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Géricault, Théodore: Study of Truncated Limbs (1818-19)

What's funny? In his philosophical study Laughter, Henri Bergson said that the essence of comedy was the triumph of dead matter over living spirit. A man falls over in the street. A person is a slave to their bodily needs. A character is fixed in a repetitive psychological pattern. These are basic comic situations. We laugh whenever human behaviour is rigid, compulsive, automatic. "We laugh every time a person gives the impression of being a thing."

In his book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler was having none of that. He retorted: "If we laugh each time a person gives the impression of being a thing, there would be nothing more funny than a corpse."

It's a good knockdown answer. But it's not quite the last word. For the fact is, corpses are funny. True, they may not be funny in life (so to speak), but they can certainly be very funny in art. They're good material for comedy. A cadaver on stage or screen is often a comic item. It's something that's got to be concealed. It must be lugged about with great difficulty. It has to be temporarily passed offasalivingbody. It won't stay properly dead' it keeps falling into lifelike postures.

Corpse-comedy is found in Joe Orton's play Loot, and the episode ofFawlty Towers where one of the guests dies, and the film Weekend at Bernie's ("Bernie may be dead, but he's still the life of the party!"). The basic joke goes two ways. Sometimes a corpse is like an extremely obstinate, uncooperative person who refuses to make any effort or response. And sometimes a corpse is like a weirdly animated object, a thing that can't help showing signs of life, involuntarily embracing or bashing or leaning affectionately on some other party.

A cadaver is like a person who gives the impression of being a thing - or, conversely, like a thing that gives the impression of being a person. At least, that's where the comic potential of corpses lies. It doesn't mean that a corpse is always comic. It means only that a corpse is an inherently troubling entity, an unstable hybrid of a person and a thing. Comedy is one way of bringing this trouble out, not the only way.

Théodore Géricault's Study of Truncated Limbs is obviously not a comic picture. You may well find it a troubling one. Its subject is simple: a bundle of severed human limbs, piled up in a raking light. Géricault painted it when he was working on his most ambitious work, The Raft of the Medusa. This image of broken body parts, borrowed from a morgue, could almost be a detail from some massacre or disaster -except that there's no evidence of a wider catastrophe.

What you have here is a still life. It fits the traditional bill. It's an arranged display of inanimate objects on a table-top. And that's where the trouble starts. A still life should have a lifeless subject, yes, but it should be a safe lifelessness, not the kind that makes you think of death. Vegetables are OK, and sometimes dead birds and rabbits' acceptable foods. Dead humans, especially chopped up, are not. The subject is much too highly charged for still life's calm compositions. To make lopped-off human body parts into an artistic display is cruelly objectifying and dehumanising. What these things need is a decent burial.

Still, you might get away with it, if you played down their humanness. If you gave these limbs a medical presentation, as cool examples of anatomical dissection, it might not feel so cruel. That's just what Géricault doesn't do. He fills them with pseudo-animation. He arranges this pile of human hands and feet to resemble living body parts. It's a savage reminder - by contrast - of how dead and mangled they are.

It's like a love scene. The chunk of shoulder, arm and hand, with a bloody bandage still on the upper arm, lies in a languorous curl around the soft heel of the left foot. A fingertip just brushes a toe. It could be a glimpse of post-coital bodies, lying head to foot in a flopped tangle. The embracing darkness half-covers the dismemberment of the parts. The warm chiaroscuro adds dreaminess. You see sleepy limbs lolling in shadow, a nocturnal idyll. Then, the wrenched wound at the shoulder breaks the dream. The drooping relaxation of these hands and feet has quite another cause.

Study ofTruncated Limbs brings out the full troubling ambiguity of the corpse. It plays life against death, person against thing, loving gesture against ruined flesh, caressing touch against open wounds. The most gentle human situation and the most brutal are brought together. Sustaining it all is a kind of pun, in the similarity between the sleep of satisfied desire and the inertia of death.

The image is like an over-literal realisation of the old equation of orgasm and dying. And the comparison goes further. By showing sex between dead body parts, Géricault evokes the way that any sex may involve fragmentation and objectification - in the attention that gets lavished on isolated bits of the body, in the pleasures of total passivity. In fact, this isn't just a good painting of corpses. It's a good painting, simply, of sex.

One of very few. Western painting, for all the intensity it brings to the human body, hardly ever does sex. It does rape. It does violence. It does solitary nakedness. But two people having normal, mutual sex? Art leaves that to pornography. There is no proper sex-painting. It's the most shameful omission. But Géricault, in an incredibly roundabout way, and tackling a far more shocking subject, gives a clue as to what such painting might be like.