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September 11 2011

Photographer William Klein's best shot

'I wanted to capture the royal wedding's atmosphere of togetherness. The English are very exotic to me – they sing'

Click on the image to see this picture in full

The idea of England getting so excited about the royal wedding amused me. An English friend told me there would be people dressed up like the Queen, so I decided to travel to London and take photographs. I think the concept of a monarchy is ridiculous, but I was interested in seeing the crowds – not just Kate, even if she is pretty.

I took the Eurostar from Paris and hired a bicycle rickshaw: at my age, it was a good way of getting around. When we got to Hyde Park, the atmosphere reminded me of la Fête de l'Humanité, the annual Communist party festival – a huge crowd of people who felt at home and that they could do no wrong. They were funny and touching, arriving with their picnics, yelling "Kiss! Kiss!" at the big screen. The BBC was MCing what was effectively the biggest kissing event in history.

After the kisses came the dancing; it was like a huge birthday party. At around 4pm copies of the Evening Standard arrived at Trafalgar Square: "Sealed with a kiss" was the headline. I wanted to take a picture of one of the police officers reading the paper, but they refused. Then their commanding officer said: "Make the man happy!" and finally one of them posed for me.

As a photographer, the royal wedding was the sort of public event I feel an affinity with. I like festivals of all kinds: in 1969 I made a film about the first Pan-African festival in Algiers, which celebrated the countries that had been liberated 10 years earlier. There was a tremendous feeling of kinship. In London, I again wanted to capture this atmosphere of togetherness, using this montage.

The English are very exotic to me. For instance, they sing. At one point, we met a family with an elaborate picnic, and what touched me was that the men were singing Let It Be while they packed everything away. Later, we visited a few pubs. One of them was decorated with balloons, and there was a band singing Andrews Sisters songs from the 1940s, which was when I landed in Europe [from New York] for the first time. Everybody knew all the words. You'd never get that in a cafe in Paris.

CV

Born: New York, 1928.

Studied: Sociology in New York; then at the Sorbonne in Paris after the war. In 1949, he studied painting with Fernand Léger.

Influences: Léger, Walker Evans, Man Ray.

Top tip: "Don't have rules, taboos, or limits."


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May 13 2011

The resurrection of religious art

The trees placed in Westminster Abbey for the royal wedding were typical of how modern artists are transforming churches

Recently, 27 million British television viewers enjoyed the beauty of a medieval church, gasped at its soaring nave, cooed at its gothic vaulting. But the spectacle of Westminster Abbey, the venue for the royal wedding, was enhanced by an unexpected modern touch: trees. Trees in themselves are not modern, obviously – in fact, the architecture of medieval churches and cathedrals may originate in the ancient Germanic tribes' feel for the great canopy of branches and leaves in primeval European forests. But the idea of bringing trees into Westminster Abbey was definitely modern: a bit of spontaneous royal installation art that echoed the tree-planting activities of the German artist Josef Beuys.

Those trees made a superb impact. They opened our eyes to the grandeur of a medieval building that might otherwise have struck television viewers as just a dark, lofty old bulwark of church and state. But the wedding trees – and now everyone will want their own – were not unique. They were actually typical of the way religious buildings are experimenting with modern art. At Salisbury Cathedral right now you can see a sculpture by Antony Gormley called Flare II, whose explosive abstract energy draws attention to the exhilaration of this great building's slender spire, which pierces the sky and reaches towards heaven itself. Meanwhile at St Paul's Cathedral, which also showed Flare II last year, video artist Bill Viola is working on a permanent installation using giant plasma screens, set to open in early 2012.

Viola is the high priest, as it were, of the new religious art. In 1996, he created The Messenger for Durham Cathedral; it went on to tour other religious venues in Britain. He does not need to adapt his work to fit into holy settings. His films are always religious, using simple images such as water, candles and the human figure to portray spiritual crises and profound moments poised between life and death. He is one of the best artists of our time.

But how many Bill Violas are there? Perhaps it is troubling that, in searching for a great new work of religious art, St Paul's Cathedral has commissioned the same man who drew attention to the power of new religious art with his Durham commission 15 years ago. Don't get me wrong – they are right to do so. But perhaps the move also reflects a recognition that modern religious artists are not exactly two a penny, and that putting just any piece of contemporary art in a cathedral is no guarantee of a powerful aesthetic or spiritual experience. Cathedrals are sublime works of art in their own right, and it takes an incisive and at the same time respectful piece to genuinely add to their glories.

You could say it takes a forest – for the trees of Westminster Abbey showed how an imaginative, poetic gesture can enhance such a setting. Bill Viola, meanwhile, shows us that modern art can be both simple enough and spectacular enough to emulate the altarpieces of the past. Whatever your beliefs, or lack of them, Britain's cathedrals and churches are aesthetic treasure vaults. The purpose of contemporary interventions is to unlock them.


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May 06 2011

The month in photography

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – including works by Tim Hetherington, Bruce Davidson, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Herb Ritts



April 30 2011

How royal wedding photographer Hugo Burnand tackled 'gig of the century'

William and Kate 'respect where they are and still show love', says official photographer

The photographer who took the official pictures of William and Kate's wedding said he hoped they portrayed the love that everyone felt on the big day.

"From where I was, and from their point of view, it was two families coming together and that was the feeling, the sense of family and love going between everyone," Hugo Burnand said. "They had their own buzz. Everyone had their own buzz. It was that excitement that I hope you feel at most weddings."

Burnand said he had only seconds to set up his favourite photograph, of the newlyweds with the bridesmaids and pageboys, having coaxed the children with promises of jelly beans and sweets.

"When you look at those individual children in that picture you are seeing those children and their characters," he said. "That's the same with the bride and groom in the middle of the picture as well. That's really them. There's no time for direction."

Burnand said Kate was a keen photographer herself and he discussed the images with her and William beforehand. Asked about the mood between the couple, he said: "Fantastic. I don't know what to say – I love them. They are so bloody nice. They are just so nice as individuals and as a pair, and they work so well together."

He said of the formal portrait of them standing side by side: "In a way what I really like about that picture is that it is formal and it shows their respect for the formality, where they are, who they are. They understand and respect where they are and yet you can still see a smile and love between them.

"At the same time they are right side by side with each other and they are connected and they are touching, their arms are connected and they've got a smile on their face. That picture really sums up a lot about them."

Burnand was accompanied by assistants including his mother, the photographer Ursy Burnand, 71, who is praised as be an invaluable member of his team. "It was the gig of the century," he said.


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April 29 2011

Walsall celebrates the royal wedding - gallery

Photographer Martin Parr travels to Walsall to join street parties in the Midlands town



The best British palaces

From Henry VIII's kitchens to relics of George III's incarceration, here's where to go to do some right royal sightseeing

If you are swept up by this week's royal wedding festivities, are in the London area, and would like to do some right royal sightseeing this weekend, there are plenty of cultural riches to seek out in Britain's royal palaces (once you stomach the entrance fees). In fact, these historic royal residences are very well kept, with great gardens, souvenirs and catering, and make perfect destinations for families. Here are some of the highlights.

Hampton Court is the most awe-inspiring surviving palace and the best place to imagine the lost Tudor glories of Nonesuch, Whitehall and Greenwich palaces. Henry VIII's kitchens are its most popular indoor attraction, and they get across the feasting abundance of his court. Outside, the Maze is another echo of Renaissance times. But what is less well-known is the fine selection from the Royal Collection that can be seen here, including paintings by Holbein, tremendous tapestries, works by Rubens and Titian, and, in the Orangery, Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar.

Yet the quirkier palaces also contain delights. Kensington Palace has been turned into a fairytale installation by fashion designers while parts of it are closed for restoration. The playful scenarios conjured up are a lot of fun, and do not get in the way of artistic treasures that range from carvings by Grinling Gibbons to a painting by Giorgio Vasari. There is also a lovely Dutch garden.

At Kew Palace, which you can visit as part of Kew Gardens, the character of George III comes through strongly – and in the end, tragically. Downstairs, a display of 18th-century satirical prints evokes the image of "Farmer George", the conscientious king who did so much to make a modern monarchy at the time of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The small modest "palace" itself suggests his professionalised idea of monarchy. But as you go higher in the building, restored rooms give way to raw ancient wood and plaster in the spaces inhabited by the daughters he would not allow to marry – and finally you contemplate relics of his incarceration due to what his doctors called "madness".

But if you really want to delve in to the darker side of royal history, make for the Tower of London. Here, too, are cultural treasures – including the armour of Henry VIII, with decoration by Holbein, and the beautiful Norman chapel in the White Tower that is a simple, cool masterpiece of the Romanesque style. Yet the most haunting works of art for many visitors will be the crosses, astrological signs and plaintive words inscribed in stone walls by prisoners in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Royal Britain is full of surprises. These well-maintained palaces are crowded with great art and compelling history. Enjoy.


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April 28 2011

Republican art rules OK

The royal wedding will showcase Westminster Abbey, but it is under republics, not monarchies, that artists flourish the most

The cultural heritage of the British monarchy is about to go on display all over the world as screens glow with the architectural and sculptural grandeur of Westminster Abbey. Founded in the 10th century, loaded with new marvels down the ages of which the most sublime is surely the chapel of Henry VII with its filigree fan vaulting, this royal abbey church is the best example anyone could ever adduce to support the contention that British culture is profoundly beholden to and involved in the regal tradition.

But in the history of European art, monarchy cannot claim all the masterpieces. On the contrary, republics and republicans have created some of the most dynamic and brilliant works of art of all time.

There's a clue to this fact in Westminster Abbey itself, in the Chapel of Henry VII. The setting is medieval in flavour and very English. But the tomb has putti that visibly come from Italy: it was created by the sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, who came to London from Florence. In fact, Torrigiano was trained in sculpture alongside Michelangelo, and broke his famous rival's nose in a teenaged fight. In 16th-century Italy, he was notorious as the thug who disfigured Michelangelo. In Tudor Britain he was valued as someone who could give it a taste of the most modern, dynamic culture in Europe.

So the British royal family imported Italian Renaissance art to Westminster Abbey. But the civilisation of the Italian Renaissance that it coveted was, however, obsessed with republicanism. The Renaissance started in cities that freed themselves from outside rule in the middle ages. The ideal these cities believed in was republican self-rule. In practice, most of them fell prey to despots – but the most brilliant tried to be republics. Venice ruled itself as a republic until the age of Napoleon, and its art, from Tintoretto's Paradise in the Doge's Palace to Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan in the National Gallery, is profoundly coloured by the unique cultural politics of the Most Serene Republic.

Florence, where Torrigiano came from, had a much less stable history. Where Venetian republicanism endured the centuries, the politics of Florence were bloody. The Medici family established de facto rule over the Republic, but they were deposed in 1494, violently restored nearly two decades later, and overthrown again in 1527 only to crush their enemies with tens of thousands of deaths in the Siege of Florence in 1529-30.

It is the history of Florence that should give cultural conservatives pause for thought. In Florence, from Donatello's Judith right through to Michelangelo's David, the most influential masterpieces of the Renaissance expressed the ideal of republican citizenship. Not only that: after the Medici finally defeated this ideal and became quasi-monarchical dukes, art in the city went into decline. The later Medici let their city become an artistic backwater compared with its great days. The city's artistic fire died with the Republic.

Artistic revolution happens in republics, you could reasonably conclude. The greatest artists flourish in free states far from the corruption of kings.

Meanwhile in Britain, the monarchical tradition has survived longer and more floridly than most other places. It is also a fact that of all the grandest European cultures we have the weakest tradition of visual art. In France, the Revolution inspired David. In Spain, the republican cause in the Civil War moved Picasso. Art does not flourish in monarchies, or to put it another way, in Italy they had republican ideals and they produced Donatello, Titian, the Renaissance. In Britain we've had thousands of years of hereditary monarchy and (since the Abbey) what has that produced? The souvenir mug.


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April 16 2011

Royal wedding: Bob and Roberta Smith's commemorative artwork

Artist Bob and Roberta Smith creates likenesses of Prince William and Kate Middleton ahead of the royal wedding

Of all the cultural figures we approached to pay tribute to the royal wedding, Bob and Roberta Smith chose arguably the most abstract approach. The east London-based artist (actually just one person, real name Patrick Brill) has what he calls "a broken ice-cream van approach" to aesthetics and decided to build sculptures of the bride and groom out of rubbish he found in a skip. To complete the piece, he made himself a part of it, sitting beside his creations with an empty cat-food tin and a felt-tipped sign, begging for money.

It isn't necessarily a critique of the expense of the wedding, insists Smith, 48, though he's pretty sore about recent government arts cuts. "And I haven't sold a painting in six months. If I was in the right place with these sculptures, on royal wedding day, I could make a bit of money." So he plans to find a spot on a kerb in King's Cross, north London, near the Work gallery where he currently has an exhibition on, titled You Should Be In Charge. "On the day," says Smith, "I'll be a bit like those kids with guys on Guy Fawkes night. I might even spend some of the money I make on fireworks to mark the occasion."

The sculptures don't immediately recall William and Kate… he's a broken spade gaffer-taped to an old wall bracket. She's a plastic football with a lampshade for a veil. "But you can see some of her cheekiness, can't you? Look at her smile!"

He thinks Middleton has more zing about her than William. "She was practically naked in that student dress. I think she has the potential to become a bit of a Princess Margaret figure. You know. Jolly."

He's not against the monarchy – or not completely. He thinks they should be elected figures. "Not politicians, but interesting people. Then you can still have the pomp and occasion, and keep the attraction to tourists, but also have a king or a queen with ideas."

Who would he vote into a crown if he had the choice? "My absolute queen at the moment is Susan Hiller, currently being exhibited at the Tate. Who else? Unfortunately she's French, and she's dead, but Louise Bourgeois would have made a wonderful monarch." It's an idea that might need work, but Smith will have plenty of time to refine it while he's chinking his tin in King's Cross a week on Friday.


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Royal Wedding: Tom Hunter: 'All the other royal marriages have fallen apart now'

Photographer Tom Hunter creates an artwork to commemorate the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton

Tom Hunter's work documents the lives of his friends and fellow residents of Hackney, east London. Borrowing ideas from old masters such as Velázquez and Vermeer, his work lends a dignity to the sometimes prosaic lives of his subjects.

Soon after accepting our brief to produce an artwork commemorating the royal wedding, Hunter was studying coverage of the tsunami and saw the rare TV appearance of the emperor of Japan. He began reading about the Japanese royal family and in particular Princess Toshi, the emperor's granddaughter, who will be prevented from succeeding to the Chrysanthemum Throne because she's female.

Coincidentally, Hunter's friend Kev is married to a Japanese girl, also called Toshi, so he decided to shoot her in a cafe posing as the princess, contemplating her situation and the ephemeral nature of royal weddings. She pokes at the bun on her Fergie and Andrew commemorative plate and studies the Charles and Di mug and the Japanese royal figurines on the table.

"She's thinking about all the other royal weddings," says Hunter. "They've all fallen apart now."


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January 23 2011

Alison Jackson: 'I'd love to do Piers Morgan. I'd just use Susan Boyle. They're identical'

Queen of the mock-doc Alison Jackson isn't short of material – just lookalikes

I have yet to meet anyone more excited about the royal wedding than photographer Alison Jackson. "Of course I'm excited," she laughs, over coffee at Hamiltons gallery in London's Mayfair. "It's A, if not THE, story of our time: royal line marries air hostess line," she giggles. "How utterly brilliant."

Spotting the potential of "lookalikes for satirical means" while a photography student in the 1990s, Jackson turned a seemingly gossamer concept into portraits and mock-docs, winning a Bafta in 2002 for Doubletake. Focusing on compromising fake footage of the Beckhams and the Blair/Bush "special relationship", the TV series cemented her role as a post-Warhol, post-Spitting Image celebrity voyeur.

It's this deep-rooted obsession with TMZ celebrities that has now led her to Review of 2010, "a satirical mixture of reality takes with real news, intercut seamlessly so that you can't tell what's real and fake".

Expressive and Kylie-tiny with a wave of blonde hair, Jackson does not look unalike Princess Diana. This is unnerving for two reasons: one, were Diana alive, they'd be the same age and two, Diana's death was precisely the moment Jackson became celebrity-mad.

"People mourned Diana's death more than their relatives. It was shocking. But Diana was the perfect celebrity and marked the birth of the celebrity magazine."

The royals – "a guarded, censored brand" – remain the meat of Jackson's most successful work and in timely fashion, she's now moved on to the royal wedding – "my main focus for 2011". Her latest shot, capturing the moment William and Kate stopped being virgins, will appear in Royal Family at the Hayward gallery in March.

Filming topically for Sky has been "taxing, tiring and solitary". She shoots at breakneck speed and achieves the grainy, peeping shots by using three phones – a BlackBerry, an Android and an iTouch – attached to a stick and filming simultaneously with everything turned around in about 12 hours.

But it's sourcing lookalikes that is trickiest: "Finding a Julian Assange has been a nightmare. And I've yet to find a good Charles. David [Beckham] can do everything, but Kate [Middleton] has about three versions – hair and body, face and the soundalike."

She found Barack Obama working in a shop in Thailand "but he can't speak English which is problematic" and she once, in desperation, ran up to Nicolas Cage to tell him what a wonderful lookalike he was ("His face!").

Is there anyone left? "I'd love to do Piers [Morgan]. Do you think he would mind?" He loves publicity, I reply. "He'd be easy then. I'd just use Susan Boyle. They're identical."


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January 18 2011

A king-size role in our culture

The monarchy has shaped much of our culture – and some of our greatest art – so give the royals their due. Just think of Holbein

Hans Holbein's daunting portrait of Henry VIII, with the wraith-like figure of his father pale beside him, is surely the greatest work of art in the National Portrait Gallery. It is a colossal drawing, rather than a painting: part of the final preparatory drawing or "cartoon" for a mural of the Tudor dynasty that Henry commissioned for his palace of Whitehall. The mural was destroyed, along with the palace, centuries ago – but Holbein's portrait of the wide-chested king with his porcine pommel of a head, copied many times including in a fine painting in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, has defined the image of the ambitious, talented, ultimately tyrannical Henry VIII since.

It is one of the oldest works in the National Portrait Gallery, as well as the finest, and it makes a fitting introduction to a museum that is full of royal faces. Holbein's works for the Tudor court are unquestionably among the best works of art ever drawn or painted in Britain. Since the Renaissance the idea of fine art and the cult of monarchy have mingled in our national imagination.

Looking at works by Holbein on the same weekend that Ed Miliband denounced the idea of strikes on the royal wedding day this spring, I got to thinking. How as a self-styled republican ought I to mark that day – and is there any point in resisting it?

So much of our culture down the centuries has been shaped by royal patronage, and this is not all sentimental patriotic tosh – it includes the genius of Holbein. Royal palaces and chapels enshrine a lot of our greatest decorative art and architecture. Does all that mean anything? Well, put it another way. Can you tell a dissident cultural history of Britain in which radical and anti-monarchist artists subverted the royalist aesthetic establishment?

If you did, it would leave out Westminster Abbey as well as Holbein. Politics needs ritual, and art thrives on such ritual. Are the rituals of British royalty so bad? Is it really possible to have a coherent image of our culture that excludes all that royal jazz?

It probably sounds as if I am saying that just because the British monarchy was associated with great art in the past, republicans should give in to its charms. Well, part of me suspects this may be a reasonable argument. Tradition is part of the fabric of human culture and healthy societies.

Miliband is right to avoid the trap of politicising the wedding. In reality, the culture of monarchy in Britain is temperate, open, even empty – which means it can be used by modern people for what it is, a right royal entertainment, that happens to connect us for a moment with a history that includes Holbein's Tudor court.


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January 16 2011

Wills'n'Kate: the comic book

A political satirist has turned the royal couple's romance into a cartoon, reports Oliver Good

'I think you could definitely go down the pub with William and Kate," says Rich Johnston, who has spent the last three months reading every article he could find about the couple's lives, as research for a comic book that will, he says, faithfully chart their relationship.

Johnston, bearded, with unkempt red hair and slightly wonky glasses, is the cartoonist for the controversial Westminster blogger Guido Fawkes, as well as being the founder of the comics website Bleeding Cool. He knows the idea will strike some as tawdry, but he describes Kate and William: A Very Public Love Story as a modern-day romance. "There is a kitschness to it. But I love doing things that sound ridiculously kitsch, then surprising the audience with something deeper."

Due out in April, to coincide with the royal wedding, this "dramatic retelling" will appear in two issues, one focusing on the prince, the other on his bride, although there will be a third edition that brings the stories together, each running from opposing ends of the book and meeting in the middle.

It might sound surprising that a man who spends much of his time abusing politicians would pen such a reverential tome. After all, one of his recent cartoons, titled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trident, depicted Nick Clegg riding a nuclear bomb, Stetson in hand, declaring: "Feel the power between my legs!"

His purpose, though, is simply to "expose comics to a new audience. Comics have a lot to offer as a medium, but often they are dismissed as something juvenile." His hope is that everyone from the elderly to Heat magazine readers will pick up a copy with their weekly shop. And then there's the obvious market in the US, where royal-related memorabilia is snapped up.

Does he tackle Diana's death? "It's a monumental event in the life of William, so you see him at the funeral. You also see Kate, watching the funeral in a news report and being affected by it. Kate's biggest problem is that the media begin hounding her, which is what happened to Diana, so there's that idea of mortality and dangerousness being introduced into her life." Although Johnston uses some artistic licence to touch on the couple's sex lives, he adds: "There are no scenes where you see them 'at it'."

Two of the UK's best-known comics artists, Mike Collins and Gary Erskine, were given the task of representing the stories visually. "Rich has written a witty, detailed and clever script," says Collins, who has drawn the likes of Spider-Man and Batman. "Diana's involvement is surprising and well handled."

William Windsor: A Very Public Prince, drawn by Erskine, is reminiscent of defunct Boy's Own-ish titles like Commando and Roy of the Rovers. "Their staples tended to be playing sports at school and running around with tanks, aeroplanes or through trenches. Funnily enough, those are very much part of William's life story."

Kate Middleton: A Very Private Princess, drawn by Collins, employs fictional diary entries and echoes the sort of comic strips found in 1970s schoolgirl magazines. "Jackie was an inevitable touchstone," says Collins. "Just like a songwriter would evoke a certain musical sequence, we're able to draw – literally – on that styling to create an appropriate mood."

The US publishing house Bluewater has just announced a rival to this comic, called The Royals: Prince William and Kate Middleton, also due in April. Is Johnston worried? "It's being printed in America, written by Americans and drawn by Americans. The way the British relate to the monarchy is different. We understand their flaws – they kind of become part of us. Monarchist or republican, you get it by osmosis. There is a loving mockery."


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