On Paintings and (a bit about) Cannibalism

I’m not sure if anyone else had to do this, but when Nighthawks and The Raft of the Medusa were mentioned I had to look them up to get any semblance of what Dante was talking about. Though I realized I had seen Nighthawks before, but I definitely have not seen or heard the supposed story behind “The Raft of the Medusa.” If you remember, Dante wrote in his letter to Ari the following: “Did I ever tell you what my favorite painting was? It’s The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. There’s a whole story behind that painting.” Today  I just wanted to explore that story a bit and see how it could relate to the novel.

The painting the Dante loves so much is, by most art historians, believed to be an icon of Romanticism. The painting depicts the wreckage of a French frigate off the coast of Senegal in 1816 while carrying over 150 soldiers on board. Géricault got inspiration for this painting by talking with two of the survivors of the wreck. The French Royal Navy frigate set sail in 1816 to colonize Senegal. The captain of the ship had not sailed in twenty years, so from his lack of practice, he managed to ground the ship on a sandbank accidentally. Because of this failure, the soldiers were forced to take lifeboats to the nearest shore, however, due to a shortage of lifeboats, the remaining 150 soldiers were forced to make a raft out of materials on the marooned ship. After 13 days at sea and making that death trap, only 10 soldiers survived of the initial 150. There was a lot of cannibalism that ensued while they were stranded for those 13 days.

Questions:

  1. Many believe that the painting The Raft of the Medusa “stands as a synthetic view of human life abandoned to its fate.” What do you think the author is trying to say with that being Dante’s favorite book?
  2. Is the painting Nighthawks important to the narrative at all? What affect does this allusion have on the narrative?
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5 thoughts on “On Paintings and (a bit about) Cannibalism

  1. I was also very curious as to why “The Raft of the Medusa” was Dante’s favorite painting despite the context behind it being so grim. I think one reason of this is that the painting is absolutely beautiful despite the tragic story it tells. It’s glorifying the situation and romanticizing the violence to be aesthetically pleasing and in many ways, Dante does that with life. He always has a positive outlook and he’s always optimistic about things. As for the quote that critics have said about the painting, in a way Dante also sympathizes with that. He’s basically abandoned to his own fate as well, being Mexican-American and gay, he can’t do anything about either. He voices his concerns about not being Mexican enough and his struggle with his identity but in the end it is who he is and he has to accept that and embrace it.

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  2. I think Nighthawks the the Raft of the Medusa are supposed to play off each other. The Raft of the Medusa is chaotic and full of people, while Nighthawks is a lonely scene with a lot of negative space. I think Dante’s affinity for these paintings betrays his inner conflict – his ambiguity over his identity and the sense that there’s nowhere he really belongs. Maybe Nighthawks represents the singularity he feels since he isn’t white but doesn’t consider himself Mexican either.

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  3. “The Raft of the Medusa” and “Nighthawks” are both paintings from the Western World. To me, when Dante referred to these paintings, I think it emphasized how complex Dante’s relationship with his identities, being Mexican-American but coming from a higher class as his father is a professor and does know these paintings. In addition, as you said Jim, “The Raft of the Medusa” displays a tragic story, but also, the bodies in the painting make a triangle from the dead at the bottom to the top where they are lifting an African slave to the top, which is why it made sense for me that this painting would be one of Dante’s favorites. Because rather than “The Raft of Medusa” being put together in a way that draws attention to a white person like in most Western paintings, Gércault puts the person of color at the forefront, pointing to Dante as he struggles with his Mexican-American identity. And to answer your first question of why Sáenz includes this book within the novel; this painting was controversial because it had an African slave as the focus in a Western Painting instead of a white person, as with Dante struggles with his Mexican-American identity

    I think “Nighthawks” plays a role in the narrative of emphasizing the loneliness Dante and Ari have. With “Nighthawks” having a diner off to the side at night with human figures interacting with one another but in a meaningless way, to me, it made me a bit sad when Dante referred to this painting as not only did I know how lonely Ari is but also Dante.

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  4. The paintings were certainly an interesting part of the narrative. I was glad that we also saw and discussed the works in class, because I too had not seen The Raft of the Medusa. Being described as Dante’s favorite painting eventually made sense when I read your description of it’s history. While being a lauded example of Romanticism, it’s content is decidedly morbid. Dante’s eloquence and manner of speaking belie his Romantic mind. He sees things in a brilliant light, usually optimistic. But the darker story of the painting also makes apparent that Dante’s light can also dim. He is fascinated with people and how they work just how Romantic painters were in expertly displaying their intense passions. The fear the Dante sometimes shows is subtle and rare, but it could suggest that his anxieties are deeper than he lets on. Especially those when it comes to Ari. We only got a small taste of it through the text after Ari and Dante’s first “kiss,” where Dante seems dismayed. He apparently did not get the outcome he was hoping for.

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  5. I really appreciate the fact that you took the time to look this up and bring it to class as I, and many other it appears, had never seen it or heard the story behind it. It is interesting to me that Dante would be attracted to such a morbid painting and backstory when he seems happy outwardly. It leads me to wonder about his inner struggles and the way he is really feeling, because even though we tend to see his emotion, I feel we never really know what is going on inside Dante’s head.

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