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8 TV shows to watch this July

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From a Resident Evil series to new sitcom Uncoupled, with Neil Patrick Harris as a suddenly-single gay man in his 40s, Amy Charles lists this month’s best shows to watch and stream.(Credit: Apple TV+)1. Black Bird
Sentenced to 10 years in a minimum-security prison for drug dealing without the chance of parole, Jimmy Keene was set to wait out his stretch. But he’s given the chance of a lifetime: to enter a maximum-security prison and befriend a suspected serial killer whose case is up for appeal, extract a confession and the locations of bodies from him, and then be given his freedom. Inspired by true events and adapted from Keene’s memoir In with the Devil – co-written with investigative journalist Hillel Levin – Black Bird promises to be a psychological study of one man trying to extract answers from another, and work out whether he is telling the truth. Starring Taron Egerton (Rocketman) as Keene and Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) as Larry Hall, the killer in question, Black Bird is the creation of renowned novelist Dennis Lehane, whose books include Shutter Island and Mystic River, both themselves adapted into hit screen thrillers. The supporting cast includes the late, great Ray Liotta, playing Egerton’s father in one of his final screen roles, alongside Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets) and Sepideh Moafi (The Deuce). Watch the trailer for Black Bird here.
The first two episodes of Black Bird are released on Apple TV+ on 8 July, with the rest following weekly(Credit: Barbara Nitke/ Netflix)2. Uncoupled
Seventeen years is a long time to spend with someone – and for 40-something Michael (Neil Patrick Harris), whose husband walks out on him, readjustment back to the single life after all that time in a relationship is no mean feat. This new comedy from Sex and the City and Emily in Paris creator Darren Star will see Michael trying to get to grips with a thoroughly changed dating world. The series got into hot water last year when it emerged that it had dropped a character – a Latina housekeeper – after backlash from actor Ada Maris, who had read the script and told Variety that the character was “hurtful and derogatory”. Speaking to the Guardian, Harris said that he “applauded” Netflix for taking the step to remove the character. With Star’s other shows bringing in legions of dedicated fans, Netflix will surely be banking on this to be a hit. Watch the teaser trailer for Uncoupled here.
Uncoupled is released on 29 July on Netflix(Credit: Prime Video/ Amazon Studios)3. The Terminal List
“There’s evil in this world, the likes of which you can’t possibly imagine,” says James Reece (Chris Pratt) in the trailer for this new revenge action-thriller. Adapted from Jack Carr’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Terminal List follows James Reece, a US Navy Seal who lost 12 colleagues during a covert mission. Back home with his family, Reece is traumatised, but determined to find out what happened to his platoon and take down the dark forces still at large. Pratt also serves as executive producer, and Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Mrs America) and Riley Keough (American Honey) make up just some of the star-studded cast. A review of the original book in The Washington Times said it “grabs you from the start and never lets go. The action is explosive. And the suspense will blindside you.” Let’s hope the same applies here.
The Terminal List is released on 1 July on Prime Video(Credit: HBO)4.   The Rehearsal
How far would you go to reduce the uncertainties of everyday life? This new comedy explores the possibilities of rehearsing for life’s biggest moments, using a construction crew, a team of actors, and seemingly unlimited resources. It’s written, directed and starring Nathan Fielder – co-creator of cult series Nathan For You and executive producer of HBO’s How to With John Wilson – who announced the release of the series to his 470,000+ Twitter followers with a short clip of the show featuring people watching a parent and baby on video monitors: so far, so mysterious. Speaking to Louis Theroux in Interview magazine two years ago, Fielder hinted at a change of pace in what he’s creating, saying “now, I’m working on new stuff that addresses more accurately where my head’s currently at.” If it is anything like his other comedy though, expect wince-inducing irreverence.
The Rehearsal premieres on 15 July on HBO and HBO Max in the US(Credit: Carla Oset/ Netflix)5. The Longest Night
It’s Christmas Eve at the Monte Baruca psychiatric prison in Madrid, where dangerous serial killer Simón Lago (Luis Callejo, The Fury of a Patient Man) is being held. An armed gang surround the prison and cut off communications, with the aim of capturing Lago. But warden Hugo (Alberto Ammann, Narcos) isn’t going down without a fight. Created by Víctor Sierra and Xosé Morais, two of the creators of Néboa, and directed by Sky Rojo’s Óscar Pedraza, this Spanish-language thriller series looks set to be chock-full of explosive, high-octane action. Watch the trailer for The Longest Night here.
The Longest Night is released on 8 July on Netflix(Credit: BBC/Hartswood Films)6.  The Control Room
When someone dials 999, life-and-death decisions are made very quickly. Set in Glasgow, The Control Room follows Gabe (played by Iain De Caestecker, Agents of Shield), a call handler whose world is turned upside down when he receives a call from a distressed woman who appears to know him. Gabe must work out who this woman is, and make decisions which could have life-altering consequences. Written by Nick Leather (Murdered For Being Different), this thriller also stars Joanna Vanderham (Warrior), Sharon Rooney (My Mad Fat Diary), Daniel Portman (Game of Thrones) and Taj Atwal (Line of Duty). Speaking when he was announced as the lead, De Caestecker said “The Control Room is one of the most exciting scripts I’ve ever read, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time so I’m thrilled to now be bringing it to life.” Watch the trailer for The Control Room here.
The Control Room will be released in July on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK(Credit: Apple TV+)7.  Surface
Billed as a “sexy, elevated thriller”, the San Francisco-set Surface sees Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle) wake up from a traumatic head injury with severe memory loss following an apparent suicide attempt. As she’s guided through recovery by her husband and friends, she begins to ask whether what they’re telling her about her life is real. Created by Veronica West (High Fidelity), with direction from Sam Miller (I May Destroy You), it also stars Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Haunting of Hill House), Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk), Ari Graynor (The Disaster Artist) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Without a Trace). The blurb for the show describes Surface as “a story of self-discovery which contemplates if we are pre-programmed to become who we are, or if we choose our own identity,” so expect major twists and turns as Sophie tries to find the truth. Watch the trailer for Surface here.
The first three episodes of Surface are released on Apple TV+ on 29 July, with the rest released weekly(Credit: Marcos Cruz / Netflix)8.  Resident Evil
For more than 25 years, Resident Evil titles have been some of the gaming world’s most popular. The survival horror franchise has spawned an empire of spin-offs including novels, six films, comics, and now, finally, after years of development, a live-action TV series. The show is set across two timelines: in the present-day, teenage siblings Jade (Ella Balinska) and Billie Wesker (Siena Agudong) move with their father Albert (John Wick’s Lance Reddick) to New Racoon City, the home of the sinister Umbrella Corporation. Cut to 2036, and Earth is a very different place: there are now six billion zombies – people who have been infected with the so-called T-virus – and only 15 million humans left, as Jade fights for survival. Showrunner Andrew Dabb (Supernatural) told Gizmodo that the show is true to the games’ roots, saying: “It’s got the blood and the guts and the gore and the monsters and the secrets and the betrayals and all that stuff. And I hope people really respond to that.” Watch the trailer for Resident Evil here.
Resident Evil is released on 14 July on Netflix
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11 films to watch this July

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Taika Waititi’s Thor is back, Jordan Peele is directing a new film with Daniel Kaluuya and Where the Crawdads Sing is adapted for the big screen – here are this July’s unmissable releases.(Credit: Universal Studios)1. Nope
A politically-charged sci-fi horror mystery with a very short title? Yes, Nope is the third film from Jordan Peele, the brilliant writer-director of Get Out and Us. For his alien-abduction movie, Peele reunites with the star of Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya, who plays a horse rancher in the US West. After a strange object falls from the sky and kills their father, he and his sister (Keke Palmer) suspect that there is a flying saucer hovering in the clouds above their ranch. The jaw-dropping revelations that follow, insists Peele, are best experienced in a crowded cinema. “I love a rapt audience,” he said at CinemaCon in Las Vegas. “I love an audience that’s cringing or cowering or laughing. Rollercoasters aren’t fun alone. Laughing isn’t fun alone. Being scared isn’t fun alone. You need that energy and it heightens the ride.”
Released on 22 July in the US, Canada, Ireland and Spain and on 12 August in the UK and Sweden(Credit: Universal Content Group)2. McEnroe
John McEnroe is one of the greatest players in the history of men’s tennis. He is also one of the most fascinating: a notorious hothead who has matured into a genial commentator and family man. In Barney Douglas’s intimate documentary, the erstwhile Superbrat wanders around his beloved hometown of New York City, and muses on his ferocious perfectionism, his tempestuous marriage to Tatum O’Neal, his relationship with his alcoholic father and his habit of yelling at any umpire who dared to rule against him. Björn Borg, Billie Jean King and others add their reminiscences. “Every moment of the film contains interesting information from these eye-witnesses as well as from an open and honest McEnroe,” says Marilyn Ferdinand at AWFJ. “This film is vital viewing for anyone who wants to see and understand the achievements and heart of this champion.”
Released on 15 July in the UK and Ireland, and will be released in September in the US(Credit: CTMG)3. Where the Crawdads Sing
Where the Crawdads Sing is a phenomenon. Delia Owens’s debut novel, a mystery-drama set in 50s and 60s North Carolina, topped the New York Times list of fiction best-sellers in both 2019 and 2020, and has now sold 12 million copies worldwide. One of its biggest fans, Reese Witherspoon, has produced the inevitable film. “The way that Delia Owens wrote this book with such authenticity, you could just tell she really grew up in this place,” Witherspoon told Caitlin Brody at Vanity Fair. “She really appreciated the nature around her. The book is a love letter to growing up in the South.” Daisy Edgar-Jones from Normal People puts on her best deep Southern accent to play Kya, a girl who lives alone in the marshlands. As a young woman, Kya has relationships with two local men (Harris Dickinson and Taylor John Smith), and considers moving back to civilisation. But when one of the men is found dead, she is put on trial for murder.
Released on 15 July in the US and Canada and on 22 July in the UK and Ireland(Credit: Universal Studios)4. Minions: The Rise of Gru
Depending on how you look at it, this is either a sequel to the first Minions film or a prequel to the first Despicable Me film. Either way, it’s set in 1970s San Francisco when Gru (Steve Carell) was a 12-year-old boy with a full head of hair. Having set his black heart on becoming a supervillain, he must prove himself worthy of joining a gang called the Vicious Six. The bumbling Minions, meanwhile, must prove themselves worthy of being his assistants. Kudos to whoever came up with the baddies’ names, because Minions: The Rise of Gru features Taraji P Henson as Belle Bottom, Lucy Lawless as Nunchuck, a nun who uses nunchucks, and Jean-Claude Van Damme as Jean Clawed, who has a lobster claw for a hand. “Six months into 2022,” writes Peter Debruge at Variety, “it’s the funniest film Hollywood has produced thus far. Audiences know what to expect, and animation studio Illumination delivers, offering another feel-good dose of bad behaviour.”
Released internationally on 1 July(Credit: Marvel Studios)5. Thor: Love and Thunder
Thor: Ragnarok was probably the most fun of all of Marvel’s superhero blockbusters, but its writer-director, Taika Waititi, has upped the ante for its follow-up, Thor: Love & Thunder. “It’s so over the top now in the very best way,” he said during an online “live-watch” of Ragnarok in 2020. “It makes Ragnarok seem like a really run-of-the-mill, very safe film… this new film feels like we asked a bunch of 10-year-olds what should be in a movie and just said yes to everything.” Chris Hemsworth returns as the mighty Thor. He has given up being a superhero, but when the evil Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) starts living up to his memorable name, Thor has to come out of retirement, along with his sidekicks Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Waititi). The twist is that while he’s been on sabbatical, his ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has usurped his role as the hammer-wielding god of thunder.
Released internationally on 8 July(Credit: David Lukazs / Ada Films Ltd)6. Mrs Harris Goes to Paris
Lesley Manville seems to be well suited to high fashion. She was Oscar-nominated for her role as a designer’s sister in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, and now she has the lead role in another tale of expensive frocks. Adapted from a novel by Paul Gallico, and previously filmed for television with Angela Lansbury, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris features Manville as Ada Harris, a cleaner in 1950s London. She is smitten by a Christian Dior gown owned by one of her wealthy clients, so when she discovers her war widow’s pension has grown into a sizable nest egg, she flies to Paris to buy some Dior of her own. But will she be accepted in the snobbish world of haute couture, as embodied by Isabelle Huppert? Anthony Fabian’s film promises nostalgic escapism – and as Gallico wrote three more novels about Mrs Harris, it could be the start of a franchise.
Released on 14 July in Germany, Italy and Mexico, and 15 July in the US, Canada, the UK and Ireland(Credit: Moonspun Films)7. Ali & Ava
The best actor nominees at this year’s Baftas included the usual big-hitters: Benedict Cumberbatch, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith (a big-hitter in more ways than one). But the nominee who made headlines in the UK was the least well-known of the bunch, Adeel Akhtar, who co-stars with Claire Rushbrook in Ali & Ava. Akhtar plays Ali, a former DJ who is separated from his wife, but who still shares a house with her. Rushbrook plays Ava, a gentle, widowed classroom assistant and mother of four. Clio Barnard’s tender middle-aged love story shows how these two lonely souls find each other in Bradford, Yorkshire. “Barnard triumphs in presenting a romance tale that is deeply grounded,” says Cheyenne Bunsie at Little White Lies, “yet in its well-matched leads and heartfelt story, still possesses the magic required to sweep the audience off its feet.”
Released on 29 July in the US(Credit: MediaProStudio)8. The Good Boss
Fernando León de Aranoa’s dark workplace comedy was nominated for a record 20 Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars), and in February it won six of them, including best film, best director and one for Javier Bardem in the best actor category. Bardem plays Blanco, the paternal CEO of a company that manufactures industrial weighing equipment. He likes to be seen as the archetypal good boss: generous, fair, and friend to everyone. But when his factory is nominated for a Business Excellence award, Blanco is determined to get rid of any employees who might tarnish his gleaming image. “It’s a comedy, but no laughing matter,” says Paul Byrnes at the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s the blackest of satires – the kind in which a smiling face hides a monstrous heart.”
Released on 15 July in the UK and Ireland, 22 July in Finland and 28 July in Germany(Credit: Nick Wall/ Netflix)9. Persuasion
The latest Jane Austen adaptation stars Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, who was persuaded not to marry her first love, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis). Seven years later, they have a second chance at love, but this time a rich suitor, William Elliot (Henry Golding), gets in the way. Some Austen fans have grumbled about the film’s trailer, which includes contemporary slang and Anne quipping to camera. But its director, Carrie Cracknell, had no qualms about the stylistic updating in Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow’s screenplay. “We really hoped it would help the material to connect with a new or younger audience,” she told Liam Hess at Vogue. “I was drawn to the occasionally modernised language and themes, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, and the fact that a strong-willed woman remains as much a topic of discussion these days as it was then.”
In cinemas on 1 July in the US and 8 July in the UK and released on Netflix on 15 July(Credit: Stanislav Honzik/Netflix)10. The Gray Man
Anthony and Joe Russo, brothers and co-directors of the last two Captain America films and Avengers films, reunite with Captain America himself, Chris Evans, for their adaptation of Mark Greaney’s bestselling spy-vs-spy novel. Evans is the villain this time, a psychopathic former CIA agent who puts out a contract on his mysterious ex-colleague, played by Ryan Gosling. The most expensive Netflix film to date, The Gray Man may appear to consist of two attractive men (and one attractive woman, Ana de Armas) having shoot-outs, car chases and fist fights in Prague, but there’s a message in there somewhere about the importance of questioning authority. “It’s a common theme in all of our movies,” Joe Russo told David Crow at Den of Geek. “Be sceptical of the motives of authority when they are claiming that they’re on the side of right as an excuse to wield more power and justify extreme violence.”
Released on 15 July in some cinemas in the US, UK and Ireland and on Netflix on 22 July(Credit: Ross Ferguson / Bleecker Street)11. Mr Malcolm’s List
The success of Bridgerton and The Personal History of David Copperfield proved that mainstream audiences were ready to accept historical romances with colour-blind casting. As further evidence, there are two films this month which are set in 19th-Century England but have racially-diverse casts. One of these is Persuasion. The other is Mr Malcolm’s List, written by Suzanne Allain. Sope Dirisu plays Mr Malcolm, an eligible bachelor with a list of the qualities he expects his ideal woman to have, and Freida Pinto co-stars as Selina, who pretends to have all those qualities. “I don’t think we need to see another period drama the way they’ve always been made,” the director, Emma Holly Jones, explained to Maureen Lee Lenker in Entertainment Weekly. “There’s going to be people who bump up against it, but those aren’t the people that I made this movie for. I made this movie for women, specifically women of colour, who have never had their own Keira Knightley or their own Sense and Sensibility, all the films that I grew up loving.”
Released on 1 July in the US and Canada
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How teapots spread Russian propaganda

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In 1917, pastoral scenes gave way to smoking chimneys and telegraph wires on porcelain manufactured by a factory in St Petersburg, writes Deborah Nicholls-Lee.It is 1917 and in Russia the Bolsheviks have seized power, de-throning the Tsar and declaring a revolutionary communist regime that would transfer the means of production to the people. Within a year, the royal family and their entourage lie dead as imperialism is violently dismantled to make way for Russia’s radical new future. But one important remnant of the old order remains: the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory (IPM) on the outskirts of the city now known as St Petersburg.
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Renaming it the State Porcelain Manufactory, the Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin, took control of this symbol of tsarist decadence, seeing surprising potential in it as a wheelhouse for artistic innovation and the production of propaganda. Stocks of unpainted, snow-white china became a tantalising canvas for avant-garde artists keen to express their utopian ideologies and rouse enthusiasm for the new socialist era, giving this delicate, bourgeois material an unexpected, almost contradictory, second life.Silhouette of factory chimneys, Nina Zander, 1919 (Credit: Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam)The IMP hallmark was scratched out or painted over and replaced with a cog (denoting industry and the worker’s part of a greater whole) and a sickle and hammer, emblems that symbolised the union of worker and peasant and would feature on the Soviet Union’s flag. Under the direction of artist and ceramicist Sergei Chekhonin, the motif would be integrated into many of the factory’s designs, including his own. Increasing the country’s productivity was at the heart of Leninist ideology and so it was that on this re-imagined porcelain, bold images of smoking chimneys, telegraph wires and tower blocks took the place of the pastoral scenes and intricate gilded heraldry the factory was once known for. They appear in a book published to accompany the broadest exhibition of the revolutionary porcelain story ever staged outside Russia, Russian Avant-Garde – Revolution in the Arts, which opened at the Amsterdam branch of the Hermitage Museum in January, but closed when the Russian invasion of Ukraine led the museum to cut ties with St Petersburg.
Agitation porcelain, as it became known, featured effigies of Lenin and was decorated with calls to action. Its creators hoped to galvanise the proletariat, whose idealised hand-painted image also rolled off the − rather slow − production line. Emancipated workers now took centre stage, often as noble engines of industry, striding towards a radiant future, as seen in the plates of Mikhail Adamovich (1921) and Anton Komashka (1923), or peasants jubilantly taking up arms, as in Natalia Danko’s 1922 figurine.’Help the starving population along the Wolga’ dish, with the slogan ‘To benefit the starving’, Rudolph Wilde (words) and Alexander Kudriavtsev (painting), 1921In a curious twist, crockery once intended for the lavish feasts of the Romanovs was now emblazoned with militant Reds trampling upon their white ermine furs (Adamovich, 1923). Danko’s porcelain chess set (1923) used the same colour play, with a red army taking on a white skeleton king whose proletariat pawns are in chains.
While the porcelain plates’ blocky constructivist artwork conveyed energy, explosions and destruction, the requisitioning of the factory was part of a softer approach to demonstrate the communists’ respect for Russian patrimony, and ingratiate the precarious new regime with the powerful upper-middle classes whose support they depended on in order to govern. ”The main reason for the Bolsheviks to maintain the porcelain factory was the preservation of cultural heritage,” historian and guest curator of the Hermitage exhibition, Dr Sjeng Scheijen, tells BBC Culture.
Cultural currency
The factory recruited the most visionary artists of their time, members of the Russian Avant-Garde such as Wassily Kandinsky and the suprematist Kazimir Malevich, whose abstract, geometric work – where feelings trumped figurativism – expressed a revolutionary artistic idiom that befitted the new regime. For the Avant-Garde, art had a role to play in every aspect of that new order, and they brought their unique style to diverse realms such as theatre, music, film and architecture. Ceramics were no different, and they were doubtless grateful for the regular income and prestigious connections the factory afforded during the harsh post-war period when famine, civil war and disease devastated so many Russian lives.Teapot and lid, Kazimir Malevich, 1923 (Credit: Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam)Above all, the artists were excited to experiment. ”Most of the time the artists were just looking at the forms and how they could integrate their own extremely revolutionary, abstract language that they had developed, into these particular forms,” says Scheijen. Alexander Samokhvalov’s The Seamstress (1923) is a case in point. He makes the plate’s circular shape part of the design, while the central composition, a dressmaker in her studio, echoes the geometric motifs of the plate’s decorative border. ”They were real, independent artworks,” adds Scheijen. ”If you only look at them from a utilitarian aspect, either as a service or as a service to the state, you do them an injustice.”
The creations were indeed far from commercial. ”They were too rare, too experimental,” Birgit Boelens of the Hermitage Amsterdam tells BBC Culture. ”The individual pieces are of such a high quality that it took too long to mass produce them.” Sets such as Malevich’s half-moon cups and chunky teapots were too clumsy and outré for 1920s society and destined only for display, as were the hand-painted plates and jugs, whose delicate brushwork could not withstand regular use.As a result, despite the porcelain’s revolutionary messages, the working people had very little contact with it, and for the most part it remained in the hands of wealthy collectors. Even the designs intended to raise money for the famine in the Volga region in the early 20s never made it to auction. Instead, pieces were showcased in European exhibitions, such as the 1925 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where Russian porcelain designers were awarded a gold medal. As models of artistic ingenuity, the pieces were extraordinary. As tools of propaganda, they were unavoidably flawed.
By the late 20s, when Joseph Stalin had ascended to power, rooted out all opposition and established a dictatorship, the use of art as a vehicle for propaganda only intensified, propping up a brutal regime with saccharine images of the leader surrounded by adoring children and merry communist youth brigades. Socialist realism was born, but it was inevitably inauthentic and prosaic. The requirement that all art be educational and popular had stifled artistic endeavour.’Red flag’ saucer, Rudolph Wilde (composition), Mikhail Peshcherov (painting), 1921 (Credit: Hermitage Museum, Amsterdam)”Everything really changes in the beginning of the 30s when artists themselves come under real pressure because there is no independent artistry any more,” explains Scheijen. ”If you are not part of a union, you can be seen as a parasite and be sent to a camp… If you would not completely conform, then you had a big problem.” Art had lost its verve. “You see how a great artistic culture dies because of the pressure,” says Scheijen. ”When you go to the depositories of museums for the late 30s, it’s really depressing.”
Forced famine, mass incarceration and summary executions had left the utopian vision of 1917 in tatters. Socialism had failed and revolutionary art had done nothing to better the lives of the poor. For Boelens, the survival of these highly prized porcelain pieces and the fact that they are now enjoyed by so many is nevertheless testimony to the importance and success of their art. “We appreciate these pieces so much,” she says. ”The positive thing about this exhibition is we gave them, after all these years, a voice.”
“It was a unique phenomenon and so the fact that it happened gives us something to celebrate,” agrees Scheijen. ”Imagine if the Wedgewood factory employed Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky and all the great modernists at the same time and let them do whatever they wanted? That’s an amazing thing, and it only happened there.”
The Hermitage Museum’s book Russian Avant-Garde – Revolution in the Arts is available for international order.
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The US's first interracial love song

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Today we take them for granted, but in the 1960s interracial duets were almost unheard of. Diane Bernard explores the forgotten story of Storybook Children, the taboo-busting song that became a hit.In May of 1968, just a few weeks after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, singing duo Billy Vera and Judy Clay entered the Apollo Theater in Harlem, then an all-black neighbourhood of New York. Vera had teamed up with gospel-and-soul diva Clay to sing their new hit love song, Storybook Children. When Apollo announcer Honi Coles saw the couple, he said to Billy Vera, “The Apollo hasn’t seen you before,” Vera tells BBC Culture.
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Ever the showman, Coles told the couple to stand on opposite ends of the Apollo’s storied stage. Judy came out first on the right, her floor-length cream-coloured gown shimmering under a spotlight. Then, the left spotlight shone on Vera as he stepped forward in an olive-green mohair suit and tie. When the audience saw the young white man, the entire auditorium gasped in shock. “That’s him? That skinny little white boy?” Vera overheard someone in the crowd say. A major hit in the New York area, no one knew the male lead on Storybook Children was white. The couple burst into the song, serenading each other with powerful harmonies, building a gritty, emotional surge of heartrending longing: “Why can’t we be/ Like Storybook Children/ Runnin’ through the rain/ Hand in hand/ Across the meadow?”
 The duo caused a stir when they performed together at Harlem’s Apollo Theater (Credit: Atlantic Records)”On stage they were electric,” says blues singer Mabel John, who was on the same bill at the Apollo that week, and saw the duo’s live performances: “This being the first black woman and white guy teaming up together and singing at the Apollo – and they’re not just making noise, they are making music. And the people stood to their feet.”
With rioting surrounding Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination still raging across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey, music history was being made in Harlem. America’s first interracial singing duo to hit the Billboard charts was singing live for the very first time, playing five shows a day for seven days.
“It was groundbreaking,” says Vera, who became an R&B historian, winning a Grammy for writing liner notes to a Ray Charles CD box set. “America was just on the verge of being ready for an interracial duo singing love songs – but they weren’t quite there yet.”
But for that night, and many others that week, Vera and Clay could hardly get off the stage, there were so many calls for encores, John says.
After one of those sets, “we finally came offstage and I saw [gospel great] Cissy Houston, Judy’s adoptive aunt, with tears running down her cheeks, holding four-year-old Whitney,” Vera says. They were so proud.
Vera and Clay released their single and album just three months after the 1967 US Supreme Court case Loving v Virginia, which legalised interracial marriage. Yet, few know of their accomplishment. Loving Day, an international holiday celebrating interracial love, which marks that case,  was earlier this month, also coinciding with African American Music Month in the US, and Vera and Clay’s album represents a pioneering development in America’s social and musical history.The duo – snapped here backstage – were the first interracial pair to record a love song in the US (Credit: Atlantic Records)Today, musical duos of different ethnicities are a usual part of the pop cultural landscape, but in the autumn of 1967, when the duo’s album, also called Storybook Children, was released, it was a shock to see a white man and a black woman on an album cover, and singing a love song. Vera wrote the single, Storybook Children with songwriting legend Chip Taylor, who penned Angel of the Morning, Wild Thing and I Can’t Let Go by The Hollies, among other hits. Taylor says the song was first inspired by seeing two children, a white boy and a black girl, holding hands walking through an open field in an area outside New York City. “It was a time when that wasn’t so acceptable and it was such a nice feeling, like a storybook,” he tells BBC Culture. He says he couldn’t wait to get into the city to write about them.Vera says after they finished writing the song, it actually became a song about adultery, although it was first inspired by a glimpse at the potential for race relations to heal. At the time, Taylor and Vera didn’t necessarily seek out a black singer for the duet. They tried out several women, black and white, but no one blended well with Vera’s voice. Then Vera turned to Atlantic Records producer, Jerry Wexler, who was in Memphis working with Aretha Franklin at the time, for advice. Wexler recommended a gospel soul powerhouse, Judy Clay, who was signed to Atlantic, but hadn’t had much success on her own. In an audition, Clay’s dynamic singing and Vera’s smooth soul sound blended together perfectly. They recorded the song Storybook Children, and the album by the same name, in September 1967.
With widespread radio airplay in New York City and surrounding East Coast areas, Storybook Children shot up the charts, and reached number 20 on the US R&B charts and 54 on the pop charts. It also reached number one on black stations in the city and number three on white stations, Vera says. “Our audience was mainly middle-class black people and working-class white people,” he adds.
The duo was clearly in the vanguard. In 1967, when miscegenation laws were overturned in the US, just 3% of all newlyweds in the country were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity, according to the Pew Research Center. Since then, intermarriage rates in the US have climbed, the centre reports, and by 2015 they stood at 17%. “[Storybook Children] was radical,” says Gayle Wald, historian and author of the 2006 biography, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “It represented a hopeful narrative of some kind of attenuation of racism: it was a material enactment of King’s hope for a beloved community.”Groundbreaking duo Judy Clay and Billy Vera had a hit with their love song Storybook Children in 1967 (Credit: Atlantic Records)But Vera says the pair’s influence was muted at the time. Music and television executives warned him the duo wouldn’t get much TV airtime because Southern stations might lose sponsors if they showed a white man singing with a black woman on local television, especially a love song. The pair did however appear on one TV show in Detroit and a live show in Pittsburgh in the autumn of 1967 and winter of 1968 – as the song continued to rise on the charts. “We also taped a TV show in New York with disc jockey Clay Cole, but they never aired our segment,” Vera says. Some have said it was because we were an interracial couple, but we’ll never know for sure, he adds.
Another impediment to their rise in pop stardom was that Judy Clay became pregnant at the time of the song’s release, and so wasn’t able to tour. Seeing the album cover, a close-up of a white man in a brown mohair suit standing behind an attractive black woman in a blue gown and large hoop earrings, cocking her head to one side, must have come as a surprise to the record-buying public. Yet, famed Colony Records on Broadway and 51st Street featured an entire window of the album cover, Vera says.
Crossing boundaries
Vera and Clay weren’t the very first interracial duo to release a song together, however. In 1952, R&B guitarist and singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe teamed up with white country artist Red Foley to record the Christian-themed Have a Little Talk with Jesus on Decca Records, according to Wald’s book. The song was released as a B-side and didn’t get much public attention. However, “the Tharpe/Foley duet was profound,” Wald tells BBC Culture. “It shook up everything by crossing boundaries that had not been crossed before,” she adds, especially in light of the US’s miscegenation laws against interracial relationships. In many Southern states, what Tharpe and Foley did was so taboo it might have been considered illegal by some.
Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald had sung duets together, especially on Sinatra’s TV shows in later the 1950s. But no interracial duo had recorded a record before Tharpe and Foley, Wald’s research shows. “It just runs against so many of the social and musical conventions of the time,” US music historian Peter Guralnick tells BBC Culture.”Storybook Children and Just a Little Talk with Jesus help to surface histories of cross-racial connections that are not necessarily part of official histories,” says Wald. “They help us understand American social and cultural life more fully.”The legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, pictured in 1967 (Credit: Atlantic Records)After Storybook Children in 1967, the music industry began seeing more and more interracial duo releases. “This was a time when pop music was starting to integrate more, with bands like Sly and the Family Stone, Wild Cherry and the Ohio Players just getting their start,” Vera points out. “But there’s a difference between a big group integration and a couple singing a love song – there were all these taboos around interracial sex.”
In 1976, mixed-race couple Leon and Mary Russell released The Wedding Album, and later that year the couple performed the single Satisfy You on national TV show Saturday Night Live, showing wider acceptance of integrated singers both in the music business and the culture at large.
After Rick James’s hits with white soul singer Teena Marie in the 1980s, many more interracial duos recorded hits, from Al Green and Annie Lennox’s 1988 Put a Little Love in Your Heart to 1998’s If I Told You That by Whitney Houston and George Michael, with Houston following a trail blazed by her adoptive cousin, Clay.
Unfortunately, Storybook Children did not experience the widespread success of these later recordings. Part of that was timing: “The culture was shifting more towards hippy influences and we were sort of old-school soul, even then,” Vera says. “We weren’t wearing long hair and bell bottoms – we dressed like old rhythm and blues artists.”
Then, a distribution deal between Atlantic and Stax records that allowed Clay and Vera to record together ended, and the labels chose not to renew the relationship. “So Judy and I were no longer contractually allowed to sing or record together,” Vera says. The next year, Clay was released from her Stax contract for the pair to record the country-tinged soul song Country Girl, City Man, which became another hit for the duo. When the Apollo asked the pair to return after the success of Country Girl, City Man, Clay refused, demanding more money. They never returned to the Apollo stage. Vera says Clay had developed a resentment grown out of frustration. Originally from gospel royalty, Clay grew up in North Carolina and in the late 1950s at just 14 years old, she moved up north to Newark, New Jersey. There, she joined New Hope Baptist Church, where music giant Dionne Warwick’s mother, Lee Drinkard had formed her seminal gospel group the Drinkard Singers.”Being without parental guidance and on her own, my mother took her in to stay with our family,” Warwick, who’s currently on tour in the UK, tells BBC Culture. “She was an integral part of the Drinkard Singers.” Her vocal talent was “incredible”, according to Warwick, “and she was a fun person with a wonderful personality.”Duo Billy Vera and Judy Clay pictured outside the Apollo in 1967 (Credit: Atlantic Records)After leaving the Drinkard Singers in the early 1960s, Clay recorded a few songs for Scepter Records, but they didn’t chart. Meanwhile, the career of her adoptive sister, Dionne, was taking off. And other Drinkard Singers, including Cissy Houston, Dionne’s aunt and Whitney Houston’s mother, formed the Sweet Inspirations, singing backup on many Atlantic Records hits including the Storybook Children album. With her towering vocals, Clay wanted to be a star, too, Vera says. After Country Girl, City Man, Clay continued to sing back-up vocals for soul legends including Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison and Aretha Franklin. She scored a hit with William Bell in 1970 with Private Number, which reached number eight in the UK singles charts, and did well in the US. But she never had the successful solo career she yearned for.
“Her contribution to the recording world with [Storybook Children] and her performances should be recognised as something that was truly meaningful,” Warwick says.
In 1979 after surgery for a brain tumor, Clay returned to her gospel roots. Then in 2001, she died in a car accident at age 62, never receiving the acclaim she deserved.
More than 20 years after Storybook Children was released, in the 1980s, Billy Vera was producing albums for the Grammy award-winning soul singer, Lou Rawls. Rawls invited Vera along to an Apollo Theater event, and there they ran into legendary Harlem showman Ralph Cooper, who’d been affiliated with the Apollo since the 1930s.
“He saw me and threw his arms around me,” Vera says. “He told me, ‘your picture’s in the lobby and will always be there.’
“What you did was so important,” he said. “Welcome home.”
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Who was the real Elvis Presley?

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How does the portrayal of ‘The King’ in Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic compare to the reality? Kaleem Aftab explores the complex debate around Presley, civil rights and cultural appropriation.Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, which was released last week, is an immensely entertaining look at the life and times of Elvis Presley, made with all the razzmatazz and whiplash-inducing camera pans that one would expect from the acclaimed director of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. The story is narrated from the perspective of Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. Parker is portrayed as an unreliable narrator, who helped Elvis go from a poor background to become the “King of Rock”.
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Hanks’s Parker is a savvy businessman who, alongside Sam Phillips (Josh McConville) of Sun Records, sees in Elvis a musician who can bring rock ‘n’ roll, a sound developing in black underground clubs, to the mainstream US. 
Luhrmann shows how Elvis turned songs – including Hound Dog, initially performed by Big Mama Thornton, and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s blues classic That’s All Right – into Billboard chart hits. Elvis was renowned as a white singer who “sounded black”. Commentators at the time said that he borrowed some of his infamous performance techniques from black musicians; his gyrating hips became the talk of the nation earning him the nickname Elvis the Pelvis. In the film Elvis, Austin Butler stars as Presley and Tom Hanks plays his manager, Colonel Parker (Credit: Alamy)Austin Butler uncannily emulates Presley in a performance likely to make the actor a household name. The film portrays the singer’s meteoric rise, and shows Parker taking half of his earnings, and being prompt to head off any potential problems. When there is a furore about Presley’s hip movements, he cajoles the musician into creating a more family-friendly performing style. When Elvis wants to go on an international tour, it’s Parker who lines up the legendary Las Vegas residency. Presley’s frustrations are sated by his bank balance, even as he famously puts on weight, and his star begins to wane. 

The biopic veers away from delving into Elvis’s relationship with Priscilla Presley, focussing on his career and, interestingly, his relationship with the black community. Elvis was born impoverished, and grew up in the mostly black neighbourhood of Tupelo, Mississippi. He grew up around black people, and by the time he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, he was such a big fan of black music that he covered the songs he heard. He was friends with the blues singer songwriter BB King, played in the film by Kelvin Harrison Jr. 
Within this framework, the film claims that Elvis was instrumental in helping black people get equal rights in the US. It does this through Parker’s narration, who acts as a mouthpiece for an idea formulated by Michael T Bertrand in his book Race, Rock and Elvis. Bertrand contends that by singing songs hitherto attributed to black musicians, Elvis helped white southerners rethink their attitude to race, leading to an unacknowledged (well, at least until Luhrmann’s film) impetus for white people to support the civil rights movement. 
“Elvis represented a generation that came up at a time when there was a lot of change going on in the South,” Bertrand, who is also a professor of history at Tennessee State University, tells BBC Culture. “One of the changes was to do with the evolution of black radio programming, and in the late 1940s teenagers like Elvis were tuning in [which gave them] a different type of perspective concerning race within a segregated society. As Elvis gets older, he has an appreciation of African-American culture and was drawn to black music in a way his grandparents would not have been. As he became popular, Elvis showed that it was ‘okay’ [for white people] to appreciate black culture.
“Elvis and his peers in the South are the first white kids consuming rhythm and blues. That’s a breakthrough, and there were huge ramifications in that,” adds the author. In his view, rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis “introduced a larger audience and a larger group of people to a culture that had been behind the veil of segregation. It opened up society in a positive way”.
Elvis’s contribution was through his actions rather than any big public statement, Bertrand believes. “I don’t think Elvis was political in the sense that he would go on marches and things like that. These musicians were worried about their careers first and did not make political statements. They made their statements with their choice of music. In the context of the segregation they lived under, that was a major statement. In the 50s, many rhythm and blues artists said they were happy Elvis opened doors because the music became accessible. The problem was that because he was white, he had accessibility to venues that some of his colleagues and contemporaries did not.”Presley’s friendship with BB King, played by Kelvin Harrison, features in the film (Credit: Kane Skennar/ Warner Bros Entertainment Inc)But equally, other commentators have seen Elvis as a problematic figure regarding race, with accusations that he has appropriated black music, and some even going so far to state that he’s a racist. An infamous and damning comment about Elvis regarding race can be found in Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, a song written for Spike Lee’s seminal film, Do the Right Thing, in 1989. It contains the rap, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me. Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain.” It was a shocking statement for many. The legend is that Elvis invented rock ‘n’ roll, and changed the soul of modern music. But here was Public Enemy’s Chuck D, a popular black musician and lyricist, coming out against Elvis. Chuck D has been asked since to justify the lyrics on many occasions, and he’s dialled back from this position that Elvis is “straight-up racist”.

However Chuck D has since put forward an argument that the exalted position of Elvis has come at the expense of black musicians, who have consequently not received their fair due. In Eugene Jarecki’s 2017 documentary film The King , the Public Enemy lyricist argues, “Sam Philips was a businessman. He tried to sell those records with black folks and couldn’t. He found someone to sell a black sound to white face, he knew what to sell to America. That isn’t a problem. Culture is to be shared. What I took offence to was that Elvis was no more of a king than Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. So who is anointing him king?”
For some, that makes Elvis the king of appropriation. Helen Kalowole’s Guardian article He Wasn’t my King, argues that Presley’s whiteness enabled him to get famous and rich by singing songs that went unheard when emanating from the black people who originated them.
As Michael Bertrand puts it: “The appropriation thing will be an argument that follows [Elvis]. The music industry was extremely discriminatory. They understood that there were white and black teenagers listening to rhythm and blues, and they were looking for a white face to appeal to a wider audience and that was Presley. I think the industry is into appropriation and Elvis is into appreciation. When Elvis went into a recording studio, he didn’t write his own songs, he basically wanted to record everything on the radio that he liked.”
“The problem was that the music industry made him out to be the only rock ‘n’ roll figure. Elvis didn’t think that, he appreciated black musicians. I run into a lot of people who like Elvis but have issues with how he was singled out when musicians such as Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry made huge contributions.”Elvis, pictured here with his parents in 1937, grew up in a majority black neighbourhood in Tupelo, Mississippi (Credit: Getty Images)Chuck D suggests that the racism referenced in his rap lies elsewhere, in the systemic racism of the music industry, and that black culture is continually repackaged and sold to the public in a way that hides its black roots. “I was persuaded that Elvis was another exploiter of black culture for white commercial gain by Chuck D,” musicologist Neil Kulkarni, author of The Periodic Table of Hip Hop, tells BBC Culture. “That line did make me think a lot about cultural appropriation. A lot of the history of pop is the history of black innovation being stolen by the white music business, cleaned out and packaged, and sold to white audiences. That’s even true today. Whether Elvis was a racist or a civil rights hero, I think the truth is to be found in the middle.” 
Breaking barriers
Broadcaster and journalist Jonathan Wingate visited Tupelo – where Elvis spent the first years of his life – for a programme for BBC Radio 5 Live. “I spoke to a lot of people, one of whom was Sam Bell, his best friend until he left Tupelo, who told me that Elvis was not racist.” 
“White children could play with black children when they were small,” music journalist Phil Sutcliffe tells BBC Culture. “But then by convention and parental enforcement, they hit an age where they wouldn’t be allowed to mix. That is the point where Elvis became remarkable because at that point, he didn’t put up the barrier as convention would have dictated.” Wingate tells BBC Culture, “I think everything is about perception, and the cultural perception now is very different to what it was when Elvis first burst on to the spotlight. His relationship with African-American music is a complicated one.
“When he first burst on to the airwaves, it was at the same time as all the campaigns against racial segregation in the American South were exploding everywhere. Elvis could not have existed without blues, rhythm and blues and gospel music. But whether you call that cultural appropriation – or just say it left an indelible influence on Elvis’s style – is up for debate. I would just say he had impeccable taste.” 
In the film, Shonka Dukureh plays Big Mama Thornton, who first performed the song Hound Dog – later a hit for Presley (Credit: Kane Skennar/ Warner Bros Entertainment Inc)Wingate can see how the film acclaims Elvis’s role in the civil rights movement, even if he would not put it so boldly himself. “A lot of America was segregated at the time, and you wonder how much that music would have been palatable to mainstream America at that point. Elvis somehow made things OK. I would say Elvis opened the doors to a lot of those artists.” 
Wingate feels that Elvis did as much as was possible for him at the time. “I don’t think it’s a surprise he didn’t speak out,” he says. “My guess is that he wasn’t politically aware… People like Tom Parker would not have let him do that as it would have been seen as too subversive.” 
“When I teach my students,” says Kulkarni, “I show them two videos, Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti and Pat Boone singing the same song. Boone is your typical anodyne figure and that’s the same old story of black innovation being marginalised and repackaged. Elvis is a somewhat more nuanced thing. The industry is always racist, but the artists themselves, that’s more complex.” 
Le Gendre and Sutcliffe feel that having an impact is not enough to be exalted as a civil rights hero. “I don’t buy that at all,” says Le Gendre. “I think if you really want to contribute to civil rights, you should get on the front line and march. This is what was happening and needed at the time.”
“He did some support anonymously,” says Kulkarni, “that’s great. It’s a shame that such a huge figure couldn’t be more supportive. I’m dubious about his role in the civil rights movement. The industry has a long history of finding white faces to repackage black faces for the mainstream, which still happens today. The use of black music with a white face is just how commerce works,” argues Le Gendre. “It’s designed for people to have a good time, spend money, dance. They then go home. They don’t go on marches or try to change America.” Blues artist Brook Benton and Presley, backstage at the WDIA Goodwill Revue, 1957 (Credit: Getty Images)That’s not to say Presley didn’t do anything – he did show support for black artists and causes. For instance, he attended the 1956 Goodwill Revue in Memphis, the WDIA radio station’s annual benefit concert to help the city’s deprived children. The all-black line-up featured the likes of BB King and other big stars of the era. Though Presley’s record contract did not allow him to perform, he supported from the wings. And when invited on stage, he greeted the screaming crowds with a trademark rebellious twist of his hip. For BB King, Elvis’s presence at the revue spoke volumes: “I believe he was showing his roots. And he seemed proud of those roots,” he said.
Of course, there are always multiple perspectives on the life of a legendary figure, and Baz Luhrmann’s film is just one interpretation. And each of us has our own perception of Elvis, the man, his music and what he did, or didn’t, stand for.
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The ultimate anti-war films

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Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was released 35 years ago. Gregory Wakeman explores how the film, and others by the director, revealed “the mindlessness and cruelty of conflict” – as well as the transformation of young men into killing machines.Cinephiles often speak of their regret that legendary director Stanley Kubrick only made 13 films in his illustrious 46-year-long career. This blow is somewhat softened by the fact that most of his work, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Spartacus, to Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut and Full Metal Jacket, which turns 35 on 26 June, all look and feel entirely unique. Kubrick’s output was undeniably eclectic. But there was one genre that he couldn’t help but return to… the war genre.
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Kubrick’s fascination with war actually dates back to his debut outing as a director, 1953’s Fear and Desire, which he made when he was just 24 years old. Set during an unnamed dispute, Fear and Desire revolves around four soldiers who crash-land behind enemy lines, and somehow have to find their way back to base. Even though he would later disown it as “a bumbling amateur film exercise,” Kubrick would continue to explore Fear and Desire’s brutal yet tender look at the human and mental cost of conflict.Nathan Abrams, a professor in film at Bangor University, who has written extensively about Kubrick, says that “he used war as the backdrop to examine the bigger issues that he was interested in, like the nature of humanity, men, masculinity and evil. He’s not interested in war, per se. He’s interested in what war tells us about us.”
Peter Kuznick, a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at the American University in Washington, DC, believes that “Kubrick understood, on a very deep level, the insanity of modern warfare.”Paths of Glory stars Kirk Douglas as the commanding officer of French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack (Credit: Alamy)That was clear in his next war film, Paths of Glory (1957), which tells the true story of three French soldiers killed for cowardice after surviving a suicide attack. But while Dr Strangelove (1964) and finally Full Metal Jacket (1987) would follow, Kubrick’s interest in using cinema to examine the psychological, physical, and emotional impact of war wasn’t just restricted to the films he actually made.
“I think you get a better idea of Kubrick’s interest in war from the totality of what he attempted to do,” says Abrams, who points out that Kubrick spent years striving to make films on Julius Caesar, the Holocaust and Napoleon, while also noting how both Spartacus and Barry Lyndon stray into the genre, too.
Sex and violence
Paths of Glory’s exploration of the “irrationality, mindlessness and cruelty of warfare”, according to Kuznick, means that it is widely regarded as one of the finest anti-war films ever created. But it is Dr Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket’s mixture of sex and violence that really epitomises Kubrick’s viewpoint on the genre.
“Kubrick is very aware of certain things, especially the connection between sex and violence,” explains Kuznick. It’s there in the opening title sequence of Dr Strangelove, as Kubrick shoots the mid-flight refuelling of an aircraft as if it was a sex scene.
“The sexual imagery carries on through the entire movie,” says Kuznick, who points out how one of Dr Strangelove’s final sequences sees Major TK “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) straddling and riding a nuclear bomb as it falls to its target. “Even the name of the film,” adds Kuznick. “Strangelove. What is Strange Love referring to? It’s a love of death.”Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb satirises Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict (Credit: Alamy)While he’s renowned for his subtlety, Kubrick wasn’t afraid to be very blatant with his themes when required. Such is the case in Full Metal Jacket, when the tyrannical drill instructor Sergeant Hartman (Lee Amry) tells the privates he is training that they have to give their rifles women’s names and sleep with them. There’s even a scene where they march around holding their weapons in one hand and their genitals in the other, chanting, “This is my rifle. This is my gun. This is for killing. This is fun.”
All of which raises the question, why was Kubrick so intent on repeatedly showing the link between sex and violence? “I think he’s saying that the same urge that can turn people into obsessively sexual beings is interconnected to our proclivity towards violence,” explains Kuznick. “Ultimately, I think that’s what makes Kubrick pessimistic about human beings.”Kubrick’s cynicism towards humanity is apparent all the way through Full Metal Jacket. Split into two separate stories, the first hour details the boot camp training of US Marines by Hartman. He is so abusive to Private Leonard (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is less intelligent and more overweight than the other trainees, that Hartman is ultimately murdered by him.
“Full Metal Jacket is about the abuse of young men, which has been going on in the military since the start of society. These young men are turned into killing machines,” explains Abrams.In Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick explored how men might react if pushed to their limits (Credit: Alamy)Robert Muller, who was paralysed from the chest down in Vietnam and subsequently founded the humanitarian organisation Veterans for America, regularly appears as a guest speaker in Kuznick’s classes. Muller tells the students that the boot camp Kubrick recreated in Full Metal Jacket is exactly the same as his own experience.
“The film is a comment on the sadism, the cruelty and the malleability of human nature,” says Kuznick. “Muller has said, ‘They take little butter-balls like me and turn them into killing machines. I went from being a good guy to going over to Vietnam, and laughing at seeing women and children being wasted.'”The second half of Full Metal Jacket follows Joker (Matthew Modine) and his platoon to the Vietnam War, where we see the true horrors of the Tet Offensive unfold, all as the soldiers become increasingly blasé about death. “He wants to debunk movie clichés about war in general, and about the Vietnam War in particular,” says Abrams.
Full Metal Jacket was, in part, Kubrick’s response to the increasingly macho action films of the 1980s. Kubrick and his fellow screenwriters Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford wanted to eradicate the action movie stereotype. So when Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) runs to save a wounded Eightball (Dorian Harewood), bullets are strewn over his shoulders with a bandolier, much like Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando.
“That’s an image that we take from Vietnam War movies. It’s a culturally processed image. Kubrick must have known that it wasn’t authentic. But he didn’t care because he was interested in the image of the hyper-masculine Vietnam soldier, which he puts into this racist character,” explains Abrams. “At the same time, though, he’s the soldier who actually runs in to save Eightball. That just makes the image all the more complex.”Some have seen Full Metal Jacket as an attempt to understand human evil (Credit: Alamy)Kubrick spent most of his career ensuring that every aspect of his films was at the very least original and different. While most other Vietnam films were primarily set in the jungles of the country, Kubrick instead focused Full Metal Jacket on urban warfare, turning East London into the city of Huế. The likes of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Apocalypse Now ended with at least an inkling of hope, reflection, or realisation. Not so for Kubrick – and particularly not for Full Metal Jacket. “There’s no Hollywood ending. There’s no deeper understanding. There’s no sense of learning from the experience really. It’s just a sense of pessimism,” says Kuznick.
For Abrams, this only underlines just how deep Kubrick’s understanding of war and its impact was. “He abhorred war and the social and political structures that send people to do unimaginably horrific things. As [Sigmund] Freud got older, he wrote about the death instinct and the human proclivity towards destruction and self-destruction. Kubrick grappled with that more profoundly than any other filmmaker.”
That’s especially true of how Kubrick depicted technology and machinery in his films. Not only does HAL murder Frank in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Full Metal Jacket is named after the casings around bullets, while Dr Strangelove’s plot is focused on the imminent launch of the doomsday device that will cause a nuclear apocalypse.Veteran Western character actor Slim Pickens played Air Force Major TJ “King” Kong, the B-52 aircraft commander (Credit: Alamy)”Kubrick deals with the connection between the human death instinct and the machines we created to wreak havoc, destruction, and do the killing for us. He does so better than any other filmmaker, too,” insists Kuznick. “He knows there is something deeply irrational and absurd about human beings who create machines that will only end life on the planet.”
Such a negative viewpoint of the world probably helps to explains why, even though he was the most celebrated director of his generation, Kubrick was never rewarded with an Academy Award for his obvious talents. “He didn’t play the publicity game,” says Abrams. “In his early years, sure, he wanted to win an Oscar. But by the mid 60s, he’d slowed down. He makes as many films between 1953 and 1964 as he does afterwards because he was more interested in making sure his films delivered something new, and that he didn’t repeat himself.”
Which probably explains why Kubrick kept on coming back to the war genre. It was so rich in action, drama, emotion, and themes of grief, ego, sacrifice, and guilt, that Kubrick could go from searing the politics of war in Paths of Glory, to satirising the insanity of nuclear bombs in Dr. Strangelove, before finally showcasing the human cost of battle in Full Metal Jacket, without coming close to duplication. All of which he achieved while proving that he was the master of both transfixing and enlightening his audience at the same time. 
So, while it may be a shame that Kubrick only made 13 films, perhaps we should just be grateful for the ones he gave us. 
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The ultimate party island

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As portrayed by the hit Disney+ rom-com, this iconic destination near New York is the ultimate queer party island. But there’s more to it than sand, sea and sex, writes Jack Parlett.In the new rom-com Fire Island, written by comedian Joel Kim Booster and now streaming on Disney Plus, the eponymous island is shown in all its summer glory. Located just a train (and ferry) ride away from New York City, this barrier island off the Long Island coast has been an iconic destination for the queer community since the early 20th Century.
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A summer season on Fire Island, bookended by Memorial Day (at the end of May) and Labor Day (at the beginning of September), is often eventful. Expect thrills, spills and plenty of parties, followed by excursions to the beach to watch the sun rise above the Atlantic. Loosely modelled on Pride and Prejudice, Kim Booster’s film shows Fire Island as a place of contradictions; a space where you can be your authentic self, and let it all hang out among friends, but also an intensely theatrical space, where roles are performed, looks (judgmental, flirtatious) are exchanged, and six-packs are honed.New rom-com Fire Island paints a nuanced picture of its freedoms and hierarchies (Credit: Disney+)While reading Jane Austen one summer on Fire Island, Kim Booster “couldn’t help”, he wrote in a recent essay for Penguin, but “map” the experiences of her characters “navigating the limiting social conventions of her time” onto “the similarly tortured social conventions of gay male spaces”. In this vein, the film joins a long tradition of artworks about the simultaneously loose and restrictive mores of Fire Island, a world associated with both sexual freedoms and social hierarchies. Edmund White, who wrote about a fictionalised version of Fire Island in his 1973 debut novel Forgetting Elena, notes in his memoir City Boy how the rituals of gay social life there “rhymed in my imagination with the rituals of medieval Japan or Versailles”.  
Still, it is not hard to see why Fire Island’s allure has endured across time, and why queer people have ventured there in search of freedom and pleasure. A thin spit of land running approximately 32 miles long and half a mile wide, the island’s landscape is visually and ecologically particular, marked with lush vegetation and protected from erosion by sand dunes. Since the 1930s, when artists such as Paul Cadmus and Jared and Margaret French rented a house in the small community of Saltaire and captured stylish, playful images under their photographic moniker PaJaMa, the beauty of the island’s landscape has offered solace and inspiration. Around the same time, queer and artsy folk from the city were first discovering holiday rentals in the small, rustic community of Cherry Grove, catalysing a process that would come to create what anthropologist Esther Newton calls “America’s first gay and lesbian town”. After a 1938 hurricane destroyed many of the houses in Cherry Grove, Newton observes in her history of the community, gay men and lesbians bought up much of the lots, then going cheap, from the Long Island families who previously owned them.Matthew Leifheit’s series To Die Alive captures both the eroticism and haunted quality of the island’s atmosphere (Credit: Matthew Leifheit)Going into the post-war period, Cherry Grove became increasingly well-known as an eccentric, outrageous spot, its small-town atmosphere enriched with a vibrant theatrical and drag culture, and ample venues for drinking, dancing and public sex. The Grove’s more upmarket neighbour, Fire Island Pines, was developed later, in the 1950s, as a “family-friendly” community, although this label didn’t last for very long, despite the fact that numerous gay homeowners had moved there from the Grove in the hopes that it would act as a more discreet enclave. By the 1970s, with the flourishing of an increasingly public queer culture in the years following the Stonewall riots, Cherry Grove and the Pines were both highly desirable locations, frequented by writers and, including Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith, Carson McCullers, as well as numerous stars of stage and screen. That the supposed golden age of Fire Island’s loose and liberated culture was so short-lived, before the HIV/Aids epidemic began decimating its community in the early 1980s, only further informs its mythology as a fragile, sacred place, lingering defiantly on the fringes of the Atlantic.
A place of “death and desire”
Because here’s the other thing about Fire Island; it is a haunted place. It is, as WH Auden writes in his 1948 poem about the place, Pleasure Island, as if the “lenient amusing shore / Knows in fact about all the dyings”. As much as a summer on Fire Island is about immersion in the present moment (this weekend) or the near future (this season), the past is never far away. Scratch beneath the glamorous, hedonistic sheen of its popular image and a rich cultural lineage comes into view, along with the ghosts of the various figures who have graced its shores. Before I began research on my book Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in An American Paradise, which examines the queer cultural history of Cherry Grove and the Pines, while interweaving aspects of personal memoir, I went there in the spirit of pilgrimage, seeking to retrace the footsteps of poet Frank O’Hara, who was killed on the beach near the Pines in a dune buggy accident in the summer of 1966. Standing by the ocean in the early hours of the morning, incanting lines from one of O’Hara’s poems, the deathliness of the place became vividly apparent; the sense that it is teeming with the life (or lives) of its past. As the narrator of Andrew Holleran’s classic 1978 novel Dancer from the Dance notes, this is a place of “death and desire”.Drag has always been at the heart of the island’s culture, as with the annual Independence Day event Invasion of the Pines (Credit: Getty Images)The photographer Matthew Leifheit’s series To Die Alive (recently published by Damiani Books), named after a lyric from Ariana Grande’s song Break Free, attests to this curious quality in the island’s atmosphere. Leifheit captures not only the death site of O’Hara (see image), and of Margaret Fuller, the 19th-Century writer and advocate, whose ship crashed and sunk off the island’s shore in 1855, but also the more populated settings of the island’s erotic culture. These include the Ice Palace bar in Cherry Grove, originally named after an F Scott Fitzgerald story and home to the weekly Underwear Party, and the Meat Rack, a storied cruising area in the woods between the Grove and the Pines (also known on local maps as the Judy Garland Memorial Pathway.)
If the island’s artistic and literary history paints a complicated picture of the place, at once romantic and real, today it remains a contested and continually evolving space. The emergence, over the last 10 years, of artist residency programmes in Cherry Grove and the Pines has helped to revive the island’s creative culture and include a more diverse array of queer artists, in an effort to resist its reputation as a majority white space. Recent initiatives have been established in both Cherry Grove and the Pines to address structural inequities in both communities. In the summer of 2021, the photographer Lola Flash presented a series of Fire Island portraits titled We are Here: The Unsung Fire Island, as part of a residency with the arts organisation BOFFO, featuring portraits of queer black and brown residents and visitors. The release of Kim Booster’s film, which is seen by many as a landmark in representation, with a central plot revolving around the romantic lives of two queer Asian American characters, further revises the island’s dominant narrative.Cherry Grove, as captured here by Leifheit, was the original hub for queer and artsy folk on the island (Credit: Matthew Leifheit)Fire Island’s freedoms have been hard-won, just as its restrictions and stratifications have been embedded over time, reproducing some of the hierarchies of the mainland world that it seeks to offer an escape from. But in an increasingly fractious era, with LGBTQ+ rights under attack in the US and around the world, locations like Fire Island are vital for retaining and rethinking utopian ideals, just as its imperfections are a reminder of the importance of inclusion when constructing queer spaces. Because it was never just about the sand, or the sea, or the sex, but about finding – and fighting for – a place of our own.
Fire Island is available to stream on Disney+
Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise by Jack Parlett is published by Granta Books in the UK and Hanover Square Press in the US
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The artist who likes to blow things up

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Cornelia Parker uses explosives, steamrollers and snake venom in her work – as a major exhibition opens in London, Kelly Grovier explores what’s behind the artist’s “violent transformations”.When the British artist Cornelia Parker was a little girl, one of three daughters of a physically abusive father on a smallholding in Cheshire in the 1960s, she used to place coins on nearby railway tracks to watch them violently transformed – crushed from mundane usefulness into something mangled and more precious: works of art. For a child forced to swap playtime for mucking out stables and milking cows, the seemingly innocuous act was exhilaratingly destructive. By exploiting the menacing power of a passing train in order to stamp fresh values on to ordinary objects, Parker did not simply squash a penny. She minted an imagination.
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Since the late 1980s, Parker has produced some of the most arresting works in contemporary art by harnessing – as outrageous agents of creative change – everything from plastic explosives to steamrollers, snake venom to the very blade of the guillotine that lopped off the head of Marie Antoinette. For the first major survey of her work ever staged in London, Tate Britain has assembled nearly 100 of Parker’s sculptures, installations, drawings, films and photographs, chronicling more than three decades of her determination to wring from the bruised, broken and battered fragments of life an indestructible beauty. It’s all here: from small drawings made by sewing through paper a fine wire fashioned from melted bullets, to the explosive large-scale works that shot Parker to prominence 30 years ago, including the suspended remnants of a garden shed that she persuaded the British Army to help her blow to smithereens in 1991.To create The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached), Parker wrapped Rodin’s sculpture with a mile of string (Credit: Cornelia Parker/Tate Photography)”Everything just sort of weaves together,” Parker tells BBC Culture, reflecting on the sight of so much of her life’s creative effort gathered in one place. “The Tate owns all my major works, so they just had to get them out of the old archive. I’ve got a piece where I wrap Rodin’s The Kiss up in string. They own The Kiss, and they’ll allow me to re-enact my work.” Re-enactment is a crucial aspect of Parker’s imagination and art, which often ropes our eyes into seeing familiar objects as if for the first time. In 2003 she intervened in French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s iconic marble depiction of adulterous lovers from Dante’s Inferno – among the Tate’s many treasures – by wrapping the famous marble canoodle in a mile of string, and wryly rechristening it The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached).
Through fresh eyes
As with all of Parker’s work, there is something much more at play than meets the eye in her ephemeral defacement of Rodin’s masterpiece. Her carefully calibrated choice of a “mile of string” is an allusion to a famous prank played by the pioneering French avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp, who in 1942 used the same length of string to web the inside of a museum displaying works by his fellow surrealists, making it extremely awkward to walk around and see the show. But Parker isn’t merely rehearsing an impish prank that made engaging with works almost impossible. By cocooning the cold and chiselled clinch of Dante’s lovers, Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, Parker reinvents Rodin’s sculpture. Simultaneously obscuring and accentuating the contours of Rodin’s work, the alternating slackness and tautness of the spooling string forces our eyes to unravel the profundity of a cultural touchstone that we have looked at so many times we no longer really see it.Like Marcel Duchamp before her, who notoriously tipped an unused urinal on its side in 1917, signed the ceramic with the nom de plume “R. Mutt”, and dared us to accept it as a sculpture, Parker is a relentless resurrector of found objects. But there’s a difference. A big one. Where Duchamp’s seminal notion of the “readymade” depends on minimal intercession by the artist, Parker’s art invariably manifests the effects of extreme and strenuous disruption. Far from purely conceptual, her work is devastatingly physical – a physicality she leverages through formidable force into something more deeply psychological and emotional. In that sense, Parker’s approach is far more traditional than it might at first seem.
The story of art is, after all, the story of destruction – of pummelling things into unexpected expressiveness. Were it not for the crushing of countless crimson cochineal beetles and the violent wrenching of purple mucus glands from millions of living sea snails, the rich reds and vivid violets that vibrate from some of the most memorable paintings in art history, from Rubens to Rembrandt, would be dimmed to dullness. From its very inception, art is wreckage resurrected. We know now that the earliest Stone Age artists incinerated shattered animal skeletons and pulverised the carbonised fragments to produce a radiant black pigment that they used to sketch the static stampede of bison on cave walls. A quick flip through the influential Il libro dell’arte (or The Book of Art”) – a handbook written at the turn of the 15th Century by the Italian painter Cennino Cennini – and one’s eyes are hammered by more than 200 references to the “crushing”, “boiling”, “grinding”, “pounding”, “beating”, and “squeezing” of ingredients necessary to make art – to magick beauty from a blizzard of brokenness. Ruination and imagination more than merely rhyme; they go hand in hand when hands make art.For Thirty Pieces of Silver, Parker drove a steam roller over a collection of secondhand silver objects (Credit: Cornelia Parker)Parker’s instinct to squeeze startling music from familiar things is evident in the earliest work on show, her breakout installation Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89), which she made in her early 30s by driving a steamroller over more than 1,000 silver and silver-plated objects. The flattened teapots and trombones, baby spoons and cigarette cases had been gathered from car boot sales, markets, and the second-hand stall that she helped run at Portobello market in London. Freed from their former shapes and utilitarian functions, the rumpled tableware, trophies and instruments were divided into 30 separate pools, or “discs”, of polished rubble that Parker then dangled poetically from long wires a few inches from the floor.
The floating wreckage is at once rough and irregular in its dishevelled design, and carefully measured and mathematical, forming a minimalist grid that is five rows wide and six rows long – a precision that connects her work to the soulful meditations of geometric abstractionists like Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin. “In the gallery,” Parker explained at the time the work was first exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1990, “the ruined objects are ghostly, levitating just above the floor, waiting to be reassessed in the light of their transformation. The title, because of its biblical references, alludes to money, to betrayal, to death and resurrection: more simply it is a literal description of the piece.”
The tension between, on the one hand, the muscularity of destructive force (let alone violence of vision) necessary to crush the horde of commemorative keepsakes, and on the other the levitating lyricism of the debris’ dazzling display, casting shifting shadowscapes on the floor, is what stops you in your tracks. That fortuitous friction between weighty disfigurement of “ruined objects” and the weightless ballet of shadows, serendipitously cast, is something Parker would endeavour to control more concertedly in subsequent works. “I like shadows and things that are shiny, the opposite of shadows,” she tells BBC Culture. “I’ve always liked nocturnes. The first time I really used lights was my exploded shed. I wanted to make a work with a light source. It’s linked to explosion – the flash – so that’s where the light first appeared.”Parker has said that we’re constantly bombarded with the imagery of the explosion, “from the violence of the comic strip [to] action films” (Credit: Cornelia Parker)She’s talking of course about her best-known work, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, created two years after Thirty Pieces of Silver. The installation, which suspends by invisible filaments the shattered contents of a garden shed that Parker had detonated in a field in 1991, is dazzlingly illuminated by a blaring lightbulb positioned at the centre of the twisted and twisting fragments of bikes, garden tools, paint pots and toys, whose silhouettes are projected on to the outer walls of the gallery. Though the work may reference in its title a theoretical concept seemingly at far remove from the urgencies of everyday life (“cold dark matter” is a type of dark matter hypothesised by physicists), there is nothing aloof or remote about the impact of Parker’s installation. Observers of the piece find themselves suddenly entangled in the energy of the endlessly suspended explosion, as their own silhouettes are also thrown into the delicate lantern dance of shadows on the outer walls.We know that the artist’s penchant for squashing can be traced back to leaving coins on railroad tracks as a child, but from where does this fascination with silhouettes stem? “Oh, that’s from my cave-dwelling days, my Plato’s Cave days,” the artist answers with a laugh, reminding me that for all their physical and psychological heft and ingenious crafting, there is an inescapable humour at the heart of a career-full of works made from incorrigibly smashing and detonating stuff. It’s difficult not to detect a grim smirk behind her slashed torso of a doll of Oliver Twist that she sliced in two with the blade that once slipped through the guillotine that cut things short for Marie Antoinette in 1793 – a prop Parker borrowed from Madame Tussauds. And the notion of using complementary splotches of snake venom and anti-venom to create ambiguous Rorschach-like blots that have the interpretative potential to reveal what’s slithering around inside our subconscious is funny. It just is.
That Parker’s mercurial mind can range across so many types of media and modes of expression – now framing rumpled handkerchiefs smudged with the tarnish of silverware owned by everyone from Guy Fawkes to Charles Dickens (Stolen Thunder, 1996-7), now using a hot poker to singe folded paper to create a pattern of seared holes (Hot Poker Drawings, 2009-2013) – one may reasonably wonder whether a retrospective of her work can reveal any discernible sense of evolution in style or vision. To survey her oeuvre is to witness a careful accumulation of aesthetic technique and refinement of approach.Parker extended Thirty Pieces of Silver with Perpetual Canon, crushing 60 brass-band instruments (Credit: Cornelia Parker)One of the most enthralling works in the show, Perpetual Canon (2004), is a melding of tropes first experimented with in Thirty Pieces of Silver and Cold Dark Matter. Summoning the force of an industrial press 25 times stronger than the steamroller she’d used 15 years earlier, and a forklift truck, Parker crushed 60 tubas, trumpets, coronets and a hulking sousaphone into breathless skins that she arranged like flattened asteroids orbiting around a dangling lamp. “The squashed instruments,” Parker tells BBC Culture, “were hung in a ring, in a circle like a marching band. I quite liked the instruments becoming shadows because it means the audience is between the shadows and the objects. You can’t tell the objects are squished in the shadows. It’s like a ghost band, as it were. The idea of a Perpetual Canon that just keeps going on forever. It’s like these wind instruments have inhaled and never exhaled. Like they’ve just taken a breath and are in an arrested space.”
She is drawn to the interplay of light and dark. “I like the imaginativeness of shadows. You become a shadow. The light amplifies all the instruments, they become more cacophonous through that, so it’s almost like you’re getting visual amplification rather than audial. It’s like magnifying everything.”
“Magnifying everything” is what Parker does best. Her robust interventions into the lives of objects and her determination to squeeze meaning from the props of existence, never results in a diminishment of an object’s power, only an intensification. By pounding the wind out of things, she manages paradoxically to essentialise its breath. And it’s a trick she continues to pull off with fresh flair to this day, creating a new installation for the exhibition, Island (2022), that’s the final work in Tate’s show.
The curiously eclectic piece, which occupies a gallery of its own, is comprised of a greenhouse whose windows have been smudged with strokes of chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover (a recurring material in her work). Strobing in time to the rhythm of one’s lungs, a light inside the greenhouse gives intermittent glimpses of the structure’s floor, made from discarded tiles designed by Augustus Pugin for the Houses of Parliament in the 19th Century. “It looks a bit like a floating carpet,” says Parker. “All the most powerful people in the world have strode across them – Gladstone, everyone. It’s been worn thin by politicians. It looks like the greenhouse is afloat on top of this thing.” According to Parker, the light pulsates “very slowly, almost like breathing, so shadows fill the walls – a bit like the shed, or Perpetual Canon”.
The work is a fitting final note for a show that Parker says “is cementing something”. Less overtly aggressive than her crushed and exploded works, Island nevertheless packs a poetic punch, conjuring as it does themes of climate change in the disused greenhouse and fears of cultural isolation in its white-washed windows and wistful floor. Make what you will of the breathing light.
Cornelia Parker is at Tate Britain, London until 16 October 2022.
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The lost masterpieces being revealed

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From ancient scrolls to Dutch Golden Age paintings, technologies are discovering new clues about the world’s greatest art works.The history of art is filled with lost masterpieces, paintings and artefacts that have been destroyed, altered or even painted over by the artist and discovered centuries later. After the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, whole libraries of ancient scrolls were turned to charcoal and are now too fragile to be unrolled. One of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces, The Night Watch (1642), had panels chopped off each side in order to fit through the door of Amsterdam’s Town Hall, where it was installed in 1715. We have long accepted that works such as these might never be known to us, but in recent years this assumption has been upended.
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Much as AI, or machine learning, has been woven into the rest of our daily lives, it’s now taking a shot at resurrecting precious cultural artefacts once lost to the passage of time. For most of history it was not unusual for an artist to reuse canvases, which could be hard to come by. One project that has grabbed headlines in recent years, led by two science PhD students George Cann and Anthony Bourached, working under the name Oxia Palus, has attempted to resurrect some of the works that are now known to us only through X-rays. Their AI-rendered images (the first was made public in 2019) aim to give back an idea of the lost painting’s original colour and texture.
In one example, Modigliani’s Portrait of a Girl (c 1917), they have brought into the light a woman that the artist once attempted to conceal. She is believed to be the English writer Beatrice Hastings, an ex-lover with whom he had a notoriously stormy relationship. He may well have tried to erase her memory once their affair ended in 1916 (although several portraits of her do survive).
The two researchers have converted their reconstructions into 3D prints that are being sold under the name NeoMasters. “I think these have interested people because they like things that are new,” Bourached tells BBC Culture. “It would be amazing to see all these masterpieces, which exist but that you’ll never see because nobody is going to get a chisel out and scrape off part of a multi-million-pound painting.”Oxia Palus have brought to light the existence of a woman in Modigliani’s Portrait of a Girl (c 1917), which the artist once attempted to conceal (Credit: Oxia Palus)The pair are wary, however, that news headlines can oversimplify their work. “The story that grabs attention is ‘AI reconstructs a painting’, as if there’s a button that we press and the whole process is done,” says Bourached. This can give the impression that scientists are handing over complete authority to machines when, in fact, he says, “there’s lots of human input along the way”.
The human contribution includes gathering a dataset of works by the artist for the machine to learn their style and cleaning up the X-ray image to remove elements from the surface painting. The resulting X-ray images are “very much our interpretation of what’s underneath,” Cann tells BBC Culture. The pair describe it as a “sloppy process”, just an experiment produced in their spare time with no funding. “One of the points we want to make is that, even with a relatively naive approach, this is what can be done,” adds Bourached. “I’m hoping that other people will take this nascent field and do better things with it.”
Bringing art and science together
One barrier they came up against was the limited information provided by traditional X-rays, which were first used on paintings in the 19th Century. Conservators also take samples from the canvas to find out more about materials, pigments and possible damage but newer scanning technologies allow them to get all this information without touching the work.
Five years ago, the National Gallery in London acquired new state-of-the-art scanning equipment capable of capturing so much data about a single painting that most cultural organisations are poorly equipped to make much use of it. Some are now initiating cross-sector collaborations with universities that can offer superior computing facilities and broader expertise. As part of a recent partnership with University College London and Imperial College London, called Art Through the ICT Lens, or ARTICT, the National Gallery has been producing much clearer images of Francisco de Goya’s Doña Isabel de Porcel (c 1805), a fashionable young woman wearing a black mantilla (scarf). In 1980, a mys