From Classification to Causation

The powerful aspect of classification such as that of the vertebrates into birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish is that provides us basis for predicting the behaviour of each phyla of based on the physical similarities by which they been classified. There are things we can predict about mammals (care and nurturing of the young) that we can be fairly certain reptiles will not be engaged in.

This is the first and most powerful test of whether classifications are useful: does it provide a simple and understandable tool by which behaviour can be understood and predicted with a reasonable degree of confidence. Thus it becomes obvious that some classifications are more useful than others because some physical classifications are more useful than others. The fact that someone is a red-head is not a reasonable predictor of their behaviour. In fact it is difficult to think of any physical characteristics, such as hair or skin colour that help us understand human behaviour.

The next step in our mental processes is to be able to use forms of classification, such as socio-economic grouping, education or income to create a plausible narrative that can be used to understand and predict behaviour. At the heart of the creation of this narrative is the concept of causation. A good narrative (or a good story for that matter) is a sequence of events that people accepted as being a reasonable representation of reality. What holds this narrative together is the logic of the causation within the narrative. Goldilocks finds Father Bear’s porridge too hot, and Mother Bear’s porridge too cold but Baby Bear’s porridge just right, so she eats it.

It’s a simple analogy but one that applies to the tragedy of the killing of the two teenagers in Little Falls, Minnesota. In understanding the motivation of Byron Smith it is necessary to (re)-create the narrative that brought him to the point where he fired the gun. Some of this narrative is a emerged in the press already: he suspected the teenagers were coming to burgle him and that he suspected them of having burgled him beforehand. This narrative begins to explain, but not excuse, his actions. There is another narrative to this tragedy and that is the narrative of the two teenagers. It is highly likely that their narrative works on a different timeframe to that of Byron Smith but it is highly likely that it is parallel and possibly interwoven with that of Byron Smith. In other words, there is some history to the relationship. So, it becomes important that we we try to find narratives and particularly narratives that have the same time span.

What we are presented with in the press is often only a snapshot of the incident: “Man shoots teenagers”. Such an analysis is really only a classification, a simple description of the event. It provides little narrative and hence little indication of the causation leading up to the event. It is by constructing narratives within equal timeframes that we can deepen our insight into the nature of these occurrences.

Often these community conflicts are indicative of conflict on a much wider scale. The sectarian violence in Ireland goes back hundreds of years and it becomes impossible to construct coherent narrative that has an inclusive timeframe. Both sides of the conflict will seek to classify and describe some point in time that will justify their cause.

Unfortunately, this retrograde approach turns the analysis back to classification rather than creating the causal narrative. It is only in developing an agreed causal narrative that there is any hope that some reconciliation can be made in such long-term conflicts.

And the same is true in Little Falls, Minnesota where this particular tragedy is result of two parallel but unresolved causal narratives. Until communities find some way of integrating and understanding the narratives that people carry around in the heads, tragically such as this will continue to happen.

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Lost at sea: Australian warships stray into Indonesian waters

My good friend and colleague, Mark Heffernan is pondering the fate of the 6 naval officers disciplned for accidentally entering Indonesian waters

He suggests that there are at least 5 possible reasons, assuming they were all highly qualified officers

1. The equipment on all six ships suffered a systematic fault which rendered their GPS units faulty (after all MH370 went off course)

2. There is a systemic failing in the way they teach navigation at ADFA (its actually amazing more boats don’t get lost going around the world)

3. The maps were wrong (maybe it was Dirk Hartog week and they were using old maps just for the heck of it)

4. All six Captains went rogue (a la Hunt for Red October) at the same time

5. They were following orders and now they are carrying the can for someone higher up

He suggests it will be interesting to see if these guys get shitty desk jobs or cushy naval attache jobs.

As you can see, Mark does a nice turn of the rhetorical.

I would like to add a sixth possibility. The Australian boats were towing Indonesian fishing boat under the “stop the boats” policy.

Leaving them outside the limit of Indonesian territorial waters may have exposed the asylum seekers to considerable risk so the Australian commanders decided to tow the boat boats to a point where they could safely make landfall.

The tyranny of classification

The killing of two teenagers by a 65-year-old man in Little Falls, Minnesota was hardly exceptional in that gun-crazy country where domestic and community violence is the major form of death from non-natural causes.

Byron Smith shot the two teenagers as they were attempting to burgle his home. In trying to understand this tragedy, it is worth reflecting on the way in which we analyse such events.

Byron Smith: A Good Guy with a Gun?

Byron Smith: A Good Guy with a Gun?

Our most frequent form of analysis is through classification: putting things in some box with a label on it. It’s the way that the great taxonomies of the natural world have been established and is the first level of analysis that helps our understanding of the world we inhabit. But it’s only the first level analysis.

If it is the only form of analysis that is applied then we wind up with a simplistic and ineffective view of the world

In this particular situation, it is worth analysing the National Rifle Association’s much-publicised adage “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with the gun.”

This is a simple classification: there are good guys with guns and bad guys with guns.

Unfortunately, in the situation in Little Falls, it is immediately obvious that the NRA’s view is a woefully inadequate level of analysis.

No doubt, Byron Smith will argue that he was one of the NRA’s the good guys although the law seems to be taking a rather different view, as he now faces first-degree premeditated murder charges.

And the two dead teenagers? They were not armed so they hardly qualified as “bad guys with guns”.

This is the problem with using simplified classification as the only means of analysis of problems, as the NRA does. It doesn’t cover the case of the innocents who are caught in the crossfire. And it certainly doesn’t help our communities understand why people like Byron Smith act the way he did.

There is no doubt that every AK-47-toting citizen of the USA would regard themselves as the “good guys”. So who are all the bad guys? Well it’s only a matter of classification: the bad guys of the people I don’t agree with, people I don’t understand, people who may make me feel threatened, or people who are simply different from me.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is very clear who the bad guys are: it’s the federal government (which wants to pay his taxes) and black Americans: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro … I have… often wondered, are they better off as slaves.”

Rancher Cliven Bundy

Rancher Cliven Bundy

And Bundy has made it quite clear that he is prepared to defy the Federal Government with armed force. The frightening thing about the political and media response to this incident is that his defiance of the law has significant and widespread support. It is his racist attitudes that have brought universal condemnation. He is clearly “a good guy with a gun” and a “bad guy with an attitude.”

Bundy’s supporters argue ‘When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty’. It’s the old one punch classification trick again. Classify tax collection is tyranny and you can justify “defending your rights” by threatening people with an automatic rifle.

The real difficulty with the use of classification is that it is almost impossible to conduct a debate with people for whom this is the only form of analysis. Once you have reached a point where (to quote George Orwell) “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend” the chance of rational discussion has all but disappeared.

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Great Expectations of An Invisible Woman

This is the story of a woman that Dickens, his immediate family and his supporters and admirers, kept secret until well after the death of his children but whom Dickens supported up to, and after, his death. The film is the story of the greatest English novelist and his love affair with a beautiful young actress: think Shakespeare in Love set in the late Victorian period. But there’s none of the energy, poetry or sparkle of Shakespeare in Love in this film.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

And the film misses the opportunity to weave the narrative around any one of Dickens works in the way Romeo and Juliet was in Shakespeare in Love. In fairness, one of the reasons may be that Dickens does not actually deal with the nature of the adulterous relationships between older married men and beautiful young woman in any of his novels. Nor are any of his female characters muses to artists or writers.

There are frequent references to Great Expectations which link the character of Nelly to that of a Estella. There’s nothing in the film to suggest that the relationship between Nelly and Dickens was anything like that between Pip and Estella. Dickens love for Nelly is not unrequited; it’s just that it seems to lack any of the desperate passion of the relationship in the novel.

It has been suggested that Nelly was the inspiration not only for Estella but also for Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. What a pity then that the film does not explore the influence of the relationship Dickens had with Nelly and the characters in his books. If there were elements of these characters in Nelly and they were examined in the film, she would have been a far more interesting character than she is.

That at least would have given us some idea of why the two was so attracted to each other. As it stands it’s hard to fathom it. Indeed, at one stage it seemed more likely that Dickens would start an affair with Nelly’s mother Catherine Ternan, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.

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Felicity Jones is a particularly beautiful Nelly, indeed more attractive than the original. It’s understandable that Dickens would be attracted to her but there is no suggestion of any physical passion between the two. Nelly is also an avid reader of Dickens work but the idea that he may have found this flattering or that she was a source of inspiration for him, is totally absent.

Ralph Fiennes has a remarkable similarity to Dickens.

the-invisible-woman-ralph-fiennes640

He begins the film with considerable energy but his portrayal of the author runs out of steam as the film goes on. The film certainly emphasizes Dickens’ dissatisfaction with his wife, both in physical and intellectual sense, but it certainly doesn’t establish that Nelly provides anything that the marriage lacked.

The other major problem with the film is the use of the two time frames. The film begins with Nelly, now Mrs. George Wharton Robinson, on a desolate part of Margate, lonely and isolated and clearly bearing some burden created by her relationship with the now-dead Dickens, which she has clearly kept secret from her husband.

The main action of the film then shifts back to her meeting and subsequent affair with Dickens. The film ends with her confessing to her relationship with Dickens to another Dickens fan, the Reverend Benham who has guessed at her true identity. The nature of this “confession” is not revealed to the audience so we don’t actually know what it is that is bothering her.

Is she guilty about not telling a husband? Is she grieving for Dickens? Is she overcome by guilt as result of the nature of her relationship with Dickens? Certainly, the quotation at the end of the play that comes from Wilkie Collins The Frozen Deep doesn’t do much to help. Given that the story of a love affair is framed by scenes from Nelly’s later life, the film does very little to demonstrate Nelly’s state of mind beyond some shots of Nelly’s hollow eyed beauty and the desolate sands of Margate.

Felicity Jones

Overall, this beautifully shot film leaves the viewer strangely unsatisfied. It certainly doesn’t suggest any relationship between Nelly and Dickens’ writing nor does it provide any great insight into the nature of the love affair between Nelly and Dickens. Perhaps the whole thing just wasn’t really very interesting to begin with.

The Emissions Reduction Fund: a budgetary disaster

If things go very badly in the Senate, the government will abolish the Carbon tax and replace it with Direct Action. The fundamental difference between the two schemes is that the first taxes polluters and the second pays them not pollute.

In the last financial year the Carbon Tax raised $4.2 billion.

The Emissions Reduction Fund will cost $2.5 billion.

The simple arithmetic is that this switch to what may possibly be less effective system is going to cost the government $6.7 billion per year. This is in a budget that will cut a range of social service spending: pensions healthcare and education.

The projected 5% reduction of in emissions by 2020 is so hopelessly inadequate, we might just as well do nothing. If the Abbot government wishes to abolish the Carbon Tax, it can claim a mandate to do so. But it should say this the pain of an expensive and even less effective approach through Direct Action.

On the 10-point scale of stupid political and economic decisions this one is a 9.5

Genius and Ambition IV: The Heavy Hitters

Naturally enough, the exhibition contains the Royal Academy’s two great heavyweights, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. The Constable is the magnificent a Boat Passing a Lock

Constable 1

He painted the scene again in The Lock

The-Lock-by-John-Constabl-007

The centre of both pictures is dominated by the structure of a lock and the figure of the lock keeper who is releasing the turbulent power of the river. In Passing a Lock, the lock itself and the boat are in a state of chaotic energy. This is in contrast to the rest of the picture and in particular to the calm and poised figure of the lock keeper who controls not only the force of the river but indirectly the force of the thunderstorm that sweeps across the background. It’s a combination of neoclassical ideas of man imposing order in nature with the well-kept fields, the church in the village in the background. It’s even got a dog who has moved to the other side of the picture in The Lock.

The dog pops up again in The Cornfield and Dung Hill

Dogs: The Lock, The Cornfield and  Dung Hill

Dogs: The Lock, The Cornfield and Dung Hill

It’s works like this that make the trip to Bendigo worthwhile.

The other heavy hitter is, of course, Turner but we are not treated to one of his major works rather Dolbadern Castle which he clearly painted when he was having a game in the reserves.

Turner Dolbaden

It’s a moody, dark portrait of a ruin in the wilds of Wales, with the romantic story of an imprisoned Prince, and with the obligatory human dwarfed by nature in the foreground. It’s not one of his major works which is a pity. However, it’s a nice contrast to the Streeton’s Corfe Castle. The programme notes indicate that Streeton probably saw Dolbadern Castle during his time at the Royal Academy.

Sir-Arthur-Streeton-xx-Corfe-Castle-xx-National-Gallery-of-Victoria

Is clearly in the Royal Academy genre of the “sublime” landscapes but for me it is lifted by the silhouetting of the castle against the skyline in the clouds which looks forward to Streeton’s work back in Australia.

And while we’re on Australians and Streeton in particular, there is a wonderful painting that I was assured by a charming lady who had worked at NGV was having its first outing for many years.

Streeton_Windsor

It’s a luminously beautiful painting with the castle shrouded in mist with the golden light of the houses on the river radiating through the painting. Apropos of almost nothing, there is a scene towards the end of Ralph Fiennes’ movie The invisible Woman which looks onto Winter Castle from somewhere over to the right of this picture. As I said, apropos of nothing.

Another blockbuster is Solomon J Solomon’s St George where are our hero has swept the damsel off her feet and thrown her over his shoulder before despatching Dragon with his large weapon.

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George appears casually unaware of the young woman, preferring to focus on despatching the dragon. She, by contrast, appears to be completely uninterested in the fate of the dragon, being more interested in maintaining her position in the arms of her rescuer. The painting has a wonderful sexual energy in the dynamics and colour of the relationship between the two figures.

It’s always interesting to look at other paintings by artist in exhibitions. Isn’t Google a great thing? He was obviously quite into muscular men rescuing scantily clad women. The idea of St George is reprised in AjaX and Cassandra where the outcome for the damsel was rather less pleasant.

ajax-and-cassandra-by-Solomon-J-Solomon-0004

Solomon, like so many of his contemporaries, had a keen interest in the female form.

Montage

The other real standout in the exhibition is the John Singer Sargent painting An interior in Venice.

An_Interior_in_Venice

Apparently, Sargent offered the painting as a gift to the older woman in the foreground who refused it on the grounds that made her look too old and showed her son, who was in the background with his newly married wife, standing in such idle manner showed great disrespect. Well, she would, wouldn’t she. It’s a wonderful painting demonstrating all of Sargent considerable talents but also capturing brilliantly the distance between the two couples and the dynamics of the relationships between them. The two older people sitting silent, clearly with nothing to say to each other and, I think the old girl’s response was accurate, the attitude of the newly minted groom to his wife is arrogantly disrespectful, which she is clearly at pains to ignore. Brilliant!

One of Sargent most famous portraits is Portrait of Madam X, in fact high society beauty Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who was married to a French banker and famous for her rumored infidelities. The original that was exhibited in Paris showed the shoulder strap of the subject’s the reputations of dress having slipped down over her arm. Sacre bleu, Un scandale immédiat. This is the original:

John Singer Sargent, 1884 - Madame_X_(original) - e

Apparently altogether too much flesh for the Parisians so Sargent did little touch up job but unfortunately not enough to restore the damage that was done to the reputations of both him and his model who soon retired from public life.

Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop)

Genius and Ambition III: A Shortage of Victorian Soft Core

One of the very interesting paintings in the exhibition is Janet Agnes Cumbrae Stewart’s Early Morning. Stewart was an Australian artist who exhibited at the Royal Academy in the 1920s so she’s right at the end of the period that the exhibition covers. She is interesting because she is a female artist painting female nudes.

Stewart

Stuart’s output is certainly varied. There is a small amount that is particularly good. The portrait of the young girl reading a book captures the subtle play of the light on the subject’s form. It is probably her best female nude.

Janet Agnes Cumbrae Stewart

Some of rather work isn’t quite so good and pictures such as Child looking at a cuckoo clock tend towards Victorian sentimentality.

child-looking-at-a-cookoo-clock

Much of her work consists of interesting portraits of a child/woman. This painting is the one that is displayed in the exhibition.

Stewart early morning

This work which is on display in the exhibition establishes an ambiguous relationship between the idealised view of the female form and the slightly more softcore porn seen in these two examples by David Hamilton.

Hamilton 1

Hamilton window

Attitudes have certainly changed in the last hundred years and David Hamilton certainly blurs the boundaries between art and softcore pornography. But it is this dividing line that is so interesting when looking at Victorian erotic art and it would chav been interesting if this exhibition, which covers the pre-Raphaelites has included some of their work.

Two of the Australian artists that feature in the exhibition, Rupert Bunny and E Phillips Fox were masters of the sensual and the erotic. The Bunny work on display is Endormies a typically gorgeous and languorous portrait of two beautiful women.

Endormies

The Phillips Fox The Terrace is less impressive with its picture of a wealthy family standing around and not doing very much.

E Phillips Fox The Terrace

E Phillips Fox The Terrace

Wouldn’t it have been great if the exhibition, having lifted the veil on a small corner of Victorian erotica and having shown both Bunny and Phillips Fox, had shown some more of their work, such as Bunny’s wonderful Summer Time or An Idyll

Bunny

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This would have opened the way for the exhibition to have shown some of the very fine work of Royal Academician Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema such as Tepidarium

Tepidarium_Lawrence_Alma-Tadema_(1836-1912)

Or Flaming June by Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton PRA (that’s President of the Royal Academy). Surely you would think being President would have got him a Guernsey for an away game.

Flaming_June,_by_Fredrick_Lord_Leighton_(1830-1896)

But none of this good stuff made it to our shores. And there is a no-show on behalf of William Etty who was repeatedly encouraged to ‘turn from his wicked ways’ and make his art ‘fit for decent company’. The title of his Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed has a back-story all of its own.

Etty-Candaules_King_of_Lydia_Shews_his_Wife_to_Gyges

What a great depiction of Victorian attitudes towards women. What has been a great opportunity missed is the opportunity to examine both artistic and social attitudes towards the depiction of women in painting of this era.

The point that I am making, albeit indirectly, is that it should be possible to have some intellectual structure to an exhibition like this. I’ve presented an argument for an examination of the depiction of women in 19th-century art but it could just as easily have been something else. As it stands, this exhibition really lacks any significant intellectual coherence. Some of the works in this exhibition are amongst the greatest of British paintings But they are set in the context of some pretty ordinary stuff. Margaret Preston does not appear to have any connection whatsoever with the Royal Academy. Her painting Still-life: Sunshine Indoors appears to be in included on the basis that “the intimate interiors, still-lives and domestic spaces – not often the subject of Academy pictures at the time” (Genius and Ambition programme notes pg 190)

margaret-preston-still-life-sunshine-indoors-1914

Am I being cynical, or is this just padding out the exhibition.

There are a number of outstanding Australian works in this exhibition and, the equality notwithstanding, it is difficult to see how some of them came to be included. It is these elements in the design and composition of the exhibition that makes it in many ways a less then satisfying experience. This is lack of coherent structure is brought home very strongly when you leave Genius and Ambition and walk through the Bendigo Art Gallery’s outstanding Australian collection. It’s small but provides a wonderful narrative and history of Australian art.

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David Hamilton: bringing a soft focus to soft-core porn

Genius and Ambition II: The fine line between Sentimentality and Sensibility

Sensibility is being ableable to appreciate and respond to make complex emotional or aesthetic responses particularly to art and literature whereas sentimentality is an exaggerated and self-indulgent response. It’s a fine line in this exhibition shows how easy it is to cross over it.

To the modern viewer, much of Victorian art is often laden with sentimentality. This exhibition has examples of a genre that was undoubtedly very popular with Victorians but may be somewhat cloying to a modern audience. Nicholas Chevalier’s painting Weary, a Day at St Leonards is a fine example of this.

Weary, a Day at St Leonards

Weary, a Day at St Leonards

The young girl exhausted by her labours selling flowers at the seaside resort. She is an idealised beauty complemented by the basket of flowers, dressed in tidy but worn clothing. Our heartstrings are plucked by the fact that she is resting on a crutch: not only poverty stricken but crippled as well. It’s pure sentimentality, as is another painting by Chevalier.

Nicholas Chevalier, Seeking Fortune,

Nicholas Chevalier, Seeking Fortune,

The boy and the flower seller could easily be brother and sister is just that he’s got a better start in life with a violin rather than a basket of flowers.

Yet another marvellous example of this sentimentality is John Callcott Horsley’s A Pleasant Corner where the subject is seated in the corner of a comfortable living room with the light from the window creating an idealised picture of domestic contentment.

Coates corner

But it has an unreal air to it when you look more closely at the doll-like face of the subject that is idealised almost to the point of caricature.

Another rather cloying example of the style is George Frederick Folingsby’s The First Lesson

George Frederick Folingsby  The First Lesson

George Frederick Folingsby The First Lesson

Here the gorgeously petty coated young child, supported and encouraged by his mother, reaches up to play what looks like his first Beethoven piano sonata.

We get more chubby-cheeked beauty in George Coates’s Motherhood with a gorgeously attired mother looking anxiously over the slightly feverish but still chubby-cheeked child.

coates-motherhood

Coates was clearly keen on these shots of the affluent upper classes and their beautifully attired children as it shown in another idealised picture of the relationship between parent and child.

coates 3

Coates’ A Friendly Game is another idealised picture of the mother-child relationship.

COates a ffriendly game

The beautiful young mother looks over two idealised and beautiful children all bathed in beautiful light and wearing rich and gorgeous clothes. The painting captures a relationship between the three. The mother, solicitous of the response of the younger girl while her older and more accomplished sister watches haughtily to see what her younger sister’s response will be.

But we get both barrels of Victorian sentimentality with Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast.

richard-redgrave-the-outcast-1851-ra

The despair of the family and the anger of the father all point towards the dark void into which a young woman and her baby must soon step. It’s a heartrending portrayal of the plight of the fallen woman and there is clearly a rich narrative behind the picture. Of course, we sympathise with the plight of the young mother and with the baby whose small hand is reaching out into the darkness. But the artist is really laying it on with a trowel here.

It gets worse.In Edwin Henry Landseer’s The Faithful Hound, we have the dog howling over its fallen master, clad in armour, clearly killed, obviously heroically and possibly treacherously, in battle.

Royal-Landseer_FaithfulHound-WEB

Fortunately, there wasn’t too much of this stuff in the exhibition.

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Corrupt donations to political parties

Given that the ICAC enquiry is now winding up its public activities, it is worth reflecting on one of the most important but relatively unexamined findings.

Joe (Heavy lifting) Hockey has returned $30,000 of the campaign donations he received from Sydney Water Holdings. This is the “end of entitlement” man who was caught out rorting his travel expenses. We must also not forget that this money was billed back to Sydney Water, a public utility. So Joe was effectively receiving his campaign funds from the public purse.

Not only that the man who presumably had oversight of SWH, Arty Sinodinus the treasurer of the New South Wales branch of Liberal party – Joe’s branch – he was also Joe’s right-hand man in Parliament – the Assistant Treasurer.

When is Hockey going to be called to make a public account of this appalling situation and when are we going to find out how widespread this process of siphoning off public funds into the Liberal party’s campaigning coffers actually was?

It’s not going to be good enough for Hockey to say that he didn’t know where the money came from. He’s the Federal Treasurer and should be the very exemplar of financial probity.

As time goes by and the scandals surrounding people such as Thomson, Sinodinus and Obeid and his minions are going to inure the Australian public to the fact that many of our politicians are self-seeking, corrupt hypocrites.

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).

Theory Joshua Reynolds

Theory Joshua Reynolds

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 while 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 and 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.

Domenico_Corvi_-_Allegory_of_Painting_-_Walters_371011

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

CH27078

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 there is going to be all hell to pay.

the Infant Jupiter Joshua Reynolds

the Infant Jupiter Joshua Reynolds

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 the exhibition but certainly a symbolic one. It probably sets in context the contribution that the Royal Academy has made to British art.

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