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.

Arts and Entertainment
music

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain