Wrecking the Raft of the Medusa

If you want to learn about Géricault’s great painting, look elsewhere
March 3, 2022
Wreck: Géricault’s Raft and the Art of Being Lost at Sea
Tom de Freston
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org
Prospect receives commission when you buy a book using this page. Thank you for supporting us.

Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa is one of the most significant works of history painting. It depicts the traumatic real-life event of 1816, when a ship’s crew were left to fend for themselves on a manmade raft after the sinking of their vessel off west Africa. Wreck, the first non-fiction work by artist Tom de Freston, is not the book to read if you want to learn much about Géricault or The Raft. Instead, both are used here as springboards for de Freston to probe his own life and creative process—and what these reveal about the role of trauma in art.

Between idle musings on art and a plodding semi-fictionalised account of Géricault’s life, de Freston describes a recent artistic collaboration he undertook with Ali Souleman, a Syrian academic left blind by a bomb attack. Stitched together, the result is often painfully without focus, pinballing between its disparate strands and literary digressions.

Some of the things that de Freston touches on—such as his battles with mental illness or Souleman’s experiences of sectarian conflict and civil war, not to mention the hundreds left dead when the Medusa sank in 1816—are undoubtably traumatic. But their impact is undermined by de Freston’s overwritten prose, which veers from the glib platitude (“the journey will be as important as the destination”) to the unintentionally comic (“a man, perhaps dead… flops over the body of another, as if risen from fellatio”).

With Wreck, de Freston has attempted to make a craft from the flotsam of his life experience that will carry us to some distant shore, a place where we might better understand the mysteries of the creative process. Unfortunately, his raft is only large enough to carry one passenger: himself.