGetty Images
There were few lectures I remember as fondly as this, and when writing this passage I eagerly included the piece, because I like to think of Anka as a little like me - a little melodramatic and fatalistic but always atune to the symphony of beauty. 
In writing Gibbin House, I was ever aware of the historic context, the physical destruction and precariousness of post-war life, particularly between 1945-50', and I hope I never give the impression of glossing over the bare struggles or romanticizing that time.  But recalling art, music, the things one loves, by which we define ourselves, I can't imagine I would be able to stop myself doing it.  I want to think I would be sitting in a train car, staring out over empty cities and blank faces, and comparing myself to a figure of Gericault's, if for no other reason than to retain my own humanity. 


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gibbinhouseresident said...

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