Call me Ishmael. Martin Kippenberger completed The Raft of the Medusa portfolio in 1996, one year before his untimely death at the age of 44. Martin Kippenberger: The Raft of the Medusa at Carolina Nitsch Project Room comprises the complete portfolio of fourteen lithographs, as well as a selection of drawings and collages related to the portfolio.
There is something inherently message-in-a-bottle-like about the printmaking process. Making serial imagery in multiples speaks to the frailty of art: it is the hope of the collector of a print edition that attrition in the series will result in one's ultimately owning that last one of its kind, turning the multiple into a unique work of art. Printmaking, more than any other artistic discipline, recognizes the impermanence of objects and the transitory nature of making art.
In these prints Kippenberger casts himself as the various figures in the famous painting The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819) by Théodore Géricault. That massive canvas, completed in 1819, is an icon of French Romanticism and depicts the tragedy that took place in 1816 when a French Royal Navy frigate ran aground off the west coast of Africa. Due to the shortage of lifeboats, 150 of the ship's less well-off passengers hastily built a raft measuring 20 × 60 feet and were set adrift for twelve days. When they were rescued, only fifteen remained; the others died of starvation, were killed or thrown overboard, or threw themselves into the sea in despair. Géricault conducted extensive research on his subject by interviewing survivors, making preparatory sketches from subjects at a morgue, and creating a scale model of the raft.
Similarly, Kippenberger enlisted his wife and photographer Elfie Semotan to document him posing as the tortured subjects in Géricault's painting, which he used as reference for the lithographs and paintings. One of the prints illustrates a segment of the raft, and Kippenberger even had a carpet woven with a diagram of the raft. Kippenberger's project is, in some way, an homage to Géricault and 19th-century studio practice, but also an irreverent parody.
Werner Büttner, a painter and friend, called Kippenberger "a virtuoso at giving offense." In two of the prints Kippenberger is reenacting the role of the pinnacle character in Géricault's painting who is waving a cloth to get the attention of a ship in the distance. However, Kippenberger depicts himself in the same pose in front of a background of appropriated alcohol labels, vying for the attention of an audience. Kippenberger's body, atrophied and bloated through years of struggle with alcoholism, is in stark contrast to the emaciated, dying victims in Géricault's painting. Many of the prints, though, appear to be an honest reverence to Géricault's subjects, alluding to and psychologically embodying their harrowing ordeal and suffering.
Kippenberger was fond of skewed aphorisms. The title of his last poem, written shortly before his death, perhaps best encapsulates his life and "The Raft of the Medusa" in particular: "Never give up before it's too late."
The drama's done. Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck. I floated on a soft and dirge-like main...the unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.... - Bradley Rubenstein
The Carolina Nitsch Project Room is at 534 West 22nd Street, New York, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.