Insights from a New Louvre
Going to the new Louvre in Lens, France is an experience not to be missed. Here you can see an incredible range of artwork include the painting Belisarius, by Jacques Louis David. Sreela Banerjee recently visited the new Louvre and remembered a long forgotten lesson in art appreciation at the end of her A levels. Here she shares how she found the gallery.
So, who was this man? We're going back to ancient history here. Belisarius was an important general of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (518 AD). He had won wars against the Vandals and the Goths; he had become one of the main figures in the Emperor's court. However, when he was suspected of political intrigue, the Emperor found himself accusing Belisarius of treason; he was cast out of society. Some say that his eyes were gouged out. He fell from favour; he had a long way to fall.
This is where the French neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David takes up the story - he shows Belisarius reduced to begging on the street, (the artist's imagination entirely; there is no record of this happening) when one of the soldiers who served under him recognises him, just as he receives alms from a woman. Here is a story of the effect of unemployment and the loss of the trust of one's colleagues, in days when war was ever present, and 'social security' was some 18 centuries in the future. Of course we still expect people to pick themselves up after wars. In Calais we passed the tents where migrants from East Africa and the Middle East wait to enter a country which takes care of its citizens in unemployment and illness.
This early work of David's is a staged set-piece - everyone on the canvas is significant. Here is Belisarius, seen as an old beggar, hand stretched out in supplication. Centre stage is a well dressed lady, leaning forward, giving alms. The child is holding out the general's helmet as the receptacle for charity; clearly, his 'eyes', as this transaction happens. And then there is the soldier on the left, obviously astonished at who is now begging on the steps of this important building in town.
But what is the pictures message? 'Be charitable, be sympathetic, for there, but for blind luck, is anyone's possible future'. Today - you have fame and fortune, media recognition; you are a person of influence, with your exploits trending on twitter. But, said Jacques Louis David in 1781, remember that in life there are no guarantees. When you see someone reduced in circumstances, be generous, while you still have money in your purse; he may have been powerful once like you.
One test of good art is whether hidden in a composition may be a small nugget of truth, or a core life skill. This canvas speaks of the importance of compassion - something we can be reminded to find inside us - we all have the capacity for it as human beings. Kindness is hard-wired into us. Remember that about yourself, and reach out, says David.
Where can you see this picture ? Belisarius Receiving Alms is located rather appropriately; I saw this at the Musee Louvre-Lens, a part of an urban regeneration project in France - a coal mine turned into a park with a branch of the Louvre on its grounds. The trees are still guarded and slender, autumn leaves reach out tentative talons, with the long low building in the background. Like the Tate in Liverpool and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the museum itself is a gift to the people of a mining town in decline, bedraggled after martial footfall in two world wars; a statement of collective compassion towards a town where unemployment is still high.
By Sreela Banerjee