Perhaps the present especially grubby, soul-staining state of Australian public-political life was a subconscious reason for my early bustle along, on Monday, to the NGA's vaunted Botticelli to Van Gogh exhibition.
The celebrity paintings from the National Gallery, London, are our guests until June 14 but it may be that in these filthy times one's soul feels an especially urgent hankering for a cleansing experience of the sublime and the beautiful.
And so one bustles off to the NGA in search of the sublime but of course with half one's mind still occupied with recent events, including of course the intriguing news that the disgraced Dr Laming is to have a course of something called "empathy training".
Is being able to feel empathy (an ability to truly, sympathetically feel and share others' deepest feelings) something that can be taught? Is it a skill, like bricklaying, say, or dancing the tango, which one can acquire by study? Does one earn a diploma so one can frame and hang on a wall?
Or instead is empathy a kind of essential virtue one's soul picks up (perhaps by unconscious observation, beginning in early childhood) by noticing the role of decency and kindliness in worthwhile everyday life?
Whatever, all of us must strive to rise above being the poor, weak things we are and so, empathetically, I wish Dr Laming well. And if his empathy course works wonders for him then perhaps everyone on his famously unfeeling side of politics (notorious for having no empathy whatsoever with refugees driven mad in offshore detention, with the unemployed, etc.) can take the same course.
I wonder if, as part of his course, Dr Laming will be taken to our blockbuster exhibition? After all it contains several reverent depictions of Jesus Christ whose empathic understanding of the plights of others (see for example Matthew 25 verse 44 where He demands we give loving attention to all of the wretched of the earth) is His defining virtue.
Meanwhile, in this week in which our prime minister empowered and exalted women with his new cabinet and ministry (said to have the strongest female representation an Australian government cabinet and ministry has ever had) one was very sensitised to the big exhibition's The Annunciation (1486) by Carlo Crivelli.
One is used to the notion that the Virgin Mary, at the moment she is informed that she is to bear Our Redeemer, is just a bewildered peasant girl. Crivelli's Mary, instead, is dressed as someone princess-rich and is in a plush room in a plush palace as a laser-straight shaft of golden supernatural light zooms down from Heaven to touch her head.
God is promoting her, this most highly favoured lady, to very high office. This "Annunciation" is set in the town of Ascoli Piceno and it is easy to imagine this already substantial and accomplished Mary (we know she is scholarly because she is deeply absorbed in some scholarly reading) is already one of that town's movers and shakers, perhaps even its precocious mayoress. A woman's place is everywhere, Crivelli's fabulous masterpiece affirms.
Strangely, in the exhibition's busy rooms of gadding gallery-goers, while I was there almost no one was going up to Rembrandt's Self-Portrait At The Age of 36. His shunning suggested to me (my mind still half-tuned to the debauched Canberra beyond the cultivated gallery) a disgraced and ostracised parliamentary backbencher (not unlike Dr Laming).
Empathically, I spent quite some time with Rembrandt, giving him some brotherly company.
If Dr Laming and men are taken to Botticelli to Van Gogh as part of their empathy training while on the premises their counsellors should also usher their students in to the gallery's Know My Name exhibition. It is a timely (timely because the importance of due respect for women is suddenly much-discussed) of largely unknown female artists whose "Names", the exhibition is saying, we really ought to "Know".
One of the exhibition's paintings, Freda Robertshaw's self-portrait Standing Nude (1944), is a memorably startling thing for a heterosexual male (this columnist's plight in life) to see.
An accompanying caption says the painting portrays "nakedness without allure" and, yes, that's exactly what it does, somehow, uncannily.
Naked Ms Robertshaw, youngish, glowingly peach-skinned and beautiful looks out welcomingly and confidently at her beholders, yet without there being anything the slightest bit lubricious about her for a gazing heterosexual male to drool at.
As a heterosexual male I have found Freda Robertshaw's Standing Nude bewilderingly, eerily, indefinably educational. I wonder if, led to see it, it might weave a similar educative magic with all men who are being taught to empathise with women instead of only ever thinking of women as alluring objects.
- Ian Warden is a regular columnist.