From La Meduse to the Titanic: Gericault’s Raft in Journalistic Illustration up to 1912
This essay discusses the practices of journalistic illustration in nineteenth-century weekly illustrated magazines in London: magazines such as the Illustrated London News and the Graphic. It focuses on the way that Géricault’s schema for representing shipwreck survivors in rafts and boats, mostly in the processes of rescue, was a resource for journalistic illustration in London. It concentrates on the period after 1880, ending with a discussion of the presence of ‘The Raft’ in reports of the Titanic’s sinking. The essay considers some of the ways in which Géricault’s schema may have been a resource in the mythopoetic response to the Titanic disaster.
The essay discusses the persistence of hand-made illustrations in the period of the ‘domestication’ of the half-tone screen (from the 1890s onwards), which introduced the photographic image (as distinct from hand-drawn or wood-engraved images derived from photographs) into magazine illustration. In doing this it engages with the ways in which the coexistence of (half-tone accounts of) hand-made pictures and of (half-tone accounts of) photographs in the pages of magazines of the ILN genre destabilized the truth-effects of hand-made illustration and threw the relative lack of affective power of the reportorial photograph into relief. It also discusses the implications for journalistic illustration of the difference between the telegram-speed ‘global-village-ization’ of the news community in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the ‘snail-mail’ speed of transoceanic communication of pictures, until after the end of the First World War.
The essay aligns the picture-making logic of journalistic illustration with that of easel painting, to think about both these visual-culture-production milieux in terms of the manipulation of inherited visual resources, on the one hand in the praxis of picture-making, and on the other in pursuit of visible intertextualities so as to make ‘publics’ and to gratify contemporary interpretative communities. To do this the essay looks briefly at some possible sources for Géricault’s pictorial solutions to his representational tasks, both narrative and political, and considers some occurrences of the ‘Medusa’ compositional schema and iconography in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, from the UK and elsewhere, in broadsheet imagery and in magazines and newspapers. It then identifies some of the ways in which journalistic illustrators of the end of the Titanic used Géricault’s schema as a way at once of fabricating and of adding resonance to their supposedly reportorial pictures.
The essay shows how ‘authorship’ of magazine illustration was collective and distributed, complicating the interpretation of visible intertextualities. This discussion of issues of interpretation will use the distinction between ‘publics’ and ‘audiences’, and consider the interpretative communities of reader-viewers of magazines of the ILN genre in the period c.1880 to c.1912 in relation to the interpretative and theoretical resources of the twenty-first-century art historian.
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