Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, in her essay “Gericault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” (1992) argues that the intention behind Théodore Géricault’s artworks which depict disembodied heads and limbs was to critique early 19th-century policies surrounding capital punishment. Through analysis of Théodore Géricault’s Guillotined Heads (1818-1819) and his Severed Limbs (1818-1819), Athanassoglou-Kallmyer advocates for an interpretation of the works that considers the context and content of the images, as well as the intent behind the painter. Her reading is more warranted than traditional art historical interpretations of the works, which viewed the set of images as studies for Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818). Athanassoglou-Kallmyer does, however, make a few illogical leaps when it comes to making assertions about the intentions of Gericault himself—the art historian reaches unjustified conclusions with reference to the artist’s preparatory work, and also makes essentializing claims about Gericault’s political affiliations and the way they manifest in his art. Overall, however, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer presents a convincing, insightful argument that allows for a more wholesome reading of the works as well as an understanding of their significance in the greater scheme of art history.
In her essay, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer supports her thesis by highlighting three key areas surrounding the artworks which traditional art historians have neglected to explore. More specifically, she discusses the preparations Gericault made in order to produce the works, the political affiliations of the artist, and the greater sociopolitical context of early 19th-century France. Examination of Gericault’s process is critical to the way Athanassoglou-Kallmyer counters the traditional art-historical interpretation of Gericault’s severed heads and limbs, readings of the works as studies. Analysis of the artist’s process is a compelling argument in its ability to dismiss the reductionist interpretation of the paintings as mere studies—once she dispels that idea, it opens up room for her own thoughts which become difficult to dispute. However, one must remember that it is difficult to ever truly know the intent of any artist, especially one that has been dead for two hundred years. Much of Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s analysis revolves around small methodological details that she ascribes heavy meaning to. For example, she points to the fact that a live model was used for the female figure in Guillotined Heads. To Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, that detail is enough to warrant her argument that the paintings represent more than ghastly still-lifes, and instead the psychological horror of decapitation. The author writes, “Trivial as it may sound, this detail is nevertheless significant. For it demonstrates a particular intent on the part of the artist, and, conversely, a particular theme in the painting” (603). While small decisions made by the artist might seem unimportant at first, the artistic is critical because each preliminary decision Gericault made when preparing for the final artwork is reflected in the theme of the artwork. Since Gericault did not leave a written declaration of the intent behind his works, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer resorts to analyzing the record of his artistic process. Every action has an intention, so in order to fully understand the artwork’s theme, analysis has to begin before the final painting was even completed.
Her second point of pontification revolves around the political affiliations of Gericault. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer follows his travels to Rome and London, locations where the artist witnessed and recorded public executions. These anecdotes set up the artist’s alleged political interest in and opposition to capital punishment, which Athanassoglou-Kallmyer uses as evidence for the paintings’ contents. The art historian argues, “Calling forth the social and cultural dimensions of Gericault’s works, therefore, seems not only inevitable but also necessary for a fuller understanding of their meaning and of the strategies by which they convey it” (603). Artistic process does not exist in a vacuum—personal political opinion might very well influence Gericault’s hand while painting. Regardless, it is an essentializing claim to state that, just because the artist attended public executions and produced artwork based off of them in past travel journals, the same message is contained in the paintings Guillotined Heads and Severed Limbs.
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer strengthens her claims about Gericault’s personal political stance by bringing in a wider consideration of the political and cultural climates within the artist’s environment, early 19th-Century France. Visits to public executions abroad may have not influenced Gericault’s work greatly, but something that would have were larger political institutions and cultural norms that operated around the artist, out of his realm of personal control. At the time, the penal code of the monarchy that ruled over post-revolution France mandated the death penalty as punishment to a litany of crimes—offenses from petty theft to political dissent, debt dodging to murder. The Reign of Terror created the macabre mythos of the guillotine, and that mythos outlived the reign. The guillotine remained a symbol of political terror—do not disobey, or heads will roll. Executions were public spectacles, and popular culture (backed up by popular science) at the time hypothesized that victims of the machine remained conscious for whole minutes post-decapitation. Post-revolution social anxiety, amplified by fear of the ruling ultra-royalist regime, culminated in an aesthetic style known as Horrorschool. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer writes, “Mingling echoes from contemporary social horrors—murders, suicides, rapes, or incests—with touches of the fantastic and the supernatural—ghosts, vampires, and devils—noir themes reaches a paroxysmic height in novels and popular entertainment prior to 1830” (610). The superstition, dread, and fascination with the guillotine is a paragon of the wider cultural aesthetic which celebrated malevolent themes both fantastical and all-to-real. Wider cultural phenomena coupled with social anxiety (if not direct political opposition) toward the contemporary ruling power, easily could have influenced Gericault to the extent that they manifested in his artworks.
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer isolates textual and visual evidence to support the three overarching arguments she makes in her article. The historian backs her claim that the artist did not intend the paintings as studies by asserting that there were preliminary sketches done for the paintings of heads and limbs themselves, which suggests that the images are finished products. Furthermore, there are formal affinities within the paintings that show that Gericault was constructing the compositions very carefully, as if they were their own works. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s visual analysis on Severed Limbs showcases the fineness of the composition.
“The severed limbs look healthy and fleshy, and indisputably lifelike. Piled on top of one another, they gruesomely parody an erotic entwining, male legs tenderly enfolded by female arms, to which Gericault […]adds a bloodstained rag to suggest a woman’s camisole strap sensuously slipping down her bare shoulder. […] Morbid reality and morbid fantasy merge. Black terror and black humor rub shoulders ambivalently.”
So much thought went into the paintings as individual artworks that surely Gericault intended them as more than simple studies. The art historian also uses convincing textual analysis of Georges Clement’s biographical discourse on Gericault, which noted that in Severed Heads he had hired a live model to represent the female head. Clement was one of the earliest biographers to write about Gericault. Inclusion of such an early source lends ethos to the scholar’s argument that Gericault was portraying more than gory still-life paintings, and that the subject of the works was psychological terror.
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer evidences her claims about Gericault’s personal political affiliation with similarly convincing visual evidence, but is sparingly lacking in textual evidence—she cites no direct personal claims made by Gericault at all. Her visual analysis of Gericault’s Execution in Rome (1822) reveals similarities between the image and the severed heads and limbs, not only in regards to the visual language he uses but also to the content of anti-capital punishment. She notices:
“The executioner is planted frontally in the very center of the scene holding the victim’s head out to an invisible crowd. Foreshadowing the severed heads of the paintings, the decapitated head reappears by itself floating against the neutral ground of the right margin, its eyes staring wide open, its feature distorted with what seems to be unspeakable terror and pain” (605)
Stylistic parallels are notable, with the floating, terrorized head in Execution in Rome perhaps representing some pre-formulation of the cranium in Severed Heads. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer also connects Execution in Rome to the common practice of projecting criticism of the state (especially one’s own country) into the classical past to mitigate animosity and avoid social backlash. While the art historian effectively utilizes the evidence she presents, a direct statement from Gericault could have functioned more aptly.
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s analysis respecting dominant sociopolitical practices in early 19th-century France is braced by a compare and contrast between Gericault’s Severed Heads and Villeneuve’s Ecce Custine (1793), a political engraving created during the Reign of Terror. The images display two disparate representations of political beheadings. Gericault’s paintings humanize the subject and evoke empathy from viewers. He starkly presents two anonymous heads that could have been belonged anyone before they were violently hacked off. Villeneuve, on the other hand, depicts a hand clenching in victory a severed head by the hair, with emphasis placed on nationalistic text that frames the image. The decapitated head has closed eyes and appears peaceful. Villeneuve’s engraving belonged to a series of propagandistic images that celebrated the defeat of “Enemies of the Revolution” (610), so one can deduct that Villeneuve made purposeful artistic decisions to focus his viewers in on the political significance of the beheading, rather than the element of personal tragedy at play. In direct contrast, Gericault in Severed Heads makes choices that render his heads in a somber, humanizing fashion. The heads of the man and woman rest on a white sheet as if the two are relaxing in bed together. The head of the woman is turned toward the man, and the man’s head is turned toward viewers. It almost gazes at viewers (though not quite directly) with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression that communicates the pain of death and the emptiness thereafter. The iconography of the images are obviously similar, and while the content of the works may appear to differ greatly upon first thought, both are expressing political messages. Villeneuve explicitly expresses a theme by identifying the beheaded as a political opponent, a roadblock to progress. Gericault’s message is more contrived—he leaves the subjects anonymous while overtly humanizing their severed heads to remind viewers that the subjects were once ordinary French people who, perhaps due to a small criminal slip-up, had their livelihood robbed away through state-sanctioned terrorism.
Visually, Gericault’s Severed Heads would fit in quite readily into the dominant artistic style of early 19th-Century France—if Horrorschool meant fascination with spookiness and social depravity was in vogue, then Gericault’s guillotined heads can be thought of as products of a wider aesthetic movement. To illustrate the prevalence of Horrorschool, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer draws from a wide body of cultural artifacts.
“From cheap horror novels, which Janin’s L’Ane mort parodied even as it capitalized on their devices, to sinister melodramas by Guilbert de Pixerecourt […] performed to packed theaters at the Boulevard du Temple (appropriately nicknamed Le Boulevard de Crime); and from the ‘horror chambers’ of wax museums, such as Madame Tussaud’s […] with its display of the blood-dripping wax heads of the revolutionary guillotine to crudely illustrated canards recounting grisly faits divers of bourgeois life, horror was in fashion and people unashamedly delighted in it” (611).
By citing such a wide variety of sources, the art historian illustrates how horror permeated French society during the early 19th-Century. Gericault could not have left his studio at the time without experiencing anxiety and morbidity. The man lived under rule of a newly-formed reactionary government known for its abuse of capital punishment as a means for maintaining order. Even if Gericault did not himself experience the risk of execution by guillotine for opposing governmental policy he had friends who did—undeniably, he had stakes in the matter. In fact, even if Gericault attempted to remove himself from politics altogether, he would inevitably run into some form the indirectly political Horrorschool cultural aesthetic that arose as a reaction to the social anxiety generated by the political climate. After all, as Athanassoglou-Kallmyer explains, “…the morbid genre […] portrayed with unrelenting accuracy the dismal urban realities of industrial Paris and conveyed the helplessness of the individual in the grip of an implacable social mechanism” (600). Manifestation of Horrorschool within Gericault’s paintings are evident—Severed Heads naturalistically depicts a horrific event brought onto the subjects by immovable structures operating above their reach. The supernatural subjects of the painting become the living dead, visually due to their humanization and contextually due to the widespread superstition that victims hold onto consciousness after decapitation.
When reading Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s interpretation of Gericault’s paintings, one must keep in mind any ideological commitments the author had when constructing her essay. By grounding most of her analysis with socio-historical contextual analysis, the art historian allows for insightful interpretations of Gericault’s Severed Heads and Severed Limbs—so much was going on during the early 19th Century that could have influenced Gericault! Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s consideration of Gericault’s process, political affiliations, and sociopolitical environment, combined with astute visual analysis, demolishes the traditional art historical interpretation of the paintings as studies. The grisly paintings take on expanded meaning, becoming more than shocking still-lifes. A social-historical lens limits bias since the author is constrained by historical data—had the author adopted some ideological lens, such as feminism or Marxism, the article would have been more subjective and therefore easier to critique. Regardless, essentializing claims are made concerning the identity of Gericault, and perhaps the author overestimates the amount of sway that Gericault’s society had over the artist, who was a known practitioner of the avant-garde.
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer analyzes the artistic process behind Gericault’s Severed Heads, the artist’s personal political beliefs, and larger 19th-Century French sociopolitical and artistic trends to engage with the artwork. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argues that the subjects of the paintings are not the heads and limbs themselves, but rather the psychological horror of decapitation and autopsy, a reflection of the greater post-Revolutionary social anxieties that plagued France at the turn of the 19th century. While the art historian makes a convincing argument, her claims are not without problems. For example, she claims political significance of anti-capital punishment for the severed heads, and uses evidence from Gericault’s trips to England and Rome to back up the claim, since he witnessed and recorded executions there. Nonetheless, no direct quotes or evidence from the artist appears in the entire essay, and it is very difficult to know the intent of an artist without direct quotes from the artist himself. Furthermore, some of the visual analysis that Athanassoglou-Kallmyer uses is shaky. For example, she mentions that, by hiring a live model to portray one of the severed heads, that Gericault is attempting to conjure human emotions that resemble the fear of being decapitated. The writer’s visual analysis that backs the claim up points to bloody gashes on the neck of a figure in an entirely different painting—her analysis would have been more poignant had she done visual analysis on the specific painting she was bringing up contextual information for. Overall, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer usage of a social-historical lens provides an intuitive interpretation of artworks otherwise glossed over by art history.
Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina. “Gericault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 4 (December 1992): 599-618