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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor