The Raft of the Medusa – are Utopian Visions still Thinkable?

Text and Image by Corinna Heumann

Answers to this question are given by young people on a theater stage with great matter-of-factness while being cast away on the Raft of the Medusa at the Bonn Werkstattbühne. After a shipwreck, as a survival strategy the castaways draft new worlds on the salvaging theater raft full of intrinsic energy and depth, astute observation, cleverness and natural musicality. On the one hand, their designs provide answers to the major questions of the present, on the other hand, they inspire reflections in new types of contexts of meaning. One should listen to them carefully, because without utopian visions there is neither art, nor culture, nor progress.

Generally, maritime images of voyages at sea are regarded as a romantic symbol for the journey of life, which finds its fulfillment with the landing in the peaceful harbor illuminated by the finite glow of the evening sun. Disaster strikes the Medusa instead: Survival strategies, solidarity, meaning and longing, responsibility and leadership are intensely negotiated by 10 young people. 

Collapse of Civilisation

The historical starting point is an unprecedented tragedy in 1816, which is the beginning of a long series of artistic expressions on individual and collective survival issues. At the time, only 15 of 150 shipwrecked people survived the sinking of a French Navy ship, the Medusa, cast away on a raft. The vessel had set sail from France with 400 people on board. At the coast of Africa ship aground. By cutting the rope, 150 people on the raft were abandoned to their fate, while the others made off in the insufficient number of lifeboats. Helpless, the raft drifted at sea for 13 days without food but a few barrels of wine. Cannibalism was to follow. Subsequent investigations by the French government revealed that corruption and nepotism were the causes of the captain’s incompetence and thus of the disaster. Their examination brought home to contemporaries the structural extent of the scandal. The minister of the navy was ousted. Mass layoffs occurred in the ministries.

Théodore Géricault (1791 – 1824)

After further extensive research into the shipwreck, countless sketches observing the sky and the sea, studies of corpses and the facial features of the dying, after conversations with survivors and a detailed scaled-down model of the raft made for the purpose, the young painter Théodore Géricault (1791 – 1824) began to paint the approximately 5 x 7 m painting in oil on canvas entitled Scene of a Shipwreck . In 1819, he exhibited his monumental depiction of this terrible struggle for survival at the Paris Salon. Viewers immediately realized that it was a real event, the Raft of the Medusa or Le Radeau de la Méduse. The relentlessly realistic imagery elevated the raft to the status of a symbol of civilization collapse, of the scandal that had rocked the French government a few years earlier. Today, the work by Théodore Géricault can be seen in the Louvre and, along with the Mona Lisa, is considered one of the most important paintings of French cultural heritage.

People as Victims of Corruption and Nepotism

For the first time in known art history, desperate people were depicted in detail as victims of documented corruption and nepotism, as victims of betrayal, violence and hunger in the moment of complete desperation, closer to death or perhaps life. Individual suffering was depicted monumentally. I found 15 people on this raft. These miserable people had been feeding on human flesh, and the ropes that held the mast were covered with pieces of that flesh, which they had hung to dry. So reported the captain of the rescuing vessel. Until then, such extraordinary formats were reserved for heroic and idealized representations of the powerful and influential. 

Horror in the Face of the Events

To this day, this catastrophe is echoed in the many forms of artistic expression. What they all have in common is the horror of the events along with the question of its most aesthetically effective realization. As early as the 19th century, these depictions established the shipwreck of Medusa as a symbol for the shipwreck of humanity, which is increasingly moving away from its own civilizational achievements and insights, destroying first its own livelihood, then itself.

The City of Benares

During the 2nd World War, the playwright, Georg Kaiser, again took up the theme of the painting for his play of the same title. The actual occasion was a newspaper report about the sinking of a British steamer, the City of Benares, with about 200 people on board by a German submarine on September 17, 1940. Among the shipwrecked were many children attempting to escape to Canada. Their story in turn inspired young people in 2023 to stage their socio-politically differentiated and stirring version of The Raft of the Medusa.

Big Bang

What a world that disintegrates a bit every day
In which there is no room for tomorrow and eats up the last remnants
Of my dignity
What if you go, to a new reality
Free of regret, pain and blood
My wounds would heal so well

You look out the window
Clouds that change
You don’t know if it’s an accident or the sky is breaking
Breaks before the evening.

A world full of fears, you know the ‘A’ word

I never wanted to study weapons and combat
Apocalypse, I can feel it, it’s coming
We must fight, come give me your hand
One last kiss with you by the roadside

– Linda Belinda Podszus, Werkstattbühne Bonn

Kommentar verfassen