AFTER THE RAFT OF THE MEDUSA
Several different factors combine to make John Beard’s monumental painting after Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa  not so much a reproduction as a reflection: in other words, a work that encourages us to think creatively and constructively about the role of Western painting as it has developed over the past two centuries.
Despite his early death, Géricault was a pivotal figure in the decisive shift from the academic tradition to a self–directed mode of working. At the same time, in this particular composition, he built upon existing tendencies to establish a new kind of relationship with the spectator, one which [it is claimed] would lead indirectly to the rise of abstraction. He himself took the initiative of circulating full–scale versions of the original work which were shown to the public in London and Dublin, receiving a mixed response. He would surely not have been disconcerted to see the tonal range of his painting converted into a scale of black and white. - S. BANN
A response from Barry Pearce, former Head Of Australian Art AGNSW
John's vision of The Raft of the Medusa allows one to inhabit the horrifying, almost uninhabitable Romantic grandeur of the great masterpiece and comprehend its powerful beauty better. No mean feat.
I recalled the Kenneth Clark passage regarding Velasquez when standing in front of your panels based on The Raft of the Medusa; thinking about Manet looking at Velasquez and how his revelation of the Spanish master's texture, yet reining in the energy of execution with hard borders had such a quintessential influence of the modern movement in France (a bit like Delacroix's response to Constable I suppose).
I think in your own way you too are looking to unravel the mystery of these great masterpieces but you secure the vision through a delicate system of tessellated marks, a process of engagement in your own language which is totally legitimate. Further, you seem to transmute an overpowering Romantic statement into something intimate. Quite miraculous really, like climbing inside and being caressed and absorbed by Gericault's neurones.
"One should be content to accept it without question, but one cannot look for long at Las Meninas without wanting to find out how it is done. I remember that when it hung in Geneva in 1939 I used to go very early in there morning, before the gallery was open, and try to stalk it, as if it were really alive. (This is impossible in the Prado, where the hushed and darkened room in which it hangs is never empty.) I would start from as far away as I could, when the illusion was complete, and come gradually nearer, until suddenly what had been a hand, and a ribbon, and a piece of silver, dissolved into a salad of beautiful brush strokes. I thought I might learn something if I could catch the moment at which this transformation took place, but it proved to be as elusive as the moment between waking and sleeping." - KENNETH CLARK
'After The Raft of the Medusa' at the Gallway International Arts Festival, 2017
For the 2017 Galway International arts Festival the artist created a second, much darker, life-size mirrored version from his first painting called After the Raft of the Medusa. The installation of both of Beard’s enormous works hang 30 metres apart directly opposite each other in a site specific installation which utilised the old fish shed on the docks at Galway. Questions about aspects of reality, illusion, imagination and memory are offered to the viewer.
Review of Beard's 'After The Raft of the Medusa' at the Gallway International Arts Festival, 2017, by Peter Hill
Currently in Ireland, John Beard’s latest, monumental, work After The Raft of the Medusa, is at the centre of the Galway International Arts Festival, and is the talk of the town. Galway is a vibrant arts city of some 80,000 people, and has just won the accolade of European City of Culture for 2020. Be prepared to hear much more from this westerly outcrop of the Emerald Isle over the next three years.
John Beard has always worked in series. Some are interlinked, as with the large self-portraits of his own distinctive bald head, looking like a monolithic rock. Or his series of actual monolithic rock paintings that look unnervingly like human heads, from the coasts of Portugal and New Zealand, to the red centre of Australia. With each series, Beard becomes ever more ambitious. Recently, he has painted life-size interpretations of iconic paintings from art history that have long fascinated him. These paintings from the past, all made to the original dimensions, are his subject matter – that is a better term than interpretations – just as sunflowers were Van Gogh’s subject matter, electric chairs were Warhol’s, or reflector road-signs were Rosalie Gascoigne’s. Picasso paid similar homage to artists from the classical canon, occasionally combining his love for, and rivalry with, two other painters in the same image, as in Les femmes d’Algiers (Version ‘O’). This was a tribute to Matisse, begun after his death in 1954, but was also a homage to Delacroix’s painting of the same subject. Now in his mid-seventies, painting and conceptualising better than ever, Welsh-born Australian Beard, who trained at London’s Royal College of Art, latest work turns his imagination on Géricault’s monumental Raft of the Medusa. The original is an astonishing 491cm x 716cm (16 feet by 24 feet). Not only has Beard transformed this tragedy, at exactly the same size, into his own painting, he has created a second, much darker, digitised version. These two now sit in The Shed, an enormous arts venue in Galway, and reflect each other across the 30 metre space necessary to take in both gargantuan creations. Like many of Beard’s portraits, these works sit at the edge of perception, particularly the digital version that resonates like an Ad Reinhardt painting of a black cross on a black background. The longer you stare at it, the more it gives back to you. Gradually it blooms within the human retina, but the mechanical camera is still unable to record its subtleties. To stand, alone, in between Beard’s – what shall I call it? – “stereo echo chamber,” gave me an epiphany similar to being in Tate’s Rothko room, or lying on my back in Tasmania, as I was a few weeks ago, looking up at the dawn sky through one of James Turrell’s awesome (a rare, but correct, use of the word) light pavilions.
I arrived at the opening in Galway just as Stephen Bann, Cambridge Slade Professor of Art History, was introducing the narrative behind Géricault’s original painting and Beard’s 21st Century expanded doubles, to a packed house. In 1819, for the queuing crowds, Géricault’s painting would be the equivalent of a blockbuster movie combined with the gossip of a soap opera.
“Several different factors combine to make Beard’s monumental painting After The Raft of the Medusa not so much a reproduction as a reflection,” Bann said. “In other words, a work that encourages us to think creatively and constructively about the role of Western painting as it has developed over the past two centuries... Géricault himself took the initiative of circulating full- scale versions of the original work, which were shown to the public in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, receiving a mixed response. He would surely not have been disconcerted to see the tonal range of his painting converted, by Beard, into a scale of black and white.”
Géricault and Beard both spent an entire year working on their masterpieces. Géricault would occasionally nip down to the morgue to research the stiffened limbs of real drowning victims, with one report seeing him return to the studio with a severed head to closer study the make-shift butchery of cannibalism. He also interviewed survivors from the wreck; sat in on the trail of the ship’s captain Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, and employed the builder of the Medusa’s raft to construct a scale model for his studio.
The finished painting, and Beard’s versions, commemorate the tragic events of July 1816 when the French frigate Medusa sank off the West African coast. The traumatised and increasingly starving band of survivors (150 to start with, whittled down eventually to only 15, and 20 having committed suicide on the first night), struggling on the keeling raft, evoke the same empathy and horror as 21st Century news-feeds from the Mediterranean, of refugees capsizing in rubber inflatables and over- packed fishing vessels, or John Howard’s particular brand of fake news about “babies overboard”, in the heat of an Australian election campaign. This painting, raft-like in its size, quickly became a floating charnel house, as the dwindling number of survivors resorted first to chewing their leather belts and felt hats to stay alive, then to murder, and finally, as the darkness grew yet darker, to the submarine blackness of cannibalism.
As at most arts festivals – Manchester’s has just closed, and the biggest of them all, Edinburgh’s, is about to open – visual arts exhibitions often run for a shorter period than the length of most museum shows. However, Beard’s installation sits in the centre of a four-year bicentenary period, bookended by the actual Medusa tragedy in July 1816, and Géricault’s memorialisation of the event, first viewed in public at the Paris Salon of 1819. It would be fitting if Beard’s installation - the painted component’s already sold to an Australian collector for a seven-figure sum - could similarly be seen at various venues in Australia and internationally. The darkness of its subject matter – involving first murder, and then cannibalism, as the doomed sailors fought a Darwinian battle for survival – would be perfect for David Walsh’s MONA (perhaps Dark Mofo, in 2019, or the next The National exhibition in Sydney, which commendably seems to have a mandate for combining senior artists with emerging talent), although in the case of Walsh he would probably have to design a special gallery for it, as he did for Sidney Nolan’s 46 metre long Snake (1972 – 74).
Yet when Géricault first exhibited his original in 1819, despite a few good reviews, he was devastated that, although it won a gold medal, the Louvre did not buy it for its permanent collection. He cheered up in 2020, however, when it was exhibited in London. Géricault’s take of ticket sales on the door was 20,000 French francs, which the website “Historical Currency Convertor” tells me, adjusted for inflation, would today be worth 25.5 million euros. That sounds a lot to me, but sadly it didn’t do Géricault much good. Tragically, he died of tuberculosis in 1824 at the age of 32, a life just as romantic but even shorter than Van Gogh’s. Soon after his death, the Louvre acquired Géricault’s Raft. It now hangs, on the other side of a large scrum of international tourists, just beyond Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. - PETER HILL, 2017