Martin Kippenberger was the sort who might crack a joke during a funeral procession, and it would probably be a self-abasing knuckle-biter. He had a coy sense for the tragicomic, a dipsomaniac with a diva’s fondness for the spotlight. His late work, Raft of Medusa (1996), recently on view at Carolina Nitsch accompanied by a pair of drawings on hotel stationary and a few collages, captures the anguish and urgency of a vivacious personality confronting a grave reality. One year after Kippenberger portrayed himself in the guise of Géricault’s dying men, the great German artist passed away from liver failure.
Raft of Medusa is comprised of fourteen lithographs, none of which approach the epic scale of Théodore Géricault’s 1819 masterpiece of Romantic melodrama.1 When the lithographs are collectively displayed, however, the effect is one of cumulative power. The series was hung salon style at Carolina Nitsch, a format that encourages one’s eyes to roam in a dynamic manner, connecting one scene to the next. This presentation sets up a parallel with Géricault’s masterpiece insofar as his painting, teeming with figures, was essentially a composition of interdependent images yoked into a particular formation. Géricault’s famous depiction is difficult to see all at once, not because the canvas is so large, but because the scene is so complex. Kippenberger’s work approximates that complexity by breaking it up, which might also be read as a metaphorical alternative to the outcome of the story. In Kippenberger’s version, the raft goes to pieces and no rescue boat arrives.
As Kippenberger surely knew, Géricault’s painting was the fruit of much research and many preparatory sketches, which seems to be the phase Kippenberger was most interested in recreating. Rather than copy from Géricault’s canvas, Kippenberger reenacted the work of the model. He arranged to have himself photographed in the positions of the desolate and desperate survivors pictured on the raft, and from these photographs he composed his pictures. Kippenberger’s loose draftsmanship and focus on the figure further corresponds with the drawings Géricault produced as he tested various arrangements in his search for an ideal portrayal.
Kippenberger’s sense of irreverence is legendary, and though Raft of Medusa has been described as a work of parody, I think it may also be an instance of sincere transference and even respect. The work neither lambasts nor celebrates the 19th-century studio tradition in which it was made, but rather pays it quiet homage, doleful as a dirge. It’s possible that Kippenberger identified with the historical scenario of Géricault’s painting, namely that of the fame-seeking young painter out to achieve his glory with a spectacular canvas writhing with horror and hope. It’s a disaster story in which Kippenberger could play every role, and those who read his inclusion of beer labels in the prints as evidence of playfulness have no idea of the true terror that addiction visits on the alcoholic mind.
One wonders, as Kippenberger posed as the survivors, how much of their suffering he tried to feel. Many of the figures in the lithographs are face down or expressionless. Others appear downcast or gazing upwards as if caught in moments of existential crisis or sudden realization. The will to survive is a central theme of Géricault’s painting—it’s the very reason for the raft, after all—but in Kippenberger’s version that will or instinct seems depleted and the figures more at ease with death’s looming presence. Of them all, the lithograph I found most chilling depicts a crude schematic the raft’s edge. It’s the image that proves Kippenberger’s research into Géricault’s painting went beyond the painting itself, but it also hones in on a very important division, quite literally for those on the raft, between the ocean and the floating vessel. One side held out the possibility for life, the other was almost certain death. If there is an argument for humor in this work it’s bound up in the punning caption below the raft, in the negative space that would be water. As I read it, the caption refers at once to the raft’s actual edge as well as to the historic tale upon which the picture is based. In hindsight, one might also read the caption as a haunted prophecy of the artist’s own death to come. It says, “the end.”
- The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) was based on an incident in which a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Africa. The captain filled the lifeboats with officers and dignitaries who were on board, and put the crew on a jury-rigged raft when was then cut loose. Of the 147 people originally placed on the raft, only 15 survived to be rescued 13 days later. Géricault’s imaginative reconstruction depicts a moment when the survivors see a ship on the horizon and try to attract its attention.