Clinging to Life: An Examination of Gail Potocki’s “The Raft of the Medusa”

Amongst humans there is an inherent fascination with the sea and with the water from which we once sprang.  Over the years we have come to understand not only the life-giving and life-sustaining necessity of our oceans, but also the primal beauty of them.  Because of water’s inconstancy and ability to adapt to its environment, it has been used as a representation of the human emotional condition, but also as a symbol for the vast cosmos with its many changes and unknowns.  We have imbued water with symbolic importance, as we have observed the connection between the tides and the cycle of the moon, and how those cycles reflect the very changes of human and animal life on Earth.  We have created myths and fables: of seductive water nymphs and sirens who lure sailors to their dooms; of indomitable gods and goddesses who were borne of and ruled over the seas; of heroes whose mightiest weapons were plucked from mystic waters; and of babies sent in rafts either to meet their demise or to seek sanctuary by divine providence in new lands.

The image of the shipwreck has permeated all cultures as a cautionary metaphor for what happens when we drive ourselves too far, ignorant of the many consequences, or when we allow ourselves to be seduced by convenience and comfort rather than rationality.  Where once the shipwreck was a symbol of human failure or death, today, with the advances of technology allowing for mass transportation of passengers and cargo, the shipwreck is frequently a disaster not only for those immediately affected.  It is also a disaster for the environment and for the thousands of different forms of aquatic life that must survive, or do not survive as so often is the case, through the aftermath.  So, it should come as no surprise that there must be a cautious equilibrium between ourselves and the oceans lest we wish to face catastrophe.

“The Raft of the Medusa” by Gail Potocki (2012, Oil on linen, custom frame).   Taking her title from Théodore Géricault’s 19th Century painting of the same name, Gail Potocki has created another masterpiece of environmental symbolism.  This particular painting is both a lament for the destruction of nature in the past and warning of the inevitable effects should such destruction continue unchecked.

 

The idea that a man-made tragedy can now take a great toll on non-human life as well and wreak havoc upon the environment and ecosystems is the predominant theme in Gail Potocki‘s 2012 painting, “The Raft of the Medusa“.  The painting is a stark work of environmental symbolism that summons up an unforgettable image of a catastrophic shipwreck, which leaves in its wake a fire and plumes of smoke, a slick of oil on the ocean, and various birds and animals desperately clinging onto a woman, who represents all of humankind, for survival.  While the proverbial rats leave the sinking ship and turn the woman’s collar into a makeshift raft, birds doused in thick oil panic and struggle to survive as they flail their wings trying to free themselves from the crude.  The woman, who is garbed in an opulent dress and seemingly oblivious to the destruction and turmoil around her, discards a partially eaten apple with insouciance.  Upon that apple is a sticker with a bar code, a further reminder of humanity’s attempt to control and capitalize upon nature at nature’s expense.  In Gail’s own words, “I’ve often used the apple as a symbol of the Earth.”

Detail from “The Raft of the Medusa” by Gail Potocki (2012, Oil on linen).  The woman’s hand lets go of the apple from which she has bitten into, letting it fall into the sea.  The apple, which represents the Earth or the environment, has been used as a resource, a mere commodity, harnessed by humankind to suit their purposes and then unlovingly discarded.  Meanwhile, the oil-soaked birds flail in distress around the woman.

Detail from Gail Potocki’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (2012, Oil on linen). Here, we can see the rats as they become dependent upon the woman, clinging to her collar for survival from the wreck which her species was responsible for.  Standing on the back of her collar is a Vacanti mouse.  The Vacanti mouse or “earmouse” as it has commonly been referred, was a SCID mouse (severe combined immunodeficiency), which are frequently used for research in biology.  The Vacanti mouse had bovine cartilage grown under its skin, which then developed into the shape of an ear.  Experimentation on rats and other rodents is yet another example of how humans have benefited from nature and from creatures for our own gain.

 

The title of Gail’s painting is an appropriation of and homage to Théodore Géricault‘s 1819 painting Le Radeau de la Méduse, which was one of his best known works and is a cornerstone of 19th Century French Romantic movement in art.  Géricault’s painting was an ambitious work by which the French artist hoped to secure his place among the great Romantic painters of his day.  Inspired by the 1816 wreck of the naval frigate, the Méduse, off the coast of what is now modern-day Mauritania.  This wreck was attributed primarily to the inexperience and incompetence of its captain, the Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumereys.  The ship was poorly navigated and had drifted a hundred miles off of its charted course, which lead to it running aground on a sandbank in West Africa.  The ship carried over 400 people, of which 160 were crew members, but the capacity of the life boats was only 250 people.  Those who could not be afforded room in the lifeboats built a makeshift raft, which was intended to be towed by the lifeboats, but the 147 people upon the raft was too great a number and almost immediately the raft began to take on water, so the raft was cut loose and the people on it left to their own devices.  Within the first day, they had eaten the only food they had and their drinking water was lost amidst an on-board scuffle.  The survivors were driven mad by exposure to the elements and starvation.  Weak, malnourished, and mutinous, they began to turn on each other, eventually resorting to murder and cannibalism.  By the time a rescue crew attempted to save those on the raft, only fifteen of the 147 people were still alive.  The rest had perished by starvation, by sickness, by being consumed as food, or by being thrown into the sea and some of those did so of their own volition.  The resulting press surrounding the tragedy became a scandal and an embarrassment for the French monarchy.

“Le Radeau de la Méduse” by Théodore Géricault (Oil on canvas, 1819).  In selecting the subject matter for what he hoped would be the painting that brought him acclaim, Géricault chose to depict the harrowing moment in which the fifteen survivors of 147 upon the raft see in the distance an approaching vessel sent to rescue them.  Géricault had thought that he could rise to prominence by featuring the wreck of the Méduse and its survivors as his theme, however, the painting became controversial during its 1819 unveiling at the Paris Salon in part due to its aesthetic departure from the serenity of the Neo-Classical, but also due to the sensitive subject matter and the heightened emotional response it elicited.

Gail Potocki‘s painting echoes some of the same themes as Géricault’s, such as the struggle to survive in the wake of disaster and the incompetence and arrogance of mankind.  While Géricault’s painting was inspired by the wreck of the Méduse, Gail took her inspiration from more recent disasters such as the Exxon Valdez in 1989.  The analogy is there and basically the same, but the great difference is that over the years we have better developed our ability to save human lives through safety precautions and rescue efforts, however, so often lessening the devastation wrought upon nature and wildlife isn’t made a priority until it’s too late.

An oil-soaked bird from the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

A detail from “The Raft of the Medusa” by Gail Potocki (2012, Oil on linen).  All too true to life, Gail’s meticulously detailed and emotionally wrought depiction of the birds covered in oil is representative of the thousands of birds who have been affected by oil spills and similar man-made calamities.  Through her art, we are allowed to experience their anguish, to empathize with them, and to accept that there must be change.

 

Eventually we must ask ourselves:  What happens when we overestimate our own abilities and underestimate nature?  Any conflict which arises from such a circumstance almost invariably sees a drastic loss in life, though not always human, and yet there are often consequences of horrendous proportions which some of us choose to see while others do not.  We have a responsibility to ensure that the planet we depend on, and that all systems of life depends on, is taken seriously and respected.  Nature is not to be trifled with.  This theme, this reverential treatment of nature has oft been expressed in poetry and the arts, as has the warning for humankind not to let their ambitions outreach their grasp.  Gail’s environmental paintings are a bold, always beautiful yet often unsettling, and essential reminder that we are a part of nature, that our actions do carry with them an effect (be it for good or bad), so there must be an attempt to protect the natural world around us or accept that its demise will also be our own.

– Sean

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