Genius and Ambition I: Sir Joshua Reynolds

This is the first of a series of discussion pieces of the Bendigo Art Gallery’s outstanding exhibition “Genius and Ambition”. They are designed to make some sense of the nature of the exhibition to the relatively naive viewer and perhaps provide readers with some insights into the nature and relative standing of such collection.

The first image that greets the viewer is Sir Joshua Reynolds’ allegorical painting Theory. An allegory is the description of a subject in the guise of another subject and might include figures emblematic of different emotional states of mind – for example envy or love – or personifying other abstract concepts, such as sight, glory, beauty, Revolution, or France. (National Gallery of Britain)


The programme notes to this painting state: “Reynolds (who was the first president of the Royal Academy) was affirming the intellectual basis of his own art and the aspirations of the Royal Academy.”

So what do we make of this painting? A rather muscular lady called Theory, perched on something between a blue cushion and a cloud, gazing off into the distance with a scroll held in her hand.

Well, a good place to start is looking at what other painters have done with the idea of allegory, starting with Bernardo Strozzi’s Allegory of the Arts

Allegory-of-Arts Strozzi

Here Strozzi places three women around a bust of Homer, the embodiment of poetry. Two of them are examining a pendant or the other gazes off into the near distance. There is a dramatic tension between the three and richness of colour that is completely lacking in the Reynolds painting.

Dominico Corvi’s Allegory of Painting is in many ways closer in structure end theme to the Reynolds work but it has an ironic overlay of the self-preoccupation of the young woman in all her rococo splendour and she views herself in a mirror held by Cupid.


Then there is Klimpt’s ravishing Allegory of Sculpture

Allegory-of-Sculpture klimpt

Here Klimpt captures the central beauty of the nude contrasting the subtle flesh colours with the austere background of the classical sculptures. It’s a dramatic and striking piece.

And then to a real knockout, Rubens’ Allegory of War

rubens-allegory of war

Rubens captures the tumult, suffering and slaughter of war in the dramatic headlong rush of the characters frame. It’s probably not completely fair to compare Reynolds to Rubens but the Reynolds painting is the opening statement by the first president of the Royal Academy, one of the most important figures in British and the lead piece in the Royal Academy exhibition so it is useful to see how it stacks up against other allegorical artists.

The other way to sit this painting in context is to consider against other work that Reynolds has done. His portrait of Mrs Charles James Fox is a masterpiece of tonal subtlety.


The subject is framed in dark shadows and the viewer’s eye is drawn to the face of the subject by the use of increasingly intense flesh coloured tones of the background and the blouse of the subject. There is an expression of appraisal, as the subject looks out that the viewer. This is clearly a masterwork. Why didn’t he try harder with Theory?

Similarly with the portrait of Lavinia Spencer. The artist uses the tones and colours of the clothing and the headdress to frame the subject and her cheerful face with its scarcely suppressed smile. Both of these paintings give a wonderful insight into the personality of the subject.

Lavinia Spencer by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Infant Jupiter is a real hoot of a painting. It depicts the God as a rather grumpy and capricious infant, guarded by an eagle and grasping a handful of thunderbolts. He is clearly not happy about something and is going to be all hell to pay.


So at the beginning we have a pretty ordinary painting by the heavyweight of the Royal Academy. It is probably not the most auspicious of beginnings for an exhibition but a symbolic one. It probably sets in context the contribution that the Royal Academy has made to British art.

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Some more questions for Nick Greiner.

Nick was interviewed last night on 7.30 and stated that he would have accepted a gift of Grange Hermitage.

So here are a couple of extra questions if you’re listening, Nick.

Did you ever except gifts while you were Premier of New South Wales?

What was the most expensive?

Did was the donor in a position to expect any favours in return?

Is there any limit on the size of a gift that you would accept as a politician?

Just asking

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The Grand Budapest Hotel: Frames and perspectives

This film is ostensibly a comedy but is also a serious discourse on the way the filmmaker creates the frames and perspectives that shape the narrative and content of the film.

Director Wes Anderson steps his audience back through five frames as he begins his narrative: a young girl visits the statue of an author with a book in her hand, on the back of her book is a picture of the author who then appears on screen to give a commentary on writing. The author then morphs into an earlier version of himself and has dinner with a man who tells him the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel.

The hotel itself is a vast and gorgeous pink doll’s house in an Alpine diorama in an imaginary European country in the 1930s.


Presiding over the affairs of this decadent and indulgent temple of luxury is concierge Monsieur Gustave H who maintains the deliciously ordered ambience of the hotel.

Monsieur Gustave H brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes

Monsieur Gustave H brilliantly played by Ralph Fiennes

The film is a nostalgic paean that chronicles the destruction of hotel and the world it represents, a world where style and appearance are all that matters. When Monsieur Gustave views the body of a dear friend and now dead customer Madam D, he says, “you’re looking so well darling. You really are. I don’t know what sort of cream they’ve put on new down at the morgue, but, I want some.” It doesn’t matter if your dead, the only thing that matters is how you look.

Life in the hotel under Monsieur Gustave H is not only ordered, it is also surprisingly symmetrical. The symmetrical architecture of the exterior is mirrored by the symmetry of the lobby with its sweeping staircase.


Throughout the film the wonderfully symmetrical sets of the Grand Budapest frame the characters and the action of the film.


Many of the characters are presented as if posing for a formal portrait, a reflection of the world in which appearances everything and attention to detail is paramount.

Jeff Goldblum as Deputy Vilmos Kovacs the meticulous and well ordered attorney

Jeff Goldblum as Deputy Vilmos Kovacs the meticulous and well ordered attorney

Tilda Swinton as Madame D

Tilda Swindon as Madame D

Harvey Keitel as Ludwig

Harvey Keitel as Ludwig

In many other scenes the characters appear posed, again as if for a photograph, before whirling off into the next bout of frenetic and madcap action.

The carefully posed soldiers await their orders

The carefully posed soldiers await their orders

The symmetrical framing of action:

The symmetrical framing of action:

The symmetry and framing pervades the whole film. Almost every scene is set piece of carefully crafted composition. Even the children’s birthday party is beautifully symmetrical.

Even the children's birthday party is beautifully symmetrical

Even the children’s birthday party is beautifully symmetrical

In many ways, it is extremely formal but the genius of Wes Anderson is that within this formality is a chaotic, anarchic and often ridiculous Punch and Judy show that careers across the screen.

The symmetry provides, not only the visual impact of the film, but also frames the action both dramatic and comic, such as the scene where Madam D’s will is read and punches exchanged.

Anderson places his characters in these formal settings much as a child would place figures in a diorama. Many of the scenes have the characters looking out from small confined spaces, (the interior of the lift, a small bedroom, a motorcar window or the interior of the ski lift) to some other scene in the film.

Zero and Gustave H look out of the frame

Zero and Gustave H look out of the frame

As Anderson places his characters in the settings of the Grand Budapest, the audience sees them in the context of this gorgeous and orderly anachronism. In the two scenes in the train, Zero and Gustave look out on the war that is beginning to swirl around the Grand Budapest.

Zero and Guatave look out from the secure world of the Ground Budapest at the war that begins to swirl around them

Zero and Guatave look out from the secure world of the Ground Budapest at the war that begins to swirl around them

In the first encounter with the troops, the officer in charge remembers Gustave from his childhood visits to the Grand Budapest and orders his soldiers out of the carriage. The world of the Grand to get Budapest has prevailed. But in the second encounter, no such niceties prevail and things go badly for everybody.

Not only does the audience see the characters framed by the world of the Grand get Budapest, the characters are often filmed looking out from the Gran Budapest at the world outside. The view from these formal and gorgeous settings has always been a rosy one but now the characters are looking out on a world where totalitarian forces are overrunning the country and a group of thugs are murdering their way towards the family inheritance. But throughout all of this is viewed from the Grand Budapest with the urbane distain of Monsieur Gustave H. How seriously you take all this depends on your point of view and Monsieur Gustave H certainly doesn’t take it terribly seriously.

Yet, by the end of the film, the Grand kept Budapest and a view of the world represented as a sad shadow of itself. All but one of the major characters have been cut down by the events that the film portrays. It’s a body count that rivals Hamlet, but our sense of loss is not for the characters it is for the world that the Grand With the best represented. The horrific events of the end of the film do not distract from the sense of nostalgia for the departed world the Grand Budapest.

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A right-wing theory for arresting climate change

Aaron Lane of the Institute of Public Affairs has been widely criticised for his proposal to abandon the minimum wage. This is because he has failed to explain the contribution his proposal would have towards mitigating the effects of global warming. It would appear that right-wing demagoguery is a barrier to understanding the dynamics of climate change.

One of the major drivers of global climate change is the demand for carbon-based products generated by an increasingly large and affluent middle-class. Lane’s proposal is only a small step towards stemming the flow of the working poor into the middle classes. He should stop around the edges and suggest a more substantial contribution through lowering the average wage, easily achieved through taxation increases, to a point where the average worker cannot afford to own or use a motorcar. The gains would be immense: a huge reduction in carbon emissions and increased use of public transport. It’s really quite simple and certainly much easier than considering a more equitable and sustainable approach to the distribution of the planet’s wealth and resources.

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Dummies’ Guide to Climate Change (ii): Deforestation and the Carbon Sink

The first Dummies Guide to Climate Change laid out the basic structure for the storing of CO2 in the atmosphere. The article then described the dynamics of the relationship between the inflows of CO2 into the atmosphere, the outflows through the carbon sinks and the levels of CO2 that accumulate in the atmosphere.

 Basic stock, flow,  rate model of carbon accumulation

Basic stock, flow, rate model of carbon accumulation

This simple model is sometimes called a bathtub model. The inflow is the tap, the outflow is the plughole and the amount of water in the bathtub represents the level or accumulation.

The purpose of these articles is to provide simple models of complex structures and dynamics. To do this,The models built at a high level of aggregation. In this model, the forests that are cut down are replanted as regenerating forests. This is a simplification of the land use that follows deforestation. However, it serves to illustrate the more general principle of the long-term effect of deforestation

The second Dummies Guide to Climate Change drills down into the functioning of the outflow by examining dynamics of carbon storage capacity and deforestation. This sub-model shows the process where forests are cut down (deforestation) and replanted as regenerating forests. Over time, the regenerating forests are restored to their original state.However, there is a decades-long delay before this happens.

Deforestation model and its effect on the carbon sink

Deforestation model and its effect on the carbon sink

The important dynamic here is the impact on the capacity of the land-based carbon sink to absorb CO2. The regenerating forests have some capacity but nowhere near the capacity of the mature forests that have been cut down. The consequence of deforestation is a decline in overall carbon sink capacity.

Change in  forests and decline of the carbon sink

Change in forests and decline of the carbon sink

It is generally acknowledged that the world has lost close to 50% of its forests in the last 50 years and that if deforestation continues at its present rate, there may be no very few forests left within 50 years. in the last few years, the rate of increase in deforestation has become greater than the rate of increase in population. This is because of the rising affluence of global middle-class and its demand for plant-based products, particularly palm oil.

Deforestation has a double effect on the carbon sink. The first effect is that the burning rain forests increases the CO2 in the atmosphere. The second is that the decreased area of forests reduces the capacity of the carbon sink.

Impact of deforestation on atmospheric carbon and the carbon sink capacity

Impact of deforestation on atmospheric carbon and the carbon sink capacity

This double effect is amplified because it represents an increase in the inflow and a decrease in the outflow leading to a much higher level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Impact of deforestation on atmospheric CO2 levels

Impact of deforestation on atmospheric CO2 levels

It is clear from the model that the impact of deforestation is significant because of its impact on both the inflows and outflows of the system. It is also clear that action on deforestation will be necessary to avoid catastrophic increases in global CO2 levels. It is also clear from the model that even if the forests are replaced, the delay while they grow means that carbon continues to build up in the atmosphere. It is also clear from the previous model that increasing the landmass and deforestation by a massive 20% only has a minor effect on CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

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Film review: Gravity (or lack thereof)

The title is ironic because there is very little gravity in the film. Well, I suppose they couldn’t have called it Vacuity (Empty space; emptiness), doesn’t really have the same ring.

This is a film that leaves film viewers and critics quite divided, most give it five stars or none.

Those who love it praise the visual effects, which are undoubtedly outstanding. However, nearly 90% of the film is visual effects and some may find this a bit much. The other 10% is plot: Astronauts find their space station is destroyed by debris, they relocate to two more space stations, one of which is also destroyed. On the way, one astronaut is lost in space. The other returns to Earth.

So, if your last point of reference for space movies is 2001 A Space Odyssey with its four parts, each with its separate but interrelated plots, you may be a tad disappointed with Gravity.

There are similarities between the films both visually and thematically. In 2001, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) must venture outside the spaceship and finds his re-entry locked by HAL, the resident supercomputer. Both medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) struggle to regain the safety of a series of space stations.

In addition to the visual references, both films explore the theme of the poised precariously between the fragile technological safety of the space vehicle and the vast terrifying emptiness of other space. The films also explore the tenuous link between men and technology and while there is no evil supercomputer in Gravity, the threat to the astronauts is also technological: the disintegration of a Russian space station whose debris is orbiting the world every 90 minutes destroying everything in its path.

One of the other thematic similarities between the two films is the idea of rebirth.

Both Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Ryan Stone are reborn at the end of the film. While Bowman’s rebirth is allegorical and mysterious, Stone’s is both symbolic and realistic. Earlier in the film, she is seen floating fetus-like in the space capsule, foreshadowing her “rebirth” at the end of the film but also referencing the final scenes from 2001.

The foetus  motif in 2001 Space Odyssey and Gravity

The foetus motif in 2001 Space Odyssey and Gravity

There are also visual references to the great female heroine of the space: Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley.

The Heroine in Underwear Theme: Ripley and Ryan

The Heroine in Underwear Theme: Ripley and Ryan

The film is also a survival movie, which is a relatively simple and formulaic genre: think Meryl Streep in The Wild River, of which Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert said in 1994: “movies like this are so predictable in their overall stories that they win or lose with their details … it was constructed from so many ideas, characters and situations recycled from other movies that all the way down the river I kept thinking: Been there”.

This is partly true of Gravity and the fundamental simplicity of plot, rooted as it is in the survival movie genre, as well as references to other, better space movies, makes this movie a less than satisfying experience.

There is also a major problem with the other main character: George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski, who seems to be a leftover from Space Cowboys. Kowalski is the amiable, genial, wisecracking, all-competent father figure to Ryan Stone. After his role as Lt. Frank Stokes in Monuments Men, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Clooney imagines there is going to be an Oscar award for Pompous Utterances. The scene where Clooney’s ghost visits Ryan Stone in the space capsule as she is considering turning off the oxygen supply, is as corny as it is risible. If the director had wanted to have a plot device that would pull Stone back from committing suicide, why did he not simply have her remember her daughter, whose death continues to haunt her?

There’s also a small difficulty with the character of Ryan Stone who has a Ph.D. in medical engineering. This clearly separates her expertise from the veteran astronaut Kowalski. But when push comes to shove, and with Kowalski floating in outer space, returning only for a brief pep talk, it’s Kowalski’s expertise that is needed to get the spacecraft back to Earth.

So how does Stone achieve this, she reads the manuals of course. Yes, that’s right the spacecraft is full of books on how to fly a spacecraft. With the spacecraft approaching near its atmosphere at 30,000 km/h, our heroine is reading the manual to work out which button to press. Why not start the film with her being Kowalski’s second officer (as well as having a Ph.D. in medical engineering) thus allowing her to fly the spacecraft back to Earth?

Then there’s the ending. Having splashed the spacecraft down into a lake, Stone swims out of the sinking capsule, passed a number of amphibious reptiles and finally crawls out of the (primordial) slime onto dry land where she staggers to her feet. Instant evolution, just add water. We had been given a hint of this in the early shots of Stone in the space capsule. But the imagery and symbolism of these final scenes is over the top. It is silly and pretentious to suggest, that the experiences that Stone has undergone are the equivalent of hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

Compare this with the brilliant scenes in the opening of 2001 Space Odyssey where the ape uses the bone to smash the skeleton and which culminate with the ape throwing the bone in the air were it morphs into space satellite.

Well let’s count the blessings of the ending, at least with Kowalski gone, we were spared a final scene with Kowalski and Stone afloat in a life raft awaiting rescue.

One reference too far. James Bond in  the life raft scenes

One reference too far. James Bond in the life raft scenes

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Dummies’ guide to climate change

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of an increase in severe and irreversible damage to the planet if high greenhouse gas emissions continue and the planet warms significantly.

What follows here is an explanation of the total inadequacy of the targets being set particularly those set in Australia. The explanation is built on a very simple little model and the data is taken from the Pro-Oxygen website.

Stock-flow-rate model of climate change

Stock-flow-rate model of climate change

The technical term for this diagram is a stock-flow-rate diagram. It’s a bit like a bathtub (which is the stock which acts as an accumulation), the inflow of carbon dioxide is like a tap running into the bathtub. The carbon absorbed by land sinks (that is forests) is like a plughole, draining the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The bath tub is currently filling up at a frightening rate.

This is because we are emitting more carbon dioxide than the land sinks can absorb. What is not absolved is stored in the atmosphere and in the oceans.

Here’s a graph that illustrates the problem.

Graph of carbon emissions against carbon absorption

Graph of carbon emissions against carbon absorption

This graph shows the gap between what is being emitted and what is being absorbed. This amount is the amount that is pumped into the atmosphere every year. While the absorption is patchy it is relatively consistent while the emissions continue to rise.

Politicians and the media focus on the amount that we have to reduce the amount of emissions. But this is not what we must be concerned about. It is the total accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is going to destroy the environment.

Increase in CO2 in the atmosphere with no reduction in emissions

Increase in CO2 in the atmosphere with no reduction in emissions

The trick to solving the climate change problem is to get the amount we are emitting below the capacity of the land sinks to absorb CO2. It is not until we have done this that the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will begin to decline.

Australia currently has a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 5% by 2020. It is unclear what the goal will be beyond that. But here’s a picture of what reducing CO2 emissions global by 5% in 2020 will do.

The result of a 5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020

The result of a 5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020

When you compare this with the earlier “no action” graph, there is a slight but almost imperceptible change in the total accumulation of CO2.

There is talk of setting a target of 15% by 2020. The following graph shows the impact of this target.

Impact of 15% reduction of CO2 from 2020

Impact of 15% reduction of CO2 from 2020

As you can see, we are still not making any progress. which really makes the debate about a target of 5% or 15% pretty much irrelevant.

So what is it going to take to deal with this problem. The next graph shows a reduction of 80% from 2014. For simplicity’s sake, And to demonstrate the magnitude of the change required, I’ve shown the effect of all at once. A more realistic approach would be to achieve this target over a number of years, but it would still need to be a total of an 80% reduction whatever time period is used.

Impact of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions in 2014.

Impact of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions in 2014.

It has been possible to achieve this result because the level of carbon emission is down to level that can be absorbed.

An 80% reduction in carbon emissions will reduce emission levels to absorption levels

An 80% reduction in carbon emissions will reduce emission levels to absorption levels

This level of reduction will maintain total CO2 in the atmosphere at current levels. A level that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says will include more coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef; declines in rainfall in southern NSW and Victoria and a 20-40% increase in Melbourne days over 35 degrees by 2035.

Clearly, we are not getting a 80% reduction in emissions starting in 2014 but this does illustrate the magnitude and seriousness of the problem and certainly that the 5% target by 2020 will be woefully inadequate.

The other approach to the problem is to increase the capability of the land sinks to absorb CO2. The following graph shows the impact of an immediate 20% increase in the Earth’s ability to absorb CO2 namely, a 20% increase in total global forestation.Again, this is shown happening immediately but clearly a 20% increase in global forestation will take a millennia, time we might not have.

The impact of a 20% increase in global forestation from 2014

The impact of a 20% increase in global forestation from 2014

This does not have as great an impact as cutting emissions but under the combined scenarios total CO2 in the atmosphere is finally declining. To achieve this we must have an 80% reduction in emissions starting in 2014 and at 20% increase in forestation, also starting in 2014.

Yes, the problem is that serious and that intractable.

But not if you’re a Prime Minister whose views of climate change seem to be based on some doggerel that was written by a 22-year-old member of the landed gentry at the beginning of the last century.

Tony Abbott's climate adviser Dorothea Mackellar

Tony Abbott’s climate adviser Dorothea Mackellar

Dorothea Mackellar loved a sunburnt country and as far as Tony Abbott is concerned things haven’t changed much since she wrote My Country.

‘Australia’s a land of droughts and flooding rains, always has been, always will be,’ said Abbott in a comment that would be laughable if it were not so tragic.

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