The new film in the series starring Tom Holland makes a 'refreshing' change. It's full of emotional depth, writes Nicholas Barber, and has an 'inspired twist'

Here's a Christmas quiz question for you: how many Spider-Man films have there been in the past 20 years? By my count, there were three directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire, two directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield, one animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and two recent outings directed by Jon Watts and starring Tom Holland. That makes the third Watts-Holland film, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the ninth opportunity we've had to see Peter Parker in his blue and red spandex – and that's not including his appearances with The Avengers and Captain America.

Admittedly, that would seem to be more than enough. But the magic of No Way Home is that it uses all of those previous Spider-Man films to its advantage. Yes, the references to what we might call Spider-Man Parts One to Eight are reliant on the nostalgic loyalty of Spider-fans, but they also enrich the new film, increasing its emotional depth and range. They even enhance the earlier films, retroactively, adding new facets to characters we thought we'd seen the last of, and giving them the momentous send-offs they might not have had the last time around. Superhero-sceptics probably won't be converted. But if you have any love for the genre, then No Way Home will put a silly grin on your face for two hours, and might just put a few tears in your eyes.

It all starts with the unmasking of Spider-Man. Back in the Raimi-Maguire era, J Jonah Jameson, as played by the magnificently grumpy JK Simmons, was the editor of a big city newspaper. In a slyly satirical update, he returns now as the presenter of his own conspiracy-based news website – and he still loathes your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. When he tells the world that Spidey is really Peter Parker, the legal ramifications vanish rather too quickly, but the bad publicity is enough to stop Peter, his sardonic girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his nerdy buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) being accepted by the college of their choice. Overreacting somewhat, Peter begs Marvel's resident wizard, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), to cast a spell that will erase his dual identity from the memories of everyone in the universe. Alas, the spell goes wrong, and the Doctor accidentally summons various people from other universes instead.

Between their comic chemistry and their tragic flaws, there is something engagingly human about these superhumans

Anyone who has glimpsed the trailers or publicity interviews will know that those people include the crazed Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) from Raimi's first Spider-Man film, the haughty Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) from his second, plus Electro (Jamie Foxx) from Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man 2. They're joined by some other characters, but I won't spoil the fun by saying who they are. What I will reveal is the film's most inspired twist. Doctor Strange wants to zap these interlopers back to the alternate realities where they belong, but Peter works out that in those realities, the supervillains will be killed in fights with Spider-Man. Rather than sending them to their deaths in another dimension, he insists on attempting to reform them. His mission, as he puts it, is not to "kick some ass", but to "cure some ass".

Of course, this is a disastrously foolhardy idea, but it makes a refreshing change from the mass-destruction schemes of most superhero films. And, in its noble naivety, Peter's plan brings the story of Spider-Man back to the theme which defined the original comics: the sacrifices, painful consequences and great responsibilities that come with great power. If the last two Watts-Holland films leant too heavily on Peter's relationships with such well-connected, jet-setting alpha males as Tony Stark and Nick Fury, this one remembers that he is essentially a scruffy, stressed New York kid who is trying to figure things out for himself.

It's fair to say that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse dealt with the concept of alternate universes even more brilliantly in 2018. It's also true that if the most exciting part of No Way Home is the return of people who were in other films, then it falls short of the seminal Raimi-Maguire movies. But there is no denying the thrill of seeing so many of the series' finest actors and most iconic characters together in one place. The filmmakers are careful not to overdo the winking postmodernism, too. Between their comic chemistry and their tragic flaws, there is something engagingly human about these superhumans.

The action sequences in No Way Home are fast and frenetic yet always coherent, and the post-Inception, city-twisting digital effects are spectacular. But the film's real superpowers are its endearing performances, and a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers that interweaves teen-angst soap opera and cosmic calamity with all the goofy logic and tonal nimbleness that make the best superhero comics so appealing.

Besides, No Way Home isn't just about looking back at old films. It also opens up new avenues for the Marvel Universe – or the Marvel Multiverse, to be more accurate. Until now, this hasn't been the most successful year for the studio's blockbusters. Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings, and Eternals were all promisingly progressive on paper but underwhelming on screen. Collectively, they left me feeling that Marvel had run out of steam, at least as far as its cinematic ventures were concerned. But No Way Home left me eager to see where Spidey and Doctor Strange might go next – and that makes this Spider-Man one of the most amazing Spider-Mans of all.

Forty years after her death, a new exhibition celebrates the work of Francesca Woodman, whose strange images remain fascinating riddles, writes Andrew Dickson

At first glance, the photograph looks straightforward enough. We're in a domestic interior of some kind. A large pane of glass leans against the wall; a dark doorway is behind. The paint is peeling, the floorboards dusty. Then you notice the apparition – a blurred shape approximately identifiable as human. Whoever this person is, they appear to be dangling from above the frame, or possibly leaping down into it. A glitch with the film? A ghost transforming itself from ectoplasm into human form?

Another picture is even stranger. This one is of an old anatomical museum with glass cases on the wall displaying waxwork foetuses. Yet the most disturbing thing on view is the figure clad in a white leotard far-right, crouching on the floor with her arms bunched around her neck. She seems to be in deep distress. Panic? Terror? Despair? Again, her face is blurred, unreadable; whatever is going on here, we are left to guess.

Four decades since her death, the photographs made by the young American artist Francesca Woodman still feel like riddles. What are her hundreds of surviving prints – largely produced in the same small format, nearly all black and white – getting at, with their intense theatricality and gothic, ghoulish sensibility? Why did Woodman photograph herself again and again, posing nude in graveyards and abandoned houses or entwining her body with tree roots and rotting vegetation? Is this feminist performance, a tribute to classical art, or something less placeable altogether? And what clues do these images offer about the woman who made them?

Untitled, Florence, Italy, c 1976 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Untitled, Florence, Italy, c 1976 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

That last question is especially fraught because, in January 1981, a few years after making these pictures, Woodman took her own life at the age of just 22. Her photographs had rarely been exhibited publicly, and a book she'd been working on hadn't yet been published; it was handed out at her funeral. 

Perhaps inevitably, this has only added to the myth-making. In the decades since Woodman's work was rediscovered – it's now been exhibited in major museums worldwide – few critics have been able to resist using the circumstances of her death as the key to unlock her work. Society loves the idea of tormented artists, particularly young female ones. Even better if they happened to be neglected during their lifetimes. As an article in Slate once put it, "Is Francesca Woodman the Sylvia Plath of photography?" To which the only sane answer might be: what does that even mean?

A new exhibition at the Marian Goodman gallery in New York invites us to look again at Woodman, perhaps more carefully and attentively. Pointedly entitled Alternate Stories, it contains about 50 photographs and contact sheets, nearly half of which have never been seen publicly before. Revealing excerpts from her copious notes and writings are printed in the accompanying catalogue. 

"It feels important to give Francesca her own voice," says Lissa McClure, head of the Woodman Family Foundation, which guards the photographer's legacy and is behind the new show. "It's about time."

A master image-maker

Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado to a family in which, according to her older brother Charles, art was a kind of religion. "It was like a background, just there," he tells BBC Culture over the phone, from his home in California. Their mother, Betty, made ceramics; their father, George, was a painter and taught at the university. Though money wasn't plentiful, Charles recalls family holidays in Europe during which the kids spent most of their time being dragged through museums and galleries, imbibing art. 

"Oh, endlessly dragged," he laughs. "We kind of assumed that was normal – of course we'd been to the Sistine Chapel, of course we've been to the Prado, to the Louvre." (Charles, too, ended up as an artist, this time in video and electronics.)

Francesca's way in was the medium-format Yashica camera her father gave her when she went to boarding school in 1972. Encouraged by a teacher, she started taking pictures almost immediately and appears to have emerged, astonishingly, almost fully formed. One remarkable early work, Self-Portrait at 13, shows her in baggy fisherman's sweater and trousers, face swallowed by a mane of thick hair, caught in a halo of light (she appears to be operating the shutter-release with a stick or cable pulled taut, which becomes a ghostly presence in the frame). Even the title is an art-historical in-joke – a reference to a famous self-portrait made by the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer at the same age.

Untitled, Boulder, Colorado, c 1975 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Untitled, Boulder, Colorado, c 1975 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Other early images pay homage to Romantic landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich or call to mind Victorian "spirit photography", in which photographers used all manner of tricks (blurring from slow shutter speeds, lens flare, double-exposures) to make it seem as if ghosts were being caught on film. It's also possible to see the imprint of surrealist photographers such as Dora Maar and Man Ray, as well as references to everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to Zola and Colette. 

"She knew how to make a good photograph and she knew how to do that at a very young age," says McClure. "The sophistication of her images and the content are just so rich."

Perhaps the greatest influence on the young Woodman was Italy. She learned Italian when the family moved there for a time and returned to Rome in her study-abroad year from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). As well as palling around with older artists – many of whom appeared a little overawed by her talents – she was heavily touched by classical architecture and allowed the city's intoxicating mix of beauty and decrepitude to seep into the silver-gelatin prints she was developing.

One project, Fish Calendar – 6 Days (1977-78), is a series of self-portraits-cum-still lives in which Woodman poses with what she described in her journal as "the most beautiful lemons clothed in soft green mould" and some sinister-looking, eel-like creatures she bought in a local market. One image shows her standing with only her legs in view, dangling a fish between her thighs so it merges with the curved stripes of her tights (the tights reappear in another picture taken around this time: Woodman had a great eye for clothes).

Untitled, Italy, 1977-1978 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Untitled, Italy, 1977-1978 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In another picture, she lies naked on the floor beneath the table, with a fish draped over her crotch and another pointing towards it. Powerfully strange, these images are also oddly erotic; somehow both suggestive, withholding and just-about funny (the stench was so bad, Woodman admitted, that she was forced to work in the basement). The strong sense is of a young woman fascinated by the shape of bodies in space, and the power of her own in particular. "After that time in Italy during college," says Charles Woodman, "she was already a professional artist."

Indeed, while Woodman's self-portraits look spontaneous, as if the artist is inviting us to witness her at her most intimate and vulnerable, in fact they were carefully choreographed and staged, argues curator Katarina Jenric. "She really went into her picture-making in a very deliberate way," Jenric suggests. "Each contact sheet that I've come across has at least a half a dozen frames trying to work out what the right composition should be for a particular photograph. Nothing is one-off. You really get the sense of her working through an idea." 

In a note printed in the new catalogue, Woodman herself described her process as an opening-up of possibilities: "I feel that photographs can either document and record reality or they can offer images as an alternative to everyday life… places for the viewer to dream in." Dreamlike as so many of her images are, none of them came about by accident. Like a great theatre or film director, the artist knew exactly what she was doing, creating just the right balance between control and improvisational freedom. 

Two untitled images, taken in Rome somewhere between 1977 and 78, offer a tantalising window into those possibilities. Both show her in what appears to be another artfully abandoned space, all distressed plaster and damp-stained walls. In one, Woodman, wearing a long black dress, holds herself by her long hair as if her whole body is dangling from it – a figure of mourning, perhaps, or entrapment. The next picture contains exactly the same elements (the two frames were likely shot only a few minutes apart) but couldn't be more different. This time she's mid-jump, a blur, with the hair sailing above her. Look how high I can go, she seems to say; look how free I am.

Untitled, Rome, Italy, 1977-1978 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Untitled, Rome, Italy, 1977-1978 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

How exactly she shot these images, apparently working largely alone, remains mysterious. Simply from a technical point of view, Jenric points out, Woodman was a master of her photographic craft: able to manipulate illumination, shadow, composition and timing with uncanny precision. Through her studies with the respected photographer Aaron Siskind, she also had the darkroom skills to conjure remarkable visual effects from her negatives. "It's interesting to see how she really worked the images," Jenric says.

Somehow it's hard not to think of Emily Dickinson – stories half-told or images not-quite-revealed, the same sophistication and deliberation, the same sense that we're being invited in but also kept out of reach. Whatever Woodman's photographs evoke, in other words, it's not remotely straightforward – and if we take them at face value, we miss all the dedication and intention and fierce skill that went into creating them. 

Their sly humour, too. By all accounts, Woodman was a charismatic and vivacious presence, and that makes itself felt in the pictures too: in one famous image, three young women (again nude) stand in a room, holding up prints of Woodman's face that block their own. The title Woodman gives the photograph is About Being My Model. Are any of these women the artist herself? Does it even matter, she seems to ask, playfully. Why are you all so interested? 

Shadows and illusions

Where is her death in all this, we might ask. Is it visible at all? While Woodman had been experiencing periods of depression after returning to the US and moving to New York – not many galleries were interested in photography and she felt out of place in the art world – she continued to make work, often more abstract, and embarked on a project collaging her own images with an Italian school textbook (such is the craze for Woodman that copies now fetch $10,000-plus).

McClure argues that it's impossible to know if there's a connection between the elusive scenarios or roles she performed on film and what was happening for her emotionally – and equally unlikely there was just one truth to what was going on. "It's just kind of an impossible question to know what really happened," she says. "And I worry that having a conversation about [her death] takes away from the conversation being about her work."

Charles Woodman agrees that it's wrong to interpret her images as confessional testaments, still less as suicide notes: "It's not the lens I see it through," he says.

This feels important: in a documentary made decades later, a schoolfriend recalled that, in the weeks before Woodman's death, she stopped making pictures altogether – something she interpreted as a warning sign that, far from feeding Woodman's creativity, her depression was eating away at it.

Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Her late images, taken between 1979 and 1980, show her moving in new directions, trying out colour film and creating a massive semi-abstract tableau, Blueprint for a Temple, in which she posed friends as architectural caryatids (column-like female forms), supporting a building she created from stitched-together images of a New York apartment.

It's tempting to think about which other kinds of image-making she would have become absorbed by; in which new directions she might have gone. But then, in a life lived at frantic high speed, perhaps Woodman had already achieved what she wanted to achieve. In the final journal entry written before her death, she refers to herself and her work in the past tense: "I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see," she writes, "and show them something different."

For all the riddles and fugitive qualities of her work, she surely did that. Even if she were with us today, we would still be looking at and puzzling over these pictures. One of Francesca Woodman's greatest gifts is that she sensed the ultimate fact about photography: much as we may wish it to show reality, telling us things straight, of course it doesn't. As Woodman knew better than almost any artist, photography is a medium of shadow as well as light, of delusion and illusion and disappearance. We cannot know what sits outside the frame any more than we can know what happens before or after the shutter snaps open then shut.

"Photography supposedly captures the truth, and we all know that that's not possible," McClure says. "It only fixes a moment."

All images by Francesca Woodman

The Gucci family has previously expressed concern surrounding the new film, saying it is an intrusion into the private lives of the Gucci heirs, appealing to the film's director Sir Ridley Scott to respect their family legacy.

The trailer for the highly-anticipated House Of Gucci has given fans their first look at the cast in the film.

The biographical drama is based on the book The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed by Sara Gay Forde, and is directed by Sir Ridley Scott.

It follows the events surrounding the murder of fashion monolith Maurizio Gucci, played by Star Wars actor Adam Driver, while Lady Gaga portrays Patrizia Reggiani, his ex-wife, who was convicted of orchestrating the killing by a hitman in 1995.

In the trailer, which features the Blondie tune Heart Of Glass, we see Gaga and Driver's characters celebrate their wedding, before discussing the ins and outs of the fashion industry in their Italian accents.

Teeing up the film's plot, Gaga says: "Gucci needs new blood - it's time to take out the trash."

Also featuring in the almost-entirely Oscar-winning or nominated cast, is Jared Leto - who looks unrecognisable as Paolo Gucci.

The 30 Seconds To Mars singer is seemingly kitted out in a fat suit and heavy prosthetics for his role as the grandson of the Gucci founder, Guccio.

His unkempt hair and lilac corduroy suit was said to have offended a cousin of Maurizio, Patrizia Gucci, when she first saw it.

Jared Leto looks unrecognisable as Paolo Gucci. Pic: MGM
Image: Jared Leto looks unrecognisable as Paolo Gucci. Pic: MGM

Jeremy Irons and Salma Hayek (who is married to the current CEO of Gucci owner Kering) also appear in the film, as do Al Pacino and Jack Huston.

As much as the film is expected to do well when it hits the big screen later this year, it has not come without controversy.

The Gucci family has previously expressed its concerns surrounding the new film, saying it is an intrusion into the private lives of the Gucci heirs, appealing to the film's director Sir Ridley Scott to respect their family legacy.

Patrizia Gucci said: "We are truly disappointed. I speak on behalf of the family.

"They are stealing the identity of a family to make a profit, to increase the income of the Hollywood system... our family has an identity, privacy. We can talk about everything. But there is a borderline that cannot be crossed."

The family, which has not been involved in the fashion house for many years, says it will watch the film before deciding on its next steps.

House Of Gucci is scheduled for release on 26 November in the UK.

Source: Skynews

Kelly Grovier from BBC picks 15 of the most startling photos from this year – including images of the riots at the US Capitol and an airplane in Kabul – and compares them with iconic artworks

(Credit: Reuters)

(Credit: Reuters)


COP26 speech, Tuvalu, November 2021

Addressing the UN climate conference in Glasgow, the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu's foreign minister Simon Kofe stood in a suit at a lectern thigh-deep in seawater to demonstrate how rising sea levels and the accelerating climate crisis threaten his low-lying nation. "We will not stand idly by," Kofe insisted, "as the water rises around us." The striking image and his anxious words called to mind a whole history of images of figures and communities imperilled by the whim of waves and water, from Jan Asselijn's terrifying painting The Breach of the Saint Anthony's Dike near Amsterdam (which reconstructs the catastrophic tide that struck the Dutch coast in the wee hours of 5 March 1651) to German digital artist Kota Ezawa's 2011 computer-generated work The Flood, inspired by media images of high water sinking neighbourhoods in the deep south of America.

(Credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

Sculpture, Italy, 2021

A witty photo allegedly depicting the invention of the lateral flow test went viral on social media in November. The cast reconstruction of a group of sculptures from the 1st-Century villa of Tiberius in Sperlonga, Italy, needless to say portrays something very different from present-day Covid swabbing: the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus, who had trapped Odysseus and his party in a cave. According to the legend, Odysseus eventually manages to ply Polyphemus (who had eaten several pairs of the epic hero's entourage) with "undiluted" wine before lancing his single eye with a sharpened spear. Anyone who has self-administered the lateral flow test and accidentally probed a little deeper than they'd intended may feel Polyphemus got off lightly.

(Credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

US Air Force plane, Kabul airport, August 2021

When the Taliban entered the Afghan capital, Kabul, on 15 August, a US Air Force plane, bound for Qatar, became the last hope for evacuation from the city for many Afghans. Photos of hundreds of desperate people flooding the ramp of the C-17 Globemaster III plane were among the most dramatic captured this year. The unfathomable crush (estimated to have been between 640 and 830 adults and children) managed to make the claustrophobic vision of contemporary Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz's recent sculpture Angels Unawares – a 20-foot-tall bronze boat crammed with displaced souls – seem commodious by comparison. Unveiled by Pope Francis in September 2019 on the Vatican's World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the work takes its name from a moral instruction in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Astronauts, Israel, 2021

A pair of astronauts stride side-by-side in spacesuits during a training mission for Mars at the Ramon Crater in Israel's Negev desert. The world's largest "makhtesh" (a type of erosion depression that is not formed by the impact of a meteor or the eruption of a volcano), the heart-shaped canyon served as the surreal retreat for six astronauts from Austria, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. The crew was only allowed to explore the desolate terrain in spacesuits, to approximate conditions they'll face on Mars. Photos of the alien simulation captured the world's imagination and appeared to portray not so much a physical realm in our own solar system than a lonely and luminous soulscape – a metaphysical elsewhere like those imagined by the French avant-garde artist Yves Tanguy…

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Protesters, Scotland, November 2021

During the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, activists from the Ocean Rebellion group demonstrated outside the INEOS integrated refinery and petrochemicals centre plant in Grangemouth, Scotland. Self-dubbed "Oil Heads", for their use of plastic petrol jugs as grotesque masks, the campaigners dramatically spat oil and flung fake cash to lampoon the behaviour of investors and politicians who, they contend, are acting too slowly in their pledge to end deforestation by 2030. The crude image is viscerally effective, and calls to mind a notable leitmotif in works of contemporary art by artists calling attention to the deleterious impact on the environment caused by man, a tradition that stretches from the late Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi's Oil Pool (a long-running series that began in the 1970s) to Ai Weiwei's more recent Oil Spills, 2006.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Diver, China, January 2021

In January, a woman was photographed diving from a plinth of ice rising from a frigid lake in Shenyang, in northeastern China's Liaoning province. Frozen above the bitter water's glassy surface, she remains forever suspensefully suspended – neither part of time nor outside it, weightless nor heavy. The heroic horizontality of her body rhymes with the measured stretch of snowy path or bank that splits the photo into equal parts earth and air. To the eyes of many, the severity of the environment and discomfort that eternally awaits the swimmer makes her pendulous plunge as inconceivable as swan-diving towards a street from an urban ledge – a feat the French artist Yves Klein claimed he did from a Parisian window in 1960. Recreating the toe-curling lunge, Klein hired a couple of photographers to help him stage a series of images he called "Leap into the Void", which capture a body stretched out mid-air in a posture very similar to that of the Chinese diver.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Girl, Gaza, May 2021

In the bloodiest escalation of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians since 2014, air strikes unleashed by the former (in retaliation for a rocket fired from Hamas) ripped open the home of a little girl in Beit Hanoun, Gaza on 24 May. The image of the girl – standing barefoot amongst rebar and rubble, gazing at her shattered horizon – is heart-breaking. The incongruity in such a scene of a stuffed bunny, who stares upside-down at the upside-down world, brought to mind British artist Paula Rego's 2003 painting, War, which is itself based on a media photograph of a young girl, taken during the traumas of the Iraq war. In Rego's raw vision, the rabbit – conventionally a symbol of innocence and rebirth in art history – is poignantly recast as a menacing mask of anguish. In the image from Gaza, no reinterpretation of the horror is necessary.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Lake, Serbia, 2021

The photo of a grotesque glacier of garbage clogging the Lim river near the city of Priboj in the Western Balkans, is breathtakingly grim. A convergence of relaxed waste management measures, an escalation in illegal dumping, and floods in the region – which helped carry the rubbish to a single spot – was to blame. The incongruity of the dense debris in an otherwise pristine landscape calls to mind the unsettling vision of the contemporary Cuban artist Tomás Sánchez, who reimagined the site of Christ's crucifixion outside Jerusalem in his 1994 painting Al sur del Calvario (South of Calvary). A muckscape of unrecycled trash, Sánchez's painting suggests salvation is as much a material slog through worldly sludge as it is an arduous spiritual journey.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Boy, Indonesia, 2021

An eight-year-old boy begs on the streets of Depok, Indonesia. His skin is covered in a toxic concoction of metallic paint and cooking oil that transforms his body into a kind of burnished sculpture. Aldi is among a group of people known as Manusia Silver (or "Silver Men") who resort to this dangerous disguise in order to attract alms. The image of Aldi, glimmering amid the steely ooze of traffic on a congested city street, is especially affecting. For many boys Aldi's age, robots are talismans of wonder – a theme that invigorates Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi's ink-and-gouache enhanced photograph Wonder Boy, 1971, which imagines a boy merging with the magic of his toy robot. In Paolozzi's photo, the two dissolve into the same shimmery substance. The image of Aldi, however, tragically subverts that childlike instinct to lose oneself in play.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Capitol riot, US, January 2021

Photos of supporters of Donald Trump violently clashing with Capitol Police in the Rotunda of the US Capitol on 6 January shocked the world. The pro-Trump trespassers were protesting the certification of Joe Biden as President-elect. It may come as a surprise to some that the image of Americans at each others' throats is part of the very fabric of the space. Outside the frame of this photo, behind the cameraman who took it, a sandstone relief sculpture by the 18th-Century Italian sculptor Enrico Causici depicts the colonising frontiersman Daniel Boone locked in hand-to-hand combat with a Native American. The crumpled body of another lies beneath their feet. The merits of the work – aesthetic and moral – are as likely to provoke polarising opinion these days as the events of 6 January.

(Credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

Ever Given container ship, Egypt, March 2021

When a colossal cargo ship jammed itself sideways in Egypt's Suez Canal in spring 2021, the world, like global shipping traffic itself, suddenly stopped in its tracks. Travelling from China to the Netherlands, the Ever Given ship had been lugging 20,000 shipping containers when it wedged whopper-jawed near the southern end of the canal early on 23 March. With its stern stuck against the western wall and its bow buried deep in the sandy eastern side, the ginormous ship wasn't going anywhere. Photos of a diminutive digger attempting to free the vast vehicle inspired many a mirthful meme and brought to mind famous farcical images of miniature muscle determined, David-v-Goliath style, to defeat a mammoth problem, such as a 15th-Century tempera-and-gold illustration from a Book of Hours by the anonymous Flemish illuminator known as "The Master of the Dresden Prayer Book".

(Credit: Environmental Photographer of the Year 2021)

(Credit: Environmental Photographer of the Year 2021)

Boy, Kenya, 2021

In November, the winners of the Environmental Photographer of the Year 2021 were revealed. In the Climate Action category, a photo of a young boy attached surreally, via face mask and respirator, to a potted plant standing beside him like an oxygen tank, prevailed. A powerful meditation on the trajectory of environmental damage, The Last Breath by Kevin Ochieng Onyango was photographed in Nairobi, Kenya. The image not only looks forward into our uncertain future but back into art history, absorbing and subverting influential works from the past. The fragility and preciousness of breath recalls themes that invigorate such works as Joseph Wright of Derby's 18th-Century masterpiece Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (informed by the recent discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestley) and Italian artist Piero Manzoni's conceptual work from 1960, Artist's Breath, for which Manzoni attempted to preserve forever his breath in a red balloon. The friction between Manzoni's intention for the work ("When I blow up a balloon," he once insisted, "I am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal") and the eventual fate of his balloons – which have long since deflated and decomposed – speaks, however breathlessly, to the poignancy of Onyango's haunting image.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Painting, France, October 2021

The photo of French firefighters raising a fireproof blanket to protect one of the many treasures in the Saint-Andre cathedral during a drill in Bordeaux, France, in October, was itself a work of art. The painting at the heart of the image was created by the 17th-Century Flemish master Jacob Jordaens and depicts an agonisingly crucified Christ jabbed by long skewers fitted with vinegar-soaked sponges, against a thickening gloom. The ladders that flank the canvas align themselves with tropes of ascent and descent depicted in the painting, and transform the work into something curiously kinetic – a vision that is neither wholly real nor imagined, spiritual nor quotidian. The leaning props connect us to the past and incline our imagination to the many-runged tradition of works whose levels of meaning are measured along the angled length of rising ladders, from the so-called Ladder of Divine Ascent (a late 12th-Century icon in Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai), which portrays monks climbing towards Jesus, to the French-American contemporary artist Louise Bourgeois's series of drawings The Ladders, through which she constructs a characteristically ambiguous personal symbol – at once precarious and uplifting.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Children, Ethiopia, July 2021

In July a group of children were photographed standing under a tree on the site of a future camp for Eritrean refugees, near the village of Dabat, northeast of the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. A threadbare scarf of mist enveloping the scene gave the image a mythic quality. The living shelter provided by the lyrical canopy of leaves and the imagined music of its stationary rustle brought to mind myriad examples in cultural history of Trees of Life – a theme that has inspired everyone from the ancient Uratrians, for whom the tree figured as an important religious emblem, to the Viennese Art Nouveau artist Gustav Klimt, who winds the branches of his poetic Tree of Life into symbolic spirals – coils of a spiritual engine that whirr into eternity.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Health workers, India, October 2021

To mark the administration in India of the one billionth dose of vaccine against the coronavirus, four members of the nursing staff at the Ramaiah Hospital in Bangalore posed in October for a photograph in the guise of the widely-revered Goddess Durga (associated with strength and protection), who is typically depicted with many arms, each wielding a weapon with which she skilfully defeats her enemies. It is not the first time that Durga, a major Hindu deity credited with combating evil forces, has been invoked during the pandemic. A year earlier, in October 2020, images of a six-foot sculpture of Durga, which the Indian artist Sanjib Basak had fashioned from discarded injection vials and the blister packs of out-of-date medicine strips, went viral on social media. Emerging from a heap of hospital waste – the detritus of discomfort and disease – Basak's sculpture sounded an unexpectedly hopeful note in the face of anguish and adversity.

If the second lockdown has you yearning for theatre, opera, dance or comedy, we’ve got you covered. Holly Williams picks some of the best online performances streaming this winter


his has been a tricky year for live arts, with the pandemic forcing the closures of theatres, music venues and cinemas. Both big institutions and plucky individual artists have risen to the challenge with equal inventiveness. And if the second lockdown has had you craving theatre, opera, dance, or comedy – well, there’s no substitute for the real thing, but this lot should help.

Whether your local venue is still closed, you’re having to isolate, or you would simply prefer to stay safely at home for the time being, our pick of the best performance arts online should see you through to the end of year. And with so much available for free, for a cut ticket price, or for a voluntary donation (dig deep: artists need to eat too), these streams often make for an affordable way to enjoy the very best of culture straight from your sofa.  

Old Vic in Camera


There’s a bumper crop of production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol this year – but the Old Vic’s lavish staging is the pick of the bunch. The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln stars as Scrooge in Jack Thorne’s adaptation. A full-scale production will be performed to an empty auditorium and streamed live, from 12-24 December. For any humbugs reading, the Old Vic is also making available recordings of Three Kings with Andrew Scott (2-4 December), Faith Healer starring Michael Sheen (20-22 January), and Lungs with Claire Foy and Matt Smith (27-29 January).

From £10,

The Gruffalo

Theatre company Tall Stories’s stage versions of children’s classics have taken over the West End for years now – and the most beloved of all, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, now makes a welcome leap to the screen. Take a stroll through the deep dark wood via live stream on 12 and 13 December.

From £10,

<p>Stage version of ‘The Gruffalo’ will be available to stream</p>

Stage version of ‘The Gruffalo’ will be available to stream

All of Me

Caroline Horton’s one-woman show was one of our five-star favourites at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. When its 2020 tour was cancelled, Horton transformed the show – a ferocious, moving look at her mental health struggles – into two digital formats. An audio version promises to make unsettlingly intimate use of 3D binaural sound, while another uses gaming platform Twine to provide an interactive experience. Both are available till 30 April.


The Metropolitan Opera

Watch a free stream from the world’s greatest opera company, every single night. The Met makes a show from their archives available for 23 hours, with each week taking a new theme. December kicks off with “stars in signature roles”: catch Leontyne Price’s 1985 farewell performance in Aida, or Anna Netrebko’s Lady M in Verdi’s Macbeth.

Free/donations encouraged,

Soho Theatre on Demand

Soho Theatre has always punched above its weight for live comedy, and you can catch recorded sets from Mae Martin, Jen Brister, Jessie Cave, Nish Kumar, Josie Long and Dane Baptiste on the theatre’s website right now. Or wait till 3 December, when their new partnership with Amazon Prime launches, meaning members can see a selection of the best for free.

£4 at, free at Amazon Prime

The Royal Ballet

Three tempting online-only dance offerings are becoming available before the end of the year: Christopher Wheeldon’s one-act ballet Within the Golden Hour is available till 13 December; Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern explores the refugee crisis through dance, and can be seen till 5 December, while Frederick Ashton’s witty Enigma Variations, set to music by Edward Elgar, streams 4 December-3 January.

From £2.50,

The Shows Must Go On!

For those missing their musicals, this YouTube channel has been a godsend: rent all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals your heart could desire, along with other options such as Hairspray Live. The channel also hosts regular free content, and has recently turned Shakespearean: you can, should you so wish, watch the sonnets – all 154 of them – in one mega stream, read by luminaries such as David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, and Stephen Fry, until 30 November.

Free/from £2.49,

Locked Down: The Scariest Show You Will Never See

Immersive theatre… in your own home! Or rather, in your own head. Morpheus’s digital show is for groups of up to six people, who all don a blindfold and headphones to be taken on a terrifying sonic adventure by a group of live actors via Zoom. Set in a dystopian world ravaged by a virus, participants must work together to help save the world.

From £39,

<p>New immersive Zoom show will take you to a dystopian wasteland</p>

New immersive Zoom show will take you to a dystopian wasteland

Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Kneehigh’s joyful, award-winning production – an imaginative romp through the lives of artist Marc Chagall and his wife Bella, directed by Emma Rice – will be performed live onstage at the Bristol Old Vic, and available to stream 3-5 December.

From £16,  

Comedy Store Live

Promising to help us laugh through lockdowns, the renowned comedy club has made various archive show recordings available to stream. Big Love. Big Laughs. is available 4-12 December, and features Tom Allen, Stephen K Amos, Joe Lycett, Zoe Lyons, and Graham Norton. Your ticket price helps support Royal Trinity Hospice and St George's Hospital Charity too.

From £5.50,

Sing-a-Long-a-Muppets Christmas Carol

Ok, so perhaps the Old Vic’s Christmas Carol has a rival after all… fringe favourites Sh!t Theatre’s live-art sing-a-long screening of The Muppets version of the Dickens classic (keep up) has developed a devoted cult following in recent years. So put 13 December in the diary, because Sh!t Theatre will be live streaming the experience for one night only.

From £6,

<p>A singalong version of ‘The Muppets Christmas Carol’ is taking place this December</p>

A singalong version of ‘The Muppets Christmas Carol’ is taking place this December

English National Ballet at home

Five new short films made by the cream of the dance world are released online on the Royal Ballet’s website every Monday for the next month. Look out for Yuri Possokhov’s first-ever commission for ENB, Seamless Kindness, from 30 November; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth from 7 December, and Russell Maliphant’s Echoes, from 14 December. Or you can rent full-length recorded live shows, including Akram Khan’s Giselle and La Sylphide.

From £3.50,


A revival of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 hit rock musical, this plucky production at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre had to close on its opening night due to the second lockdown. Luckily, they had always also planned to stream a recording, which is available now until 20 December.

From £25,

Stand-up comedy on Netflix

We can thank the streaming giant for establishing that there’s a proper audience for filmed live stand-up shows – and they tend to bag both the biggest and the most exciting comedians. The next to look out for is Comedy Award shortlisted British stand-up London Hughes: her 2019 show To Catch a Dick arrives on Netflix 22 December. Or delve into their back catalogue; highlights include Hannah Gadsby, Natalie Palamides, Bo Burnham, Katherine Ryan, James Acaster, and Dave Chappelle.

Thirst Trap

Rachael Young  – whose shows Nightclubbing, inspired by Grace Jones, and Out, a celebration of black queerness, have been hits at Edinburgh – invites you to experience their new show about the climate crisis… in the bath. Young spoke to researchers and people affected by climate change to create this new thought-provoking audio play designed to be listened to while you soak, from 14 December-30 January.

Sources: / Independent

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