Flights of Fancy


I found myself in a back room at the British Museum this week, looking at pen and ink drawings. I took a couple of photos of simple but stunning sketches by Picasso and Rembrandt.

20120519-123215.jpgAs a child, I remember being taken to see Michelangelo’s cartoons and being mightily disappointed they weren’t a patch on Hanna-Barbera. They were instead faded brown pastels. How times change.

Why the reappraisal – I’m much taken by Ernst Gombrich’s narrative that art of the Dark Ages was flat and naive because it was telling you something. The idea wasn’t to lose yourself in clouds, folds of garments or acres of flesh – but to ‘read’ a very simple and profound message. Almost always an illustration of virtue, sin or gospel truth, simplicity and directness were the point.

This takes me back to Aristotle’s Poetics – plot trumps spectacle and no more or less than is needed. Were I to embark on a painting I’d feel constrained to ‘represent’, to paint ‘well’ and show some technique.

Perhaps that’s not the point, the starting point for the artist is: ‘what am I wanting to say or explore?’ As with poetry, seen this way we are not ‘trapped’ by the fact that everything has been painted more beautifully by Titian, or precisely by the Dutch masters or bleakly by Caspar David Friedrich or vibrantly by Van Gogh.

20120519-090306.jpgThe job of the artist is simply to convey what they want to say or explore. Technique and materials come second. No need therefore to hack off our beautiful – or rudimentary – artistic wings. We can all have a go.

The Forth Bridge

Twice in the last two weeks I’ve cited the Forth Rail Bridge to describe what I increasingly recognise as a not uncommon challenge – being called upon, like Sisyphus, to do the same thing again and again.

Famously, but perhaps apocryphally, the Forth Bridge offered a couple of hardy Scots lifelong employment in the rain, wind and sleet of the Firth of Forth painting and repainting it. A masterpiece of cantilevered Victorian design, it needs constant painting to keep it from corroding. I remember being told as a child that it took the two men five years to do from end to end. Then they had a day off. Then they started again.

At times organisational life is not unlike painting the Forth Bridge. Any organisation worth its salt divides opinion. Putting your best foot forward, making the case and explaining the strategy to the world, outside and in, is a Sisyphean task of care and maintenance.

I’ve started thinking about work as a bit like our busy family home. Something always needs fixing. It can be a bit untidy. There are shelves to put up and occasionally walls to knock down. Just when you have it looking ship-shape the shower leaks or a roof tile falls off. And then there’s that plan for the loft conversion or a new fridge. You live with – not just in – a house. And so it is at work.

I found myself getting frustrated about a misfiring corporate function the other day. But then I thought it’s a bit like an old chest freezer – burns a lot of electricity, some frozen leftovers in the bottom, but still doing a job. Sure a swanky new one would be nice, but there are other things which need fixing, upgrading, repainting first.

The best you can do with a family home is live well in it, keep it structurally sound and leave it in better shape than you found it. I think that’s a lot of what leading an organisation is about too. As Aristotle might say, the job of the bridge painter is to paint bridges, and of the good bridge painter to paint bridges well. There is satisfaction to be found in painting my Forth Bridge well.