Monday 20 May 2024

The King’s First Portrait ~ Understanding the Image Charles Wants to Project for His Reign

PA Images/Alamy


By Gabriele Neher, University of Nottingham

It looks as if many people are “seeing red” when it comes to the first official portrait of King Charles III. Reactions to Jonathan Yeo’s monumental portrait have certainly been mixed.

Fundamentally, this is the most traditional of images. It’s a portrait painted in oil on a monumental scale (it measures nearly seven feet by nine feet) of the the monarch.

Charles wears the red coat of the Welsh Guards, the regiment for which he was made regimental colonel in 1975. A lot of attention has been lavished on his uniform, displaying a range of medals including the striking chain of the Order of the Garter. The colour palette of the painting plays with the rich red hues of that coat.

There are no royal insignia, because this is not the image of a king, this is the image of the patron of The Most Worshipful Company of Drapers, a guild with medieval origins. The portrait was commissioned to mark Charles’s associated with the guild for over 50 years.

Charles’s portrait will join that of his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II, by the Russian painter Sergei Pavlenko in Draper’s Hall. She had been a Draper since 1947 and the Company commissioned her image on the occasion of the diamond jubilee.

As the first painted image of the king to be revealed since his coronation a year ago, this is the first time that we get a glimpse of the emerging fashioning of the image of King Charles III and, as such, it puts down a marker for how the king wishes to create his own visual legacy.

It’s worth putting this into the context of “self-fashioning” in portraiture, succinctly described by the literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt in 1980 as a process where identity is constructed as a pastiche of carefully selected details. In other words, you don’t get to see the “real” image of a person, what you get to see is an ideal projection of a carefully curated identity, highlighting the aspects they want you to see.

The late queen’s image depicts her in her official uniform for portraiture, the ubiquitous long white gown, worn with a blue sash and the striking blue velvet cloak of the Order of the Garter. Elizabeth’s image is familiar and safe and speaks of constancy and long service.

Like her image, the king’s image keeps firmly within tradition. It does so by following the long-established convention of showing male monarchs in uniform – in this case, in the striking red coat of the Welsh Guards – leaning on the hilt of a ceremonial sword held in front of him.

What is less traditional is the inclusion of a butterfly fluttering above the King’s right shoulder. This butterfly and the king’s face and hands are the only parts of the image that aren’t in shades of reds, oranges and pinks. According to Yeo, the inclusion of that butterfly was Charles’s suggestion, placed on his shoulder as an “attribute” and conversation starter.

There is a long history in portraiture with regards to placing objects as key interpretative markers for the sitter’s personality. A book becomes a symbol of learnedness and wisdom; a dog signifies fidelity and trust; pearls are associated with chastity and virginity – the list goes on.

Every object can be and is imbued with symbolic meaning, and the fewer there are in an image, the more attention the sitter wants to be placed on that stand-out feature. According to the most authoritative compendium on symbolism in art, James Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (1974), the butterfly is a symbol of spirituality, of renewal, of new beginnings, of a rebirth.

In selecting it, Charles could be signalling that he wants his legacy to be that of the monarch who renews and protects, clearly foregrounding his long-established environmental agenda. In his fiery, red image which contrasts so starkly with his mother’s cool and serene one, he offers a first glimpse into how he understands his role in the years of his reign to come.

There are challenges and there is movement, but the focus is on the fragility of the world we live in. The butterfly, delicate and beautiful, the symbol of renewal and longevity is certainly an unexpected attribute for a king, but after 50 years in waiting, Charles has had a long time to think about how to pitch his image.The Conversation

Gabriele Neher, Associate Professor in History of Art, University of Nottingham

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Wednesday 15 May 2024

From Bridgerton to Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes is the Queen of Romance. Here’s How She Gets our Hearts Pounding

Netflix


By Rebecca Trelease, Auckland University of Technology

Television producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes has come a long way since being a scriptwriter for the 2002 film Crossroads.

Her production company Shondaland now shines in its delivery of romance shows, with Bridgerton (on which she is an executive producer) being a major recent success. With season three hitting Netflix tomorrow, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Shondaland landed another surefire hit.

Rhimes understands romance as a technical art form. But beyond that, she shows us love doesn’t necessarily always exist between two people; it also exists between people and their passions, and in the way they view themselves.

The art of romance

First airing in 2005, Rhimes’ debut primetime TV series Grey’s Anatomy (still in production today) leaned heavily into the soap opera elements of romance and drama.

Rhimes masterfully executes romance in a contained setting – whether it’s a hospital, a social season in Regency era London, a Seattle firestation, or the political scene of Washington DC.

She also upholds one of most important characteristics of soap opera: there shall be no ending in sight. We’re still following Meredith Grey’s love life from that first fateful meeting with McDreamy, dropping in even now to get updates about her and Nick.

In Bridgerton, viewers have waited with bated breath for Colin and Penelope’s union. Will their relationship reach its climax in season three? Rhimes’ ability to effectively carry such story lines is what keeps us coming back.

Bridgerton’s spinoff Queen Charlotte also delivers the show’s backstory in a way that frames it as having no end and no set beginning.

Marrying familiar with foreign

The romance genre is often relegated to two categories: romantic drama or romantic comedy.

Both, unfortunately, may be perceived by audiences and critics as being “for women” and largely lowbrow. However, the key characteristics of romance afford audience as much a sense of connection as any other celebrated genre.

Romance tends to follow a narrative “masterplot”. This predictable structure emulates the natural milestones of a relationship: meet someone, fall in love and live happily ever after.

But the narrative may also include a range of difficulties, such as love triangles, unrequited love or forbidden love. The obstacles tend to cover such a range that viewers will likely identify with at least one.

This balance of predictability and conflict allows the viewer to escape into an exciting fantasy, while also knowing all will end well (or that even if the couple doesn’t end up together, it will still be the “right” ending).

In any given Shondaland series, there are multiple masterplots taking place simultaneously. These are often at different milestones, and staggered across the season (or multiple seasons).

Bridgerton’s period-setting helps enhance the tribulations faced by the characters. It adds to the escapism, while depicting all-too-familiar relationship issues.

Music is the key

One way to put viewers in characters’ minds is through the use of music, and Rhimes does this expertly.

Incorporating a recognisable music track can add more layers to an already emotional scene. One example from Rhimes’ early years is the use of Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars in the Grey’s Anatomy season two finale.

The track features alternating musical notes that build aural tension, echoing the visual juxtaposition of formal wear/frivolity with the coolness of the hospital.

Izzy’s confession confirms her love for Denny while also destroying her career. The questioning lyrics, “would you lie with me?”, are heard as Meredith decides between two suitors. These visual and aural signs strengthen an already emotional scripted narrative.

Five years later, Rhimes references this scene once more in the show as Dr Callie Torres fights for her life (and her unborn child’s).

In an out-of-body experience, Callie sings the lyrics to Chasing Cars and her colleagues join in. This time, however, the focus is on the lyrics as they communicate the characters’ heightened emotional state.

Bridgerton also excels in using modern music in a period setting, by incorporating classical covers of chart-topping hits. These tracks are carefully placed to help communicate characters’ feelings.

In previous seasons, viewers will have recognised Madonna’s Material Girl, Alanis Morrisette’s You Oughta Know and Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball.

Season three will bring a fresh lineup of covers including Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever, BTS’s Dynamite, Sia’s Cheap Thrills and Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey’s Snow On The Beach.

In love with the craft

While romantic plot points are often at the heart of Rhimes’ shows, these aren’t always between a couple. Rhimes has always placed a focus on women who love their work and find a sense of romance in it.

In Scandal, Olivia Pope says, “I am very good at what I do. I am better at it than anyone else.” And while her torrid romance with Fitz spans the series’ entire seven seasons, she is not defined by it. Similarly, in How to Get Away with Murder, Annalise Keating is a troubled yet future-proofing mentor to her students.

Rhimes’ viewers are always following principal characters loving their work, their mentees and their legacy.

Even Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte shows a commitment to the “work” of romance by identifying the most flawless debutante of the coming season. Through this process she reinforces her ability and authority as a matchmaker.

Viewers also share in Lady Whistledown’s immense pleasures of publishing. Julie Andrews’ narration highlights the absolute joy Whistledown feels in scouting, writing and delivering gossip.

Eloise Bridgerton is an outspoken character who challenges the ‘norms’ that seek to limit the women around her. Netflix

Two decades ago, romance plots tended to feature a protagonist with a fabulous big-city job (often in publishing), but their occupation would come second to the goal of finding “the one”. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Never Been Kissed and 13 going on 30 are just some examples.

Meanwhile, in Shondaland, a romance masterplot can be superseded by the trials and tribulations of a woman’s career and her journey of self-fulfilment. The joy of escapism now twists into watching women excel in their own right alongside the expectation of the happy ending, or at least the “right” ending.

It’s no wonder we’re still hanging around for Rhimes’ stories in 2024.The Conversation

Rebecca Trelease, Senior Lecturer in Communication Studies, Auckland University of Technology

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Monday 13 May 2024

Photos are Everywhere. What Makes a Good One?

T.J Thompson


By T. J Thompson, RMIT University

We upload some 3 billion images online each day. We make most of these photos on smartphones and use these devices to document everything from gym progress and our loved ones to a memorable meal.

But what makes a “quality” photo? Many people, even those who make images for work, struggle to answer. They often say something along the lines of “I know it when I see it”. But knowing some dimensions of a quality photograph can help make your images stand out and make you a more literate media maker and consumer.

Quality can be relative, but knowing the various dimensions at play can help you draw on those that are most relevant for your particular audience, context and purpose.

I identified six dimensions which will impact the quality of photographs. Here’s what I learnt – and what you can apply to your own photographs.

1. Production and presentation

Think of the factors in front of and behind the lens.

If you know you’re being recorded, this can affect your behaviour compared to a candid depiction.

You might be more or less comfortable posing for a friend or family member than for a stranger. This comfort, or its lack, can lead to more stiff and awkward poses, or ones that look more natural and confident.

Silhouettes of people in front of a camera.
Awareness of being observed can impact the final photograph. T.J. Thomson

Presentation circumstances, like the viewing size and context, also matter.

A group shot can make a nice statement piece above a fireplace, but it wouldn’t have the same effect as a profile photo. Be aware of how “busy” your image is, and whether the viewing conditions are well-suited for the nature of your photo.

Images with lots of elements, fine textures or other details need to be viewed large to be fully appreciated. Images with fewer, larger and simpler elements can usually be appreciated at smaller sizes.

2. Technical aspects

Technical aspects include proper exposure – meaning the image isn’t too dark or too bright – adequate focus, and appropriate camera settings.

Some of these camera settings, like shutter speed, affect whether motion is seen as frozen or blurred.

People walking up stairs.
A slow shutter speed can introduce motion blur and enliven an otherwise more static composition. T.J. Thomson

If the image is too blurry, too pixelated, or too light or dark, these technical aspects will negatively impact the photograph’s quality. But some motion blur, as distinct from camera shake, can make more dynamic an otherwise static composition.

3. Who or what is shown

An older couple dances.
Older people tend to be under-represented in public photography, T.J. Thomson

Who or what is shown in the photographs we see is affected, in part, by access and novelty. That’s why we often make more photos during our holidays compared to documenting familiar settings.

Some people or locations can be under-represented and photographing them can lead to more visibility, and, depending on the context, a more empowering framing.

Consider in your photography if you’re including people who are typically under-represented, such as older individuals, people of colour, people living with disabilities and queer people. Also consider whether you’re representing them in stereotypical or disempowering ways.

As examples, when photographing older people, consider whether you’re showing them as lonely, isolated, passive, or in need of mobility aids.

4. Composition

A man in the gym.
Use items in the built or natural environment as framing devices. T.J. Thomson

Composition includes positioning of elements in the frame, the balance between positive and negative space, and depth, among others.

Generally, images that centre the subject of interest aren’t as visually engaging as images that offset the subject of interest. This is what’s known as the rule-of-thirds approach.

Likewise, images that have no depth are generally not as interesting as images with a clear foreground, midground and background. “Seeing through things” with your compositions can help increase the visual depth of your photos alongside their visual appeal.

5. The psycho-physiological

The psycho-physiological concerns how the viewer reacts to what is shown.

Men stand near a red car.
Images can spark an emotional reaction. T.J. Thomson

This includes the biological reaction we have to seeing certain colours, for example the way the colour red can increase our heart rate. It also can include the feeling we have when seeing a photo of someone we know.

The most powerful photos use colour and other elements of visual language strategically for a specific effect. Looking at these images might evoke a specific emotion, such as empathy or fear, and influence how the viewer responds.

6. Narrative

Narrative concerns the storytelling quality of the image.

Images can show something in a literal way (think a photograph from a real estate listing) or they can tell a bigger story about the content represented or about the human condition (think about some of the iconic photos that emerged during Australia’s black summer bushfire season).

Literal photos help us see what something or someone looks like but they might not have as much of an impact as iconic photos. For example, the well-known photo of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a beach in Turkey boosted fundraising for refugees 100-fold.

A more thoughtful process

Next time you pull out your smartphone to make an image, don’t just “spray and pray”. Try to pre-visualise the story you want to tell and wait for the elements to line up into place.

Being aware of aesthetic and ethical considerations alongisde technical ones and emotional resonance can all help engage viewers and lead to more standout imagery.

To challenge yourself further, consider taking your phone off full-auto mode and play with camera settings to see how they impact the resulting photos. The Conversation

T.J. Thomson, Senior Lecturer in Visual Communication & Digital Media, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Monday 6 May 2024

Newly Uncovered Helen of Troy Fresco Shows Pompeii’s Elite Were Eager for Ancient Greek Stories about Women


By Emily Hauser, University of Exeter

Imagine seeing the face of Helen of Troy staring back at you, from within the ashes of a 2,000-year-old city. But these aren’t the burned walls of Troy. And these ashes aren’t the scars of a city burned down for the sake of “the face that launch’d a thousand ships”. This is Pompeii.

Helen is depicted in stunning detail (alongside Paris, the prince of Troy) in one of the paintings on the recently discovered fresco wall of the winter dining room of a Pompeian villa. Other paintings on the walls depict two more women from the Trojan war myth – Helen’s mother Leda and Cassandra the Trojan prophet.

When this ancient Roman town was blasted by the fatal eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, it must have felt much like the all-out siege that the ancient epics, by poets like Homer, tell us battered Helen’s Troy. But this siege was brought about by the violent forces of nature, not war.

As ash poured down on Pompeii and super-heated explosions charged the streets, the victims of Vesuvius fell where they stood, captured in the pumice that pummelled them and their homes like sling-stones. People ran, leaving bread in ovens that would never get eaten and paint pots abandoned alongside half-decorated walls.

As the Roman lawyer and author Pliny the Younger writes in his eyewitness account of the disaster, in that night where “the darkness was darker and thicker” than any other, it was as if the whole world was ending.

Parts of the town that haven’t seen the light since that last darkness closed over the Pompeian sky are now being uncovered again. In a rescue mission to preempt potential collapse, parts of what’s known as region nine of Pompeii are being excavated for the first time.

Ash is getting scraped back, walls are rearing up into the sunlight out of the piles of rubble. And as the archaeologists dig, more of Pompeii’s secrets emerge, in astonishing condition, bright as the day they were buried.

The women of Troy

The painting of Helen is the latest in a series of remarkable discoveries, that also brought us the fresco of something that looks astonishingly like pizza.

Every clue that comes out of the rubble in Pompeii provides valuable information to ancient historians like me about the lost world Pompeii represents. They tell us about the way people lived, from the gorgeous frescoes all the way to the sewage trapped in the drainpipes (I spent a summer studying this and it is more fascinating than it sounds). But there is something particularly special about these mythical paintings.

It’s not just their unusual style, which shows the painters experimenting with new techniques and representing the latest artistic fashions. It’s the trio of women from Greek myth collected together in a way that makes us see the Trojan war myth anew – and puts the stories of women at the forefront.

And it’s an amazingly fitting time for this discovery. Over the past decade, a tidal wave of bestselling novels has hit the mainstream retelling the stories of the women of the Trojan war – from my own, For the Most Beautiful (2016) to The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018), A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (2019) and Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati (2023).

This moody, dark-walled dining room in a private villa was likely the residence of the Pompeian politician, Aulus Rustius Verus. It shows that, just like us, Pompeii’s elite were well versed in – and eager for – stories of the women of ancient Greek myth.

The role of the fresco

Triclinia (three couches set around a table, where guests would recline), set up in front of frescoes such as this, were the perfect place for Pompeians to gain new perspectives on old stories.

Every couch gave you a different point of view on the myth. Sit on one side, and you’d be faced with the image of Helen’s very first encounter with Paris. Is Paris’ outstretched arm an invitation or a threat? Is there a sense that Helen is lingering, uncertain, with that back foot scraping behind her?

Homer’s epics – the first to tell Helen’s story – are ambivalent about whether Helen was raped by Paris or went to Troy of her own accord. This painter seems to be exploiting that ambivalence.

You can just imagine the Pompeian literati quaffing glasses of expensive wine as they gazed at Helen’s face and debated the subject.

But this isn’t the only chapter in the tale. Sit elsewhere, and you’d have a stark reminder of a very different angle on the myth: the disturbing background to Helen’s birth, and the context to so many stories of women in the Greek myths. Just behind Helen is painted a graphic image of Leda, Helen’s mother, being attacked and raped by Zeus, in the form of a swan.

And then, last but not least: on the opposite wall is a depiction of Cassandra, the prophet of Troy. She was cursed by Apollo to tell the truth and never to be believed after she refused to have sex with him. No matter how many times she screams that Troy will fall, nobody listens. This is the price of ownership over your body as a woman in Greek myth – the loss of your voice.

From a rape to an abduction, to a curse. These three women’s stories offer an overture of the Trojan myth. The start, with the birth of Helen, the cause, with Helen’s leaving for Troy and the end, with Cassandra’s predictions of Troy’s fall. United around this Pompeian dining room, they are a spectacle, a conversation starter – a fabulous (and fabulously well connected) tale.

But they’re also a warning. Troy fell. And so will Pompeii. As the grim skeletons discovered in the villa show, just like the Trojans, Verus and his guests didn’t listen to Cassandra either.


Emily Hauser, Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Exeter

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Monday 29 April 2024

Highlights of Milan Design Week: Illuminating the Future ~ Mandalaki's Innovation in Design and Lighting

The sunset red Giga Light designed by Mandalaki in Milan, during the city's famous Salone de Mobile. Photograph: Marco Menghi

Milan Design Week is a bustling hub of creativity and innovation, among the standout exhibits at the Rosanna Orlandi Gallery was the work of Italian studio, Mandalaki. Their new collection, Artifact, showcases how they merge sculpture and lighting, redefining the boundaries between art, design, and illumination, writes Isabella Lancellotti

The team in Milan that make up Mandalaki's studio,
Photograph: Marco Menghi
MANDALAKI'S harmonious fusion of sculpture and light is epitomized by the Italian company's new designs Hypersun and an associated table. The slim and linear forms are highlighted by the use of shimmering, hand-polished brass.

The fine craftsmanship and innovative design of each piece are enhanced by minimalist lines and plays of light from the shiny surfaces. Form and function are beautifully integrated. The Halo Edition developed sophisticated optics that are technologically advanced, combining high-powered LEDs and a form of thermal dissipation, 

The Giga Light, another, more refined iteration of the Halo Giga which the team introduced in 2021, was also launched in Milan. It has a slender and compact design and merges powerful optics that maximize light projection. Mandalaki's engineering optimizes heat dissipation and allows for precise adjustments in light intensity through a mechanical dimmer. The projection of light creates an enveloping sun, in warm, graduated hues. Like an art installation, the light washes over the viewer, engendering an experiential effect of being bathed in illumination.

Projections of light create an enveloping sun, in warm, graduated hues like an art installation, the viewer is bathed in illumination.

Halo edition, Hyper Sun table by tthe team.
Photograph: Marco Menghu
The studio embraces art, technology and sustainability with their holistic approach to design, from modular micro-houses to electric cars. Their interdisciplinary approach and experimentation aim to bridge the gap between these various sectors.

Founded in Milan twelve years ago by Enrico De Lotto, George Kolliopoulos and Giovanni Senin, they added Davide Giovannardi as a partner in 2013. Each member of the studio has a different background, from product design to economy and art. 

More recently, Mandalaki have been working on lighting. Instead of seeing it as a source of illumination, they imagine it as all-encompassing projection. Yet one that comes from a well-designed physical object. The studio has exhibited work at galleries, fairs and institutions around the world. 

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Thursday 25 April 2024

Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department and the Art of Melodrama

Beth Garrabrant


By Samuel Murray, University of Liverpool

Taylor Swift album drops have become cultural moments – whether or not you are a fan of her music. Each album in the Swift catalogue seeks to open up new themes, discussion, sounds and ideas, while retaining a sense of familiarity that doesn’t alienate fans.

Lyrically, The Tortured Poets Department is a euphoric rejection of societal expectations. It embraces all the Taylor-isms her fans have come to know and love, from her one-note melodies to her recitative delivery (sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech). And it features her signature frank and open autopsies of relationships, delivered with maturity not only in the choices of language and obscenities (“fuck you if I can’t have us”) but in Swift’s outlook on her life and relationships. This is accompanied by the rich electro-pop production of longtime collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner.

The first striking thing about the album (including its title), is the many references to poetry. The title track declares: “You’re not Dylan Thomas, I’m not Patti Smith”, pointing to other famously troubled (or “tortured”) lyrical poets.

This track sets the tone for an album where lyrics are the central feature, with Swift choosing developed imagery over catchy pop hooks. The title track is also a clear rejection of any notion that Swift is presenting herself as a bohemian, and asserts that she does not struggle for her art. In fact, she appears to mock those who do, sneering: “Who uses typewriters anyway?”

Tortured melodrama

One of the unapologetic lyrical themes of the album is Swift’s intense commitment to love, relationships and their aftermath. To help convey this, Swift uses melodrama as a narrative device. Melodrama is a genre of performance that uses heightened and often over-the-top expressions of emotion.

In Down Bad she evokes fantastic celestial imagery of “cosmic love” and being “heavenstruck”, but balances this with discovering the harsh realities of a relationship. She asks: “Did you really beam me up / In a cloud of sparkling dust / Just to do experiments on?”, perhaps suggesting that her passionate love is being taken advantage of.

Swift tempers this with the extreme assertion that: “If I can’t have him, I might just die”. This melodrama pervades the rest of the album to celebrate emotional vulnerability as she shares her innermost thoughts.

On I Can Do it With a Broken Heart Swift declares: “I’m so depressed, I act like it’s my birthday every day”, before proudly owning her emotion, declaring: “I cry a lot, but I am so productive, it’s an art”. Here, she claims that she can use heartbreak as a stimulus for creativity, rather than allow it to dictate her everyday life.

In his book Melodrama (1973) author, James L Smith draws on philosophical critiques and analyses of music, poetry and theatre to help define the core characteristics of the genre. “In melodrama,” he explains, “man remains undivided, free from the agony of choosing between conflicting imperatives and desires”.

Swift often exhibits this in her lyrical retellings of past relationships, either positioning listeners at the beginning (Enchanted) or end of a relationship (We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together).

Smith also asserts that “melodrama presses its own extreme conflicts to extreme conclusions”. This speaks to the extremes of emotion explored in The Tortured Poets Department, including frequent references to death. “I might just die, it would make no difference”, Swift opines on Down Bad. “Lights, camera, bitch, smile / Even when you wanna die” is how she describes her emotional state during the recent Eras Tour in I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.

Art forms like songs and poetry can be extremely valuable for artists to process and channel their emotions. Not only does this seem to hold true for The Tortured Poets Department, but the album functions as something of an invitation for listeners to process their own grief and heartbreak alongside Swift. An “alchemy” that turns for her own “tortured” nights into communal therapy.

Samuel Murray, Lecturer in Music, University of Liverpool

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Monday 22 April 2024

Back to Black: New Biopic only Bolsters the Amy Winehouse ‘trainwreck’ Narrative

Focus Features


By Nathalie Weidhase, University of Surrey

When Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27 in 2011, many felt the world had been robbed of one its greatest stars who had barely shown us the extent of her talent. The new biopic Back to Black – directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and named after Winehouse’s seminal second album – attempts to make sense of her tumultuous life and musical output.

The film follows Winehouse – played by Marisa Abela – from the early days of her career in early-2000s London, through to global stardom. In the process, it reveals the ways in which female celebrities are objectified in contemporary media and celebrity culture, even after their death.

At the height of Winehouse’s fame, gossip tabloids still ruled the media. They created what became known as “trainwreck celebrities” – predominantly female stars who were portrayed as publicly promiscuous and frequently intoxicated. The most famous from this period include Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Lily Allen. These female celebrities were regularly shamed in the tabloid and gossip press on both sides of the Atlantic.

Winehouse shot to fame with her first album, Frank, in 2003, and was quickly considered one of these “trainwrecks” for being outspoken, performing intoxicated, and stumbling out of north London bars with her on-off lover and future husband, Blake Fielder-Civil.

Throughout her life, Winehouse tried to resist this form of control and commodification. She was seen fighting with paparazzi and resisting rehab when her record company tried to get her help (she even wrote a song about it).

Abela’s ability to imitate Winehouse’s voice and mannerisms is often impressive. However, while in the early stages Back to Black tries to counteract Winehouse’s tabloid image, it ultimately fails to shift this widely accepted narrative surrounding her chaotic lifestyle.

Amy’s distinct style

The beginning of the film centres on Winehouse’s songwriting talent and musical performance, which is swiftly followed by the offer of a record contract.

Abela’s Winehouse doesn’t tire of reminding her family and the viewer that she’s not in this for the fame or money. Indeed, the film both begins and ends with her telling us that all she wants is to make music that helps people forget their troubles, and only wants to be remembered for being a singer and for being herself.

Winehouse’s distinctive personal style is central to the visual storytelling of the film. The singer became known for her trademark beehive and eyeliner, as well as a signature Fred Perry polo and skinny jeans combination. She was also known for wearing pink satin ballet flats, which gained notoriety in paparazzi photos that showed them bloodied in the public aftermath of a fight with her husband in August 2007.

The film uses Winehouse’s distinctive style to communicate changes in her health. Instead of showing the unglamorous and often visually disturbing realities of bulimia and drug abuse, the progressively more torn clothes and dishevelled hair come to signify Winehouse’s physical and mental decline.

Many of these style moments used in the film were not inspired by looks she wore in her performances, but instead were captured through paparazzi footage. While the use of these visuals amid the dramatised scenes serve as a reminder of the relentless media chase Winehouse had to endure, the film ultimately reinforces this sense of media exploitation.

Rather than offering a complex visual portrayal that goes beyond the “trainwreck” images the viewer may be familiar with, Back to Black almost banks on how recognisable they are. It relies on the tabloid media’s damaging visual narrative instead of venturing to create its own.

Victim narratives

As a biopic, the film attempts to reclaim Winehouse from the victimhood often ascribed to her. However, the story it tells reduces Winehouse’s complex character and her life to a series of episodes of suffering.

Take a scene set in the wake of her beloved grandmother’s illness and death. Winehouse’s husband is presented as the villain who exploits her trauma as a moment of weakness, to introduce her to the same hard drugs she rejected early on in the film. This sets Back to Black’s story on a familiar trajectory.

In the film, her bulimia happens in the background, with scenes briefly showing Winehouse in front of the toilet. The only somewhat explicit discussion of it appears when her flatmate complains about the flushing noises that wake her up.

These brief moments serve as markers of unhappiness, but offer no exploration of where this unhappiness may come from. They eschew the complexity of Winehouse and her mental health, and don’t offer more than the shallow broken artist shaped by tragedy and the love of a bad man – a narrative we already know.

When Back to Black does look for causes of unhappiness, it settles on odd territory. At one point, it seems to suggest that her suffering stems from an unfulfilled desire to be a mother – a take that has garnered deserved criticism.

Ultimately, Back to Black is unable to capture what made Winehouse so special: the grain of her voice, and her ability to craft stories of female experience that reject simplistic narratives of suffering.

Nathalie Weidhase, Lecturer in Media and Communication, University of Surrey

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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