John Beard: After the Raft of the Medusa

John Beard’s ideas and art practice have been dominated over the last year by his repainting of Théodore Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’. “To make it elusive, to make it sit on the very edge of perception. To make quieter its loudness. To calm and still the image. To demand more attention from the viewer. To depreciate the romanticism. To draw the viewer into and through the surface. To dissolve it.”

Beard’s ‘After The Raft of the Medusa’ is a very black version on a white linen. The painting’s first showing will be at William Wright Artist Projects, Sydney, this March. The encounter of the painting with the project space will be fascinating.

The artist was first confronted by the size of Géricault’s 5 x 7metre painting. Beard has divided Géricault’s picture into 24 equal square linen panels. This means the work can easily be moved and can be arranged according to any space in which it is to be exhibited. The grid has the effect of engaging the viewer both with the vast whole image, and, simultaneously each separate section, so that one has the impression of the piece changing, from one into many parts.

However, this is not to say it is as infinitely rearrangeable as, for example, Rosalie Gascoigne’s ‘Piece To Walk On’ (1984). Beard wants to engage our intellect rather than invite us to participate.

Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ was painted at the peak of European Romanticism. It depicts the horrifying fate of sailors dying on a raft after the shipwreck of the French frigate Medusa off the West African coast, 200 years ago, in July 1816. The event caused a scandal. Gericault spent 18 months preparing to paint the work, interviewing the two survivors about the inadequacy of the lifeboats, the cannibalism and deaths on the raft. To accurately depict the gruesome reality he visited the Hospital Beaujon morgue, Paris, meticulously studying decaying bodies. The painting was finished in 1819.

At first view one understands the importance of the grid in Beard’s painting. His use of the grid and only two materials: black oil paint and wax, to present an image so popular and so fixed in the romantic canon, is intended to force the viewer to consider the idea that minimal materials can be inventive and experimental, can expand ideas about painting.

One also realises the act of painting comes first for Beard. Ideas are important, but secondary to painting. As each panel distinguishes a section of Géricault’s original, the water, the sky, the raft, sail, and the bodies within each panel seem to dissolve from the original composition, suggesting a new reality beyond the perimeter of the grid. Beard did not know how the composition would present itself until he mapped out his work and the grid. He meticulously did his preparatory drawing by making a precise image of the original, its dimensions provided by the Louvre. Without this data, accurately painting within the grid would have been impossible, and the painting’s quietly evolving image within each square uneven. Each panel in Beard’s work has a calm intimacy. The magical symmetry of the grid reworks the horrific focus of Géricault’s painting.

‘After The Raft of the Medusa’ is the most unconcealed Postmodernist approach to Romanticism. This is due both to Beard’s appropriation of the image, and the key formal elements of replicating the scale and rendering the work in black tones. Beard does not want to romanticise the subject. He has for some time been fascinated with the essence of representation. His brushstrokes are apparent, the paint applied in a continuous and considered manner like little descriptive moments carefully crossed-hatched into six graduated tones and with two underpainting tones. Beard’s familiar black oil paint compounded with wax moves softly from light to dark in this painting, in a manner comparable to a watercolour. Up close the viewer can examine each stroke; yet the familiar image is only clearly understood when one steps back. Here is Beard’s other important theme, “perception” in representation. One can sense he is almost forgetting the subject of Géricault’s image to enable him to express his feelings in the act of painting, to elevate our spirits. In a way it’s not about what we see from Gericault, but what Beard has created for us.

For Beard, (unlike his heroes Velasquez, Rembrandt and Goya), the Romantics are too distant from the essence of painting itself. Beard looks to photography, to Cartier-Bresson, not only for his term “the decisive moment” in photography, but for his spatial ambiguity. The way the wet ground mirrors the heavens. In this manner Beard’s gridded, painted skies and oceans transform into aerial satellite topographies or rural fields.
After more than 15 years of painting with black oils, Beard has hinted that colour might slowly creep back into his work. As he explains, “I’ve done a lot of very dark work and next year I’m going to start bringing colour back into the work. At least I think I am, but I may not.”

As William Wright explained in 2014, “John (Beard) is a painter … who you need to find, you need to discover. I have been watching over the years, you get this sense of looking … over time you see it takes on another dimension. John is an artist like that.”

John Beard: After the Raft of the Medusa
11 March – 2 April 2016
William Wright Artists Projects

There is also a floor talk with the artist and Nicholas Tsoutas at 4pm, Saturday 12 March

Additional works
• Edition of photogravure copper plate etchings (two editions, one in black and one in red);
A unique state edition ‘TinType’ etching, comprises 24 individual tin plates; (the etchings are based on Beard’s painting, After the Raft of the Medusa, printed in collaboration with Bill Moseley).

• A quarter scale version of the full scale painting, 250 x 325cm, with 24 photographs on carbon fibre paper, each mounted on aluminium.

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