Another week, another art gallery. Not just any. I took advice and was quickly persuaded that a visit to the permanent collection of the Louvre would not (and never is) a disappointment. I’d spent the last few weeks in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was now time to go back to the founding fathers (founding mothers harder to come by in the Louvre) of modern European expression. I’ve always been advised, and advised others, to plan a trip to the Louvre. It’s huge. Overwhelming. Ranging from Egyptians Mummies (maybe these area indeed the Louvre’s founding Mums!) to one of the finest collections of early Islamic Art, from Etruscan jars to medieval tapestries it has 14.5 km of rooms and corridors and you can fast find yourself thinking you’re in a scene from the Da Vinci Code.
I went against my most rational self and turned up at midday plan-less. I would trust my intuition and go where my heart guided me. I have to admit that this was based also on some prior knowledge – family holidays passing through Paris as kids, teenage early adventures, explorations as a first time young resident of the city with time on my hands the later school trips in charge of three 5 year olds wondering where I was going to find another hand to grab the one that always got away, holiday workshops, evening lectures special exhibits and time spent in the new wing absorbing light falling off first century sculptures.
I head straight for the early Italian Renaissance pieces. No stopping. I was tempted to take a peak at the Islamic Art, the special Etruscan exhibit or just skip Italy and head North to the Dutch early painters. The decision was made. I’d get to the Dutch, energy, corridor maze, blistered feet and painterly distractions allowing.
On arrival I note a lot of traffic. Nothing like on a hot June day when this place is really buzzing. I take a seat on what feels like a stone park bench placed on the edge of a highway. This is the main drag leading to La Goconde, the Mona Lisa, and I’m guessing that this is what counts as a quiet day. After first encounters with Botticelli and his Portrait of a Young Woman my visual senses are then inundated with Fra Angelico, Giotto, Lippi and Piero della Francesca all in the space of a few meters. Looking back at my notebook I see that I scrawled, “Giotto, the best of the best” and am not surprised that the current Pope aspires to St Francis when you see his depiction here. Lippi I describe as a mysogyist , brilliant but threatening in his interpretation of women. Pierro della Francesca – “outrageous”. How dare he create such beauty and harmony. And then back to Botticelli whose pieces rise above all others in the room. Grace, beauty, finesse and deep melancholy. For the first time I see how he inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement. Together they relate stories, with multiple hidden layers and yet also allow for a purely emotive reaction far from the codes their masters, the Kings, Queens of Europe, the Dukes and Princes, the Popes and Bishops, all demanded of them.
And for fun, I turn right, now following the crowds, to join the Mona Lisa. Watching from afar I turned my gaze from this rather dark and gloomy painting (much like the other Da Vinci’s close by, all pointing fingers, eyes, arms in a rather accusatory way) and was entranced by the show. Tablets and smartphones held up high, babies in push chairs squeezed through to the front the child an excuse to edge closer to the prey, a class of school kids sitting on the polished parquet floor sliding around on their bums their yellow name tags overly bright and alive in this closed room. I moved on.
I cross from one side of the Louvre to the other. I made it to the Northern Europeans. Astonishingly it felt like coming home, that these are friends that I can pick up with not having seen them for an age. My early Renaissance Italians certainly dredge up emotion, sensuality, even love as well as the utmost respect and fascination for the stories-in-the-stories. But I’m now more comfortable. I’ve come North to confront Memling, Van Eyck and Bosch, to admire and sit beside Holbein. The lines seem clearer, straighter, the message bolder, harsher, real. Nothing is frivolous or extra.
The ability to engage with these paintings, their timeless fascination and inspiration is clearly vital. An essential part of where motivation and innovation come from. They move me out of my comfort zone and push me to respond, reflect, react. How far innovation arises from a combination of necessity and survival is unclear. Would these great artists have achieved so much living the “easy life”? Even if Holbein and Botticelli lived from their art they remained dependent on their masters all their lives. The image of the writer stuck starving in a cold candle-lit garat or dodging the bullets of the latest revolution, are well known. Simone Ahuja relates in her book Jugaad Innovation, how the most brilliant innovative solutions have been found in India among the poorest who in true entrepreneurial style manage to improve their incomes in the most unlikely of circumstances (listen to Ahuja on The Forum, edition of 18 January). She talks about frugal and flexible innovation. I have clear memories of the early Somali refugee camps in Kenya in the early 1990s where, within 24 hours of their arrival from a country of war and famine, a market was functioning and spaghetti, a key legacy of the Italian influence, already changing hands.
The reverse, the more comfortable we are the least likely to challenge, innovate and create? A civil servant say working for the United Nations consumed with passion and a sense of righteousness in their early days is soon cynical, the first to denigrate the “system”, to focus on grade and promotion, happy to entertain with tales of courage and bravery when young. And yet there are many examples to the contrary – fortunately.
What does this mean on the institutional front? That states are at their most innovative when their most fragile and desperate – or simply distracted from where they should be paying attention and focused on individual survival and benefit (think Iraq, Afghanistan or the Congo as supposed to Greece, Brazil and Span where innovation has been rife in the past years)? Where the “egosystem” wins out on the “ecosystem”. That complacency is fed by stability and abundance (think Norway, New Zealand and Canada) only to be sent into crisis by a single destabilising factor such as a serial killer, earthquake or arson attack?
What is clear is that innovation is distinct and recognisable. A walk through the Louvre clearly demonstrates this.