Bitumen, The Raft of the Medusa, and the lifespan of art: finally, a serious topic?!

You know, sometimes art can be interesting, and the Raft of the Medusa, which is an art painting, is also interesting. And with that soaring introduction, let’s get into this!

The subject matter of Théodore Géricault’s the Raft of the Medusa, or Le Radeau de la Méduse to our friends under the Sun King, is pretty interesting on its own, but it’s a bit outside what I’m going to talk about so let me sum it up quickly. The story, and by which I mean historical event the painting depicts, is something along the lines of a ship, the Medusa, hit a reef, or something like that, sank and the survivors crammed into a life boat, or maybe strung some planks together to form a raft. I think it was a week or two before they were rescued and without food, people were eating people. The painting is of the survivors near death on a shanty raft just as they spot rescue (as you can see from above); lets hope it’s not at the same time they are feasting on long pork as that would make for an awkward interruption.

What I find interesting about the painting is the materials that were used by Géricault, particularly bitumen. Bitumen, I believe, was used as a particularly glossy black pigment, that Géricault employed extensively to truly capture the death and desperation felt by our floating cannibal friends. Where Géricault’s use of bitumen has become a bit of a problem, however, is that it is a material that has a lifespan. While the pigment may initially appear a lovely glossy raven black, over time, surfaces painted using bitumen will eventually wrinkle, bubble, discolour and fade. This can be seen to be occurring in many areas on the Raft of the Medusa, where figures and patches of the huge painting are slowly darkening (please feel free to draw any parallels between the this physical darkening of the painting and the darkening of the soul that enabled the wrecks survivors to survive their ordeal).

Who knows if Géricault actually knew that this would be the result of his use of bitumen, as in the 19th Century pharmacist/painter Adrien Recouvreur wrote a scathing review of the substance indicating that since bitumen had been prominently used since the 1700s there must have been some idea of its inherent potentially problematic properties. Therefore, it may not be inconceivable that Géricault chose to use bitumen to capture the life and death, hope and despair, light and darkness, quality of his subject matter and have the fragile balance between these concepts transcend the objects he was depicting and also be captured in the life and eventual death of the physical painting itself.

Much more research on my part could answer some of these questions, but who has the time? It does raise some interesting questions.

Should the artistically intended lifespan of such works of art be respected? I always encounter in books and TV shows that try to deal with questions of mortality, life and death, an argument something along the lines that what makes life beautiful and worth living is that it is finite. Should the same be held true for inanimate objects, art, buildings, cities? I kind of enjoy the Romantic spirit behind the knowing creation of a work of art that like us only has a limited life until it will fade into death. In modern society this also does not mean the eradication of the painting altogether, there are countless reproductions and images of the such paintings in books and on the internet, so they would never be forgotten, and yet we obsessively cling to these objects. And maybe we should for future generations to enjoy and all that, but still, if da Vinci intended that the Mona Lisa should only exist for a few hundred years should it be continually restored and preserved against the will of the artist? Maybe it is a question of who art belongs to?

Welp, I’m not sure. Just some thoughts that are stuck in my craw, and now, maybe your craw.


The poem Bitumen by Karen Solie, that initially got me thinking on this topic, which you can hear excepts read by her on the May 2015 edition of The Poetry Magazine Podcast.

Callen, A 2000, The art of Impressionism: painting technique & the making of Modernity, Yale University Press.

Spiegelman, W 2009, ‘Revolutionary Romanticism’, The Wall Street Journal.


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