A mob of agitated figures, limbs intertwined, with their pallid skin reflected in the murky sea - Théodore Géricault's agonising Raft of the Medusa (1819) is the 19th-century equivalent of James Cameron's 1997 Titanic, stripped of its fairy-tale romance. The painting depicts the survivors of the real-life shipwreck of a large French frigate near Morocco. Huddled together for nearly a month, deprived of food and fresh water, the 150 castaways started to kill and eat each other to stay alive.
This iconic image of French Romanticism was the starting point for many of the works in this exhibition, which also included 140 of Géricault's drawings and lithographs, from his Michelangelesque anatomical studies of horses to portraits and battle scenes, in the upstairs gallery. Downstairs were videos, installations, photographs and paintings - contemporary responses to his work by professors, graduates and students of the art school.
Starting with an enormous mural hung on the façade of the elegant building, many of these works attempted to deal with topical subjects in the manner of history painting. The mural, a collective effort, merged figures straight out of Géricault's overcrowded raft with images of contemporary boat people and immigrants seeking French asylum. Swarming with cops, firemen and ambulances, an immense night-time scene by Abel and Thomas Pradelié, evoked the frenzied atmosphere outside Paris' Port-Royal subway station after the bloody 1996 bombing, while Emmanuel Lacroix's charcoal drawing La Vache Folle (1998) depicted the terror of 'mad cow' disease, in a throng struggling to pull a cow down a crowded cobblestone street.
Though impressive in attempting to take on today's political and social tensions and ambitious in execution and sheer scale, such works fell far short of their goal. Too literal, some mimicked violent action through bold colour and spontaneous brushwork. Others mirrored Géricault's subject matter, though were not always political (one work, reflecting his detailed studies of horses, was a video close-up of a horse in motion). But despite the breathtaking beauty and faultless draughtsmanship of his work, Géricault's deep power goes beyond the visual.
At moments, many of the contemporary works are closer in spirit to his morbidly gothic style, as is the case with Annette Messager's freakish Chimères (1983), a grotesque series of nine decapitated heads hanging upside down on a wall, their eyes bulging, blood dripping from their chins. The detached heads may represent the rejection of rationalism, Romanticism's exaltation of emotion over intellect, a turning in on the self. Fragmentation of the body is typical of Messager's oeuvre, and her detached photographs of eyes, mouths, penises and breasts are often impaled, tethered, skewered, or tightly framed seemed strangely suggestive of the heads or hooves in Géricault's encyclopaedic anatomical studies. Messager was one of the few artists whose work approached Géricault's rigour, anxiety and compulsiveness; and his capacity to offer up un-prettified truths (while preparing for the Raft of the Medusa he spent several months in a roomful of amputated limbs and severed heads).
Unfortunately, the majority of contemporary works looked weak, even childish in comparison. They were unable to compete with the drama and force of works that match Coleridge's texts or Beethoven's Eroica. Here, Géricault's intimate works on paper dwarfed everything in sight. His exquisite studies of men and horses, hung beside images of exhausted soldiers wounded in Napoleonic battles, portraits captured while strolling the streets of London or Rome, cadavers, executions and wretched mental patients, fulfil what Agnes Martin once described as making art 'so beautiful it hurts'.
Uneven as the exhibition was, it did suggest a conception of Géricault that shook up his image as the prototypical Romantic hero - a precocious, self-taught, dandified rebel who died at 33, whose theatrical paintings mirrored a turbulent inner life. It revealed instead a meticulous scholar of anatomy; a pioneering technician who was one of the first in France to make lithographs; an activist responding to the political tensions and social unrest of his time; and an artist whose work remains pointedly relevant, capable of touching on both the sublime and the terrible.