Sunday 17 December 2017

What lies beneath: The Floor Scrapers

The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte, oil on canvas, Musee d'Orsay

Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte
Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte

That's it then. Back to work tomorrow, that is if you're not back at work already. But look at what real work can achieve. Newgrange still captures the winter solstice; the Pugin Cathedrals still stand tall; the Bord Gais Energy Theatre looks as if it's here to stay. In a one-line poem T E Hulme in a single image covers decades in the life of a building when he reminds us that 'Old houses were scaffolding once; and workmen whistling.' What now looks dilapidated was once filed with energy and promise and a future. But be it house or palace, very often the men who built them are forgotten.

In The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte the three men aren't named but Caillebotte gives them an importance, honours their craft, celebrates the hard slog that scraping a parquet floor in an elegant Parisien room involves, a room thought to be Caillebotte's studio.

These three working-class urban men, on hand and knee, stripped to the waist, will never live in such surroundings and the painting was rejected by the Salon in 1875 for its vulgar subject matter. The light steaming in through delicate, swirling wrought iron, lights up their back-breaking work, the wood shavings, the beautiful floor. The two to the right share something, the third figure is intent on the task. None of the scrapers looks like a slacker.

The effort and energy in the workplace keep everything going. Who laid that Luas line? Who polished that brass letterbox, assembled the photocopier?

But Roland Paulsen, a Swedish sociologist, has come up with a new buzz phrase called "Empty Labour".

Paulsen argues that most of us lucky enough to have a job, during the so-called working day, send emails, do Facebook, read the paper and though we claim to work an eight-hour day, in fact, we fooster around pretending to look busy. Research suggests that time spent on non-work activities adds up to two hours per day yet we all wear our busyness like a badge of honour.

These hard-working floor scrapers, long since dead, did a great job. And never once checked their iphones.

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