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The art and beauty of general relativity

The Conversation

Margaret Wertheim, University of Melbourne

One hundred years ago this month, an obscure German physicist named Albert Einstein presented to the Prussian Academy of Science his General Theory of Relativity. Nothing prior had prepared scientists for such a radical re-envisioning of the foundations of reality.

Encoded in a set of neat compact equations was the idea that our universe is constructed from a sort of magical mesh, now known as “spacetime”. According to the theory, the structure of this mesh would be revealed in the bending of light around distant stars.

To everyone at the time, this seemed implausible, for physicists had long known that light travels in straight lines. Yet in 1919 observations of a solar eclipse revealed that on a cosmic scale light does bend, and overnight Einstein became a superstar.

Einstein is said to have reacted nonchalantly to the news that his theory had been verified. When asked how he’d have reacted if it hadn’t been, he replied: “I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.”

What made him so secure in this judgement was the extreme elegance of his equations: how could something so beautiful not be right?

The quantum theorist Paul Dirac would latter sum up this attitude to physics when he borrowed from poet John Keats, declaring that, vis-à-vis our mathematical descriptions of nature, “beauty is truth, and truth beauty”.

Art of science

A quest for beauty has been a part of the tradition of physics throughout its history. And in this sense, general relativity is the culmination of a specific set of aesthetic concerns. Symmetry, harmony, a sense of unity and wholeness, these are some of the ideals general relativity formalises. Where quantum theory is a jumpy jazzy mash-up, general relativity is a stately waltz.

As we celebrate its centenary, we can applaud the theory not only as a visionary piece of science but also as an artistic triumph.

What do we mean by the word “art”?

Lots of answers have been proposed to this question and many more will be given. A provocative response comes from the poet-painter Merrily Harpur, who has noted that “the duty of artists everywhere is to enchant the conceptual landscape”. Rather than identifying art with any material methods or practices, Harpur allies it with a sociological outcome. Artists, she says, contribute something bewitching to our mental experience.

It may not be the duty of scientists to enchant our conceptual landscape, yet that is one of the goals science can achieve; and no scientific idea has been more enrapturing than Einstein’s. Though he advised there’d never be more than 12 people who’d understand his theory, as with many conceptual artworks, you don’t have to understand all of relativity to be moved by it.

There is a beauty in spacetime. NASA, CC BY-NC

In essence the theory gives us a new understanding of gravity, one that is preternaturally strange. According to general relativity, planets and stars sit within, or withon, a kind of cosmic fabric – spacetime – which is often illustrated by an analogy to a trampoline.

Imagine a bowling ball sitting on a trampoline; it makes a depression on the surface. Relativity says this is what a planet or star does to the web of spacetime. Only you have to think of the surface as having four dimensions rather than two.

Now applying the concept of spacetime to the whole cosmos, and taking into account the gravitational affect of all the stars and galaxies within it, physicists can use Einstein’s equations to determine the structure of the universe itself. It gives us a blueprint of our cosmic architecture.


Einstein began his contemplations with what he called gedunken (or thought) experiments; “what if?” scenarios that opened out his thinking in wildly new directions. He praised the value of such intellective play in his famous comment that “imagination is more important than knowledge”.

The quote continues with an adage many artists might endorse: “Knowledge is finite, imagination encircles the world.”

But imagination alone wouldn’t have produced a set of equations whose accuracy has now been verified to many orders of magnitude, and which today keeps GPS satellites accurate. Thus Einstein also drew upon another wellspring of creative power: mathematics.

As it happened, mathematicians had been developing formidable techniques for describing non-Euclidean surfaces, and Einstein realised he could apply these tools to physical space. Using Riemannian geometry, he developed a description of the world in which spacetime becomes a dynamic membrane, bending, curving and flexing like a vast organism.

Where the Newtonian cosmos was a static featureless void, the Einsteinian universe is a landscape, constantly in flux, riven by titanic forces and populated by monsters. Among them: pulsars shooting out giant jets of x-rays and light-eating black holes, where inside the maw of an “event horizon”, the fabric of spacetime is ripped apart.

One mark of an important artist is the degree to which he or she stimulates other creative thinkers. General relativity has been woven into the DNA of science fiction, giving us the warp drives of Star Trek, the wormhole in Carl Sagan’s Contact, and countless other narrative marvels. Novels, plays, and a Philip Glass symphony have riffed on its themes.

At a time when there is increasing desire to bridge the worlds of art and science, general relativity reminds us there is artistry in science.

Creative leaps here are driven both by playful speculation and by the ludic powers of logic. As the 19th century mathematician John Playfair remarked in response to the bizzarities of non-Euclidean geometry, “we become aware how much further reason may sometimes go than imagination may dare to follow”.

In general relativity, reason and imagination combine to synthesise a whole that neither alone could achieve.

The ConversationMargaret Wertheim, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Science Communication, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The Horse: reframing the history of human progress

The Conversation

Barbara Creed, University of Melbourne

Throughout history, the horse has occupied a powerful place in the emotional, spiritual and daily lives of human beings.

It is said that one day in 1889 when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a horse, harnessed to a hansom cab, being cruelly whipped in the streets of Turin, Italy, he ran across the road and threw his arms around the animal’s neck, sobbing.

He suffered a severe mental breakdown and spent the remainder of his life in an asylum, refusing to speak again.

In 2011, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr made an acclaimed film, The Turin Horse, which recounts this famous episode. Tarr says his philosophical drama is about the “heaviness” of existence.

Horses appear in our art, myth, religion, poetry, song, philosophy, literature and film; often in a philosophical context.

Greece, Chalsis, The Inscriptions Painter (Archaic Period, 540 BC). Psykter amphora, Battle scene from the Trojan War. Chalkidian black-figure ware, fired clay. Felton Bequest, 1956. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

In the magnificent exhibition The Horse, at the National Gallery of Victoria, curators Laurie Benson and Ted Gott present works that not only reveal the incredible beauty and grace of the horse, but also explore all aspects of the lives of horses — particularly Tarr’s theme of the heaviness of existence.

Organised in five sections — Myth, Legend, Miracle, Pageant, Conflict, Labour and Pleasure — the exhibition is a celebration of the horse. It also offers a fascinating social history of the horse.

The exhibition displays art works drawn exclusively from the NGV’s own vast collection, which covers the Ancient World, Europe, the Middle East, India and Australia.

Frederick Woodhouse Senior, 1820–1909. The Cup of 1862-1863, oil on canvas. Donated by Mr F. W. Prell, 1889 Victoria Racing Club Collection. The National Gallery of Victoria, Author provided

The first painting the viewer encounters is Lucy Kemp-Welch’s (main image) Horses bathing in the sea (1900). Their riders, military men, sit bareback as the mighty horses dip and plunge in the waves. Although horsemen over the centuries have disparagingly talked about the need to “break-in” a horse, to “tame its spirit”, these horses appear strong powerful and muscular — their spirit is not for breaking.

Chinese Female equestrian (Tang dynasty 618 AD–907 AD). Henan / Shaanxi province, north China earthenware, pigments. Gift of H. W. Kent, 1938. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Nearby, the earthenware statue, Female Equestrian, from the Tang dynasty depicts horse and rider unified in quiet repose. They share a common bond. Horse is a beautiful, thoughtful, and at times, confronting celebration of the relationship between humans and horses over the last three thousand years and the crucial role that horses have played in the evolution of civilisation.

While celebrating the noble achievements of the horse, the exhibition does not shirk from pointing out the great cost to horses of their relationship with human beings. This is emphasised in the section on Conflict and the crucial role played by horses in war from classical times to the modern period.

Septimus Power, Cavalry charge at Cambrai (c. 1919). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, CC BY

Septimus Power’s stirring Cavalry charge at Cambrai (c. 1919) depicts horses and soldiers in a frenzy of movement as they gallop towards the enemy. Obedient to their riders, the horses charge forward united in purpose and fate. The curators note that during World War 1, 130,000 Waler horses were shipped from Australia to Egypt, the Middle East and Europe and only one returned. The majority were either sold or shot as it was too costly to bring them home.

Pierre-Marie Beyle, The last resting place of Coco (La Derniere Étape de Coco) (1878). Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

One of the most emotionally confronting works, on the theme of Labour, is Pierre-Marie Beyle’s The Last Resting Place of Coco (1878). Deliberately appealing directly to the viewer’s emotions, it illustrates an important topic of discussion in the late 19th century. Lying on the snow-covered ground, and still harnessed to the caravan, Coco has simply died from exhaustion.

Husband, wife and son look on as the family dog sits in the snow beside Coco, staring intently into the horse’s face as if willing him to stand up and keep going.

The viewer is forced to wonder why the family pushed the horse so hard that it collapsed and died from overwork. Were they completely lacking in empathy?

Septimus Power, Toilers (1940). Oil on canvas. Felton Bequest, 1941. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

It is Septimus Power’s Toilers (1940) that captures the great strength and muscular beauty of living, working horses as they pull a plough through the hard soil, obedient to the farmer with his raised switch. Dorothea Lange’s stunning photograph, Spring Ploughing (1937), with its focus on man as the workhorse is worth a visit on its own.

Odilon Redon, Pegasus (Pégase) (1900–05). Pastel, distemper, charcoal and incising on paper on cardboard. Felton Bequest, 1951. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Two standout works both explore the role of myth in our lives: Odilon Redon’s Pegasus (1900-1905) and Michael Cook’s Civilized #1 (2012). Redon’s mysterious Pegasus, the winged stallion of Greek mythology (born of Poseidon and the Medusa), stands with his head arched, wings aloft, and one foot raised according to the legend whereby the white stallion struck his hoof to the ground and a spring then gushed forth.

The naked man at his side is the hero, Bellerophon, whom Pegasus allowed to ride him in order to slay the Chimera. Man and horse are united by line and colour, but it is Pegasus who, in his graceful and fragile beauty, draws the eye. Why did the proud horse allow himself to be “tamed”?

Cook’s Civilized #1 is even more enigmatic. The photograph depicts a man standing by the sea; his body is muscular and lithe, while his head is a mask of a horse’s head. Waves crash at his feet, grey clouds swirl in the background.

Cook’s half-man, half-horse is the opposite of the mythical centaur. The white colonialists of course introduced the horse to Australia. The creature appears to be reading lines of script in the sky. These are the well-known words of Captain Cook:

They are human creatures … more entitled to his favour [they] may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than … we Europeans.

Civilized #1 belongs to the artist’s “What-If” series in which he reworks Australian history from an Indigenous perspective. A surreal, dreamlike work, Civilized #1 offers only questions. What-If the white settlers had listened to Cook’s words? What-If the colonialists had nurtured, rather than destroyed, their bond with nature?

By imaginatively re-staging the past, Cook liberates history from itself and creates a space to ask new questions.

There is so much to think about in this exhibition: how essential the horse is to the evolution of civilization; the sacrifice of the horse to human progress; the bond between human and horse; human cruelty to the horse; the relationship of women and horses; and human worship of the horse.

In this sense, it also tells us a great deal about ourselves – our passions, desires, betrayals and loyalties.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey (Le Jockey) (1899). Colour lithograph. Felton Bequest, 1974. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

The section on the horse in contemporary times explores the theme of pleasure. The works, artefacts and costumes on the history of horse-racing and the Melbourne Cup are fascinating. These point to the main use of the horse today in the western world.

The reduction of the horse’s contemporary significance to a racing carnival, however, makes one yearn for a more ethical relationship between human and animal — perhaps the one that Cook’s creature is pondering as he looks out across the churning waves.

The Horse is at the National Gallery of Victoria until November 8, details here.

The ConversationBarbara Creed, Professor of Cinema Studies, Director, Human Rights & Animal Ethics Network, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Masterpieces from the Hermitage puts the great in Catherine the Great: review

The Conversation

Sasha Grishin, Australian National University

The selection of art from the Hermitage on show at the National Gallery of Victoria can be summed up by a single word: spectacular. The loan, until November 9, consists of about 450 works and includes some of the greatest names in European art, with major paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens and Velázquez.

Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) was both the founder of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, as well as the woman who politicised the international art market and made Russia the pariah that snapped up the great collections of art, regardless to the price.

When George Walpole, the grandson of the great English art collector and Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, decided to sell Granddad’s art collection to fund his extravagant lifestyle, he promptly contacted the Russian ambassador to Great Britain, Alexey Musin-Pushkin, who had organised the purchase for Catherine for the staggering sum of £40,000 (A$85,500).

Frans Snyders, Flemish (1579–1657) – Concert of birds (1630–40). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired from the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779. Image courtesy of the NGV.

The English were furious and felt humiliated: they pilloried Catherine in the thriving caricature press and secretly encouraged wars designed to drain the Russian coffers.

The Empress of All Russia was undeterred and continued to acquire some of the most significant art collections of her day, including those of Count von Brühl, the Duke de Choiseul, of Crozat de Thiers and that formed by Johann Gotzkowski for Frederick II of Prussia.

The pattern set in place by the German-born monarch, who on one hand was a ruthless plotting despot and on the other an Enlightened autocrat with an appetite for art and lovers, was to continue in the history of the Hermitage.

Now, 250 years later, the State Hermitage Museum is one of the greatest art collections in the world, and is from time to time still mired in controversy.

Peter Paul Rubens and workshop, Flemish (1577–1640). The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1620). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired from the collection of Dufresne, Amsterdam, 1770. Image courtesy of the NGV.

Quite a number of these treasures were assembled by the empress herself and are generally on permanent display in the museum. In the spirit of the 250th anniversary celebrations of the Hermitage, when the British Museum controversially loaned part of its greatest treasure, the Elgin Marbles, to the Hermitage, the Hermitage has reciprocated with this breathtaking generosity to Australia.

While a work such as Rembrandt’s Young woman trying on earrings, 1657, (see below), one of the most famous and intimate masterpieces by the Dutch master, and Titian’s fabulous Portrait of a young woman, c1536, will attract the huge crowds, I am personally drawn by some of the quirky pieces in the exhibition.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Dutch (1606–69) – Young woman trying on earrings (1657). Oil on wood panel. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired from the collection of the Comte de Baudouin, Paris, 1781. Image courtesy of the NGV.

As part of the Walpole collection, Catherine bought the Donna Nuda, early 16th century (see below), as an autograph painting by Leonardo da Vinci. The attribution remained unchallenged for more than a century and, although now it is disputed and is generally ascribed to the School of Leonardo, it is a most startling and haunting piece.

Leonardo Da Vinci (school of) – Female nude (Donna Nuda) (early 16th century). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired from the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779. Image courtesy of the NGV

It can be described as a close copy of the Mona Lisa except for one very significant difference: La Giaconda is shown completely naked and the beguiling smile gains a sexually provocative quality. The gaze has been reversed as she undresses the beholder with her penetrating and coquettish glance. It becomes a very contemporary, surrealist-like invention.

Diego Velazquez, Spanish (1599–1660) – Luncheon (c. 1617–18). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired 1763–74. Image courtesy of the NGV.

One of the drawings in the show, Hendrick Goltzius’s Bacchus, Venus and Ceres, 1606, is a show-stopper in every respect. The great Dutch printmaker has created a pen drawing with wash using a goose quill, which is more than two metres high and of exquisite refinement.

Usually it is in Room 250 in the New Hermitage Building in St Petersburg in an awkward position where viewing is difficult. In Melbourne it is beautifully shown and exquisitely lit.

As a general observation, the display at the National Gallery of Victoria is sympathetic to that in the Hermitage, retaining much of the original colour scheme, but the lighting in many instances is vastly superior and many of the works are exhibited to an unprecedented advantage.

Frans Snyders, Flemish (1579–1657), Jan Boeckhorst, German (1605–68) – Cook at a kitchen table with dead game (c. 1636–37). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired from the collection of Johann Gotzwoksy, Berlin. Image courtesy of NGV.

This is not an exhibition of only old master paintings and drawings with a few sculptures included, but one which seriously engages with the Chinese art collection assembled by Catherine, applied arts and architectural and design drawings.

There is an exquisite Chinese Crab-shaped box, from the mid 18th century, woven out of thousands of very fine silver filigree threads in which the empress kept her rouge makeup, as well as her Cameo Service dinner set, which she commissioned from the Sévres Porcelain Factory in France in 1778-79.

Alexander Roslin, Swedish (1718–93) – Portrait of Catherine II (1776–77). Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Acquired from the artist, 1777. Image courtesy of the NGV.

This is arguably the finest old master exhibition to visit Australia and should set record crowds. A dark cloud on the horizon is when politics is forced onto art and other cultural events.

I remember when in 1979 when the Old Master Paintings from the USSR toured Australia through the Australian Gallery Directors Council and some politicians arranged boycotts because that year the Soviet Union commenced its costly and ultimately pointless war in Afghanistan.

In some countries now, America and Australian are boycotted for their present and equally pointless involvement in the same country. Logic would demand that if nationalist zealots would boycott an exhibition from Russia because they disapprove of some of its foreign policies, the same would apply to China, the United States, Japan, Germany and so on. The art world would become a very lonely place.

One can only hope that the Australian public has attained a maturity to accept an art exhibition for what it is and celebrate what is undoubtedly a major event in the Australian art calendar.

Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great is at the National Gallery of Victoria until November 8. Details here.

The ConversationSasha Grishin is Adjunct Professor of Art History at Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Aristotle on art

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and scientist born in the Macedonian city of Stagira, Chalkidice, on the northern periphery of ancient Greece. At eighteen, he joined Plato’s Academy in Athens and remained there until the age of thirty-seven (c. 347 BCE). His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy.



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Tretyakov Galleries Old and New, Moscow 23.8.12

Travels with Tim and Lisa

Most tourists with only a day or two in Moscow see only the permanent collection at the Tretyakov Gallery, because it’s centrally located near the major hotels and everybody recommends it.  It houses Russian Art from the 11th Century to the beginning of the 20th Century, so it has all the gorgeous icons and the kind of 18th & 19th century paintings that most people really like.  Of course it’s a must-see, but if you can venture a little further afield, it is well worth going to see the other Tretyakov Gallery as well…

Nobody here has even mentioned the New Tretyakov Gallery which houses the collection of Soviet art, and we would have missed it too if we hadn’t had a copy of Frommer’s Moscow Day-by-Day which showed us that it was nearby.  Our hotel (the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy) is in the business district and so for us the  New Tretyakov Gallery was just a short taxi…

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