Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Stairways: wit and spirit

L'Esprit de l’escalier is an expression that tells the regret of coming up with what we should have said only after leaving leaving the scene of a conversation, when it is too late.

 l’inspiration nous vient en descendant l’escalier de la tribune --
on perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier.

Inspiration comes to us upon while going down the stairs of the tribune --and--
one loses his head only to find it at the bottom of the stairs

 Denis Diderot, Paradoxe sur le Comédien, 1773

The monumental Lefuel stairway of the Louvre was constructed between 1852 -1858  in the northern buildings of the palace. Named for the architect who designed it, it features many openings to bathe in light its richly sculpted white stone. Situated today in what is known as the Richelieu wing, it leads from the
Sculpture department to the Objets d'art one floor above, then on to
The Northern Schools of painting on the next level.
Furthering its engagement to living artists through a policy of continuing orders, the Louvre Museum has commissioned the creation of glassworks for the stairway by François Morellet,
which he has playfully named
l'Esprit de l’escalier.

Morellet says that he used a technique from the Middle Ages on the
ironwork of the 19th century to make a work of the 21st.
Nicholas Dypre
Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple 1500

In nearby exhibit halls --
more stairs, eloquent of different meanings.
Here, as a symbol of transformation and passages in life. 
The little girl, casting a lonely shadow, is isolated on the steps
as she leaves behind worldly things for a higher path.

Saloman Koninck
Meditating Philosopher 1645

Into the depths of the aged philosopher's study, stairs suggest
profound thought and the inner workings of man. 
We seem to be deep in the intrails of this hollowed, secret space but light beams
in radiantly on the pondering philosopher.
Lucas van Valckenborgh
Tower of Babel 1594

Nemrod's command to Noah's ancestors build the Tower of Babel was a sign of man's
vanity in seeking to reach heaven,  glory and godliness. 
 Forgetting his nature and placing himself first, man would no longer enjoy the benefits of a
common language--for his punishment was the confusion of tongues.
In this case, stairs represent man's arrogance that leads to destruction.
Don't they say somewhere else in the Bible that "pride cometh before a fall?"

a closer look

With  a lightness and elegance very far from the spirit behind the Tower of Babel, François Morellet redesigned the openings and oculi, with a subtle fragmented geometry that is ever so slightly destablising.
The artist, age 83, found the idea of creating a work for the prestigious Louvre intimidating,
and said he wanted to do something that most visitors would not even notice.

J'ai réussi à faire une chose invisible pour la majorité des gens qui passeront là.
I've managed to do something invisible for the majority of people who pass through.

L'Esprit de l'escalier has its say, with a humble but playful approach and sleek imperfection.
Morellet doesn't miss a step.


  1. Diderot's quote rang true; so many times we think, too late, of a smarter way of putting things!

    Great post!

  2. I never really knew the meaning of the phrase L'Esprit de l’escalier and am so pleased to understand - it's a phrase that gives meaning to many of the more ridiculous moments of our lives. The photo of the oculus "a closer look" completely fooled me for a moment - such a wonderful piece of work to imply spaces beyond spaces! A very good read, your post, if I may say so.

    "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." Proverbs 16:18

  3. I cannot believe there are no previous comments on of the best posts I have read in a long time.
    I will look at the Louvre in a new way next time I visit.
    I am sure I will have l'esprit de l'escalier once I have hit the publish button on this post!

  4. ok, what can i add? only that they ARE beautiful pictures and now i know why i feel a squeezing in my heart when i look at pictures of stairs!

    and the cezanne pictures - beautiful - love to find obscure pieces from great painters and hard to say whether vollard was right or wrong to cut them up and separate them. somehow, they found a way back to each other!

  5. Beautifully researched and written. The phrase, "a humble but playful approach and sleek imperfection" sounds like a wonderful personal motto.

    As an aside: a weathly self-made man who was a generous philanthropist, took pleasure in underwriting the less glam of projects. One of his favorites was a stainless sewer system for his favorite zoo. He liked knowing his money moved the stuff many of his collegues were full of with a quiet elegant efficiency.

  6. I posted a print of Saloman Koninck's Meditating Philosopher, which was in reverse to the oil original. I find these stairways intriguing, and Louvre's are no exception.

  7. Alaine, Blue, Theresa - Jean-Jacques Rousseau also spoke of his own extreme affliction with staircase wit. He blamed his social blunders for turning him into a misanthrope and said he was better at conversations by post! Thanks for the precision, Blue.

    Mlle P - I think we often have built-in understanding of these symbols when faced with paintings. We babble on about them - but that kind of communication is something more direct ... to the heart.

    HbD Yes, something to strive for!
    As for your aside, it's the perfect example of discreet accomplishment.

    Columnist- it might be said, we are many to be moved by stairways. I'll look for your post.

  8. Wonderful post on stairways! Very thoughtful and, although it's totally different, reminded me of how Japanese Tea gardens were designed to prepare visitors during their approach to the house from the entrance gate. Thank you!