In this 18th century painting by Anne- Louis Girodet, The Deluge, a macabre scene plays out in almost HD televised real- time. As you look on it places you in the exact moment, so much, so that you can hear the thunder. The painting is a dreadful depiction of a scene from the flood of the Biblical Noah, a story allegedly of the consequences of human failure.
In it’s extremely fine detail, from the background a lightning bolt strikes, splintering an already petrified tree, unable to hold the weight of a fragile old man and his son. Most disturbing in this image, are the “son’s’” helplessly bulging eyes, we feel his father’s clinging stranglehold, resonating with his despair and desperation in trying to save his wife and children.
Maybe, the most distinguishing horror of this painting is in our witnessing the foolishness of man's nature, to hold on to the unavoidable which he already knows to be the past. But, the magnificent use of light draws the eye to the folds in the woman’s fabulous, contoured and textured robe nearly to photographic perfection. You almost miss the dead body that drifts quietly by in the waters below.
I’ve stood before this painting at least three times in Le Louvre gripped each time. I avert my eyes from the terrified baby and feel sick for the child that pulls mercilessly on her hair, but somehow I also see that she is the only one whose face is totally calm, her eyes closed in silence.
This matriarch’s ominous settlement with this moment and its finality truly breaks my heart.
A woman in my tribal language Kikuyu, is called “mutumia.” This word is a conjugation of the verb “tumia” it means be silent, settle (down). And she dutifully does. Over the last three weeks in the deluge of the Harvey Weinstein storm that is playing out in monstrous technicolour, we’ve all been reminded in how many circumstances silence is never, ever golden.
Any victim of sexual (and any kind of assault) knows how living threatened in silence or settlement provides a pathetically temporary fix and a permanent sense of failure. The now global #Me too, has sadly revealed that some forms of menace suppressed or not remain present, never making it in to a person’s past.
We will never know if Girodet intended the intensity of this moment to represent a woman’s capacity to silence her senses or if she is seemingly at peace because she is resolved to endure with composure what she cannot control, a moment where she exercises her only power, in her depressingly prescribed destiny.
If we are to believe in the story of Noah, there is redemption, without need of a flood. Hopefully today, after the Weinstein watershed we can leave behind the fragile past, where both men and women’s failure has been in the heinous silence and settling, which must never again be the victims prescribed lot.