Skip to content


by mana on July 10th, 2015

Plafond du dôme des Invalides

Plafond du dôme des Invalides

In Paris, I met with a French entrepreneur at the Café de l’Esplanade. The sumptuous interior of this beautiful café has clusters of cannon balls for chandeliers and cannons as pillars. I looked across the street at the Hôtel des Invalides with its long row of artillery at the end of the expansive lawn.

I had lived in Paris for many years but never spent time inside the Invalides. As a teenager, war did not attract me. Soldiers and tactics were far from my concerns but over the years my perspective had changed. My interest in history had grown deeper. Revolution had taught me how an entire society can be transformed in a moment when all the forces and conditions come together. That day, I felt attracted not only by the Baroque architecture of the building in front of me but also by the stories of great men and events that it contained inside.

The French revolution got its start there when a mob seized a large number of muskets and proceeded to storm the Bastille. The building was constructed for Louis XIV as a home for disabled veterans. Today, it houses the tombs of many eminent French generals. As I looked at the tomb of Marshal Foch, I remembered the battle scene in Paths of Glory.

This powerful anti-war movie shows the corruption and brutality of the military establishment of the time and the helplessness of the soldiers. But even in the harsh conditions of war, men still can make choices. In 1917, the French soldiers effectively decided not to fight anymore. Disregarding the generals, they freed themselves from the horror of the senseless slaughter.

What is freedom? To the Greeks, a free man was one who had no master and could live as he pleased. In the ideal democracy, said Aristotle, men are ruled by no one, or if this is impossible, rule and are ruled in turns.

Jean Fouquet, "La clémence de Cyrus II le Grand envers les Hébreux"

Jean Fouquet, “La clémence de Cyrus II le Grand envers les Hébreux”

Democracy in the Athens of Aristotle was limited. Women could not vote or hold office, and many of the inhabitants were slaves. The Persian Empire is often depicted as ruled by despots but its citizens enjoyed some degree of freedom. People of all religions and ethnic groups were given the same rights and had the same freedom of religion. Women had the same rights as men, and slavery was abolished. Sometimes the ancient world is surprising and does not match our prejudices about it.

In the 2500 years since that time, no society has achieved Aristotle’s ideal. We are all subject to authority and constrained in our actions. People will tolerate many restrictions. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” But in all revolutions, there is a tipping point. Even soldiers under strict military discipline will no longer obey if they have lost belief in their leaders.

Michel Bellaiche, "Looking Back," 2015

Michel Bellaiche, “Looking Back,” 2015

Michel Bellaiche powerfully conveys the anguish of lost freedom in the painting Looking Back. The figures are completely confined by their tight wraps. Nothing of their humanity can be seen except for two staring blank eyes. They seem to be looking back at us in reproach. They are lost in a colorful world where their pain and isolation haunts us. In the world today, many people have been displaced by oppression and manmade calamity. Can the lonely figures in the painting find their way to freedom?

Bernard Mont-Reynaud, "Symbiosis," 2013

Bernard Mont-Reynaud, “Symbiosis,” 2013

Some artists struggle to find freedom within themselves. They battle not with a government but with the inner barriers to self-expression. Bernard Mont-Reynaud is among such artists. A distinguished technical career held him back from a full commitment to art.
Now turning to his lifelong passion, he experiments with visual media and music. Painting is his practice of freedom. Mont-Reynaud says “I aim to work in joyful abandon to the rhythmical scratchy sound of the palette knife, in broad gestures, consistent yet ever changing, as spontaneous and effortless as the moment permits.”
Apollo and Daphne

Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne; ” Photo by Int3gr4te

Symbiosis shows a woman achieving unity with a tree. Perhaps like Daphne, she is preserving her freedom by a revolutionary change of her being.

From → Musings

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.