A school principal in Tallahassee, Florida, has been fired following parental complaints about a lesson on Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece David (1501-04), which was deemed “pornographic” by one aggrieved parent.
The now-former principal, Hope Carrasquilla, informed the Huffington Post that, due to a “series of miscommunications”, a customary letter informing parents of students at Tallahassee Classical School about this feature of the sixth-grade art history curriculum was not sent out, further contributing to parents’ outrage. One parent felt “point-blank upset”, Carrasquilla told HuffPost, and “felt her child should not be viewing” the iconic 16th-century exemplar of Renaissance sculpture, which depicts a figure from the Old Testament’s Book of Samuel.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Tallahassee Classical School, a charter school in Florida’s state capital, has now lost three principals since it opened in 2020. Carasquilla had worked there for less than a year. The school’s “classical education curriculum model” is an increasingly popular pedagogical model in Florida that advocates a return to the foundational tenets of Western civilisation. The school is affiliated with Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution that has sought to “fight leftist academics” by expanding into charter school fundraising and implementation.
“Once in a while you get a parent who gets upset about Renaissance art,” Carrasquilla said.
DeSantis also passed a bill that allows teachers to be armed at school and instituted the “Stop WOKE Act“, aimed at preventing “discrimination in the workplace and public schools”. His targeting of tenure, affirmative action and diversity, equity and inclusion measures at the state’s public universities reflects a nationwide Republican project to regulate and politicise education.
The youngest surviving child of a duke, Richard saw his family’s fortunes shift dramatically during the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars that devastated England in the mid-15th century. In the span of a few years, between 1459 and 1461, he went from being a prominent noble’s son to a traitor in exile to second in line to the throne, now occupied by his older brother Edward IV—all by the age of 8, says Matthew Lewis, author of Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me.
The chaos of Richard’s youth foreshadowed the tumultuous decades that followed, which found him serving as a loyal representative of the king before seizing the crown for himself upon Edward’s death in 1483. Richard’s brief life—he died on the battlefield in 1485 at age 32, losing the throne to Henry VII—has sparked debate ever since, with two competing views emerging in the centuries after his reign.
One side paints Richard as a power-hungry, Machiavellian usurper who ordered the deaths of his nephews, the so-called Princes in the Tower, to claim the crown. Popularized by Shakespeare’s Richard III, which depicts the soon-to-be king describing himself as “deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,” this dark legend took shape during the 16th century and persisted for generations. At the other end of the spectrum, Richard’s ardent admirers argue that he was a model king blameless of any wrongdoing, unfairly vilified by propagandists eager to destroy his reputation.
The Lost King, a new film dramatizing the search for Richard’s remains (which were famously found beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, in August 2012), offers perhaps the most sympathetic portrayal of the monarch to ever grace the silver screen. Written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, who scripted the 2013 Judi Dench movie Philomena, The Lost King stars Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langley, the British writer and television producer who launched the project to uncover Richard’s grave, and Harry Lloyd as the eponymous monarch, who appears to Langley as a narrative device.
Here’s what you need to know about The Lost King—and Richard’s life and legacy—ahead of the film’s release in the United States on March 24.
Is The Lost King based on a true story?
In the works since 2014, The Lost King builds on a 2013 book by Langley and historian Michael Jones, as well as original research conducted by the screenwriters. To briefly summarize the film’s plot, Langley develops an interest in Richard, who she believes has been maligned for too long. After experiencing a moment of intuition, she becomes convinced the king’s bones are buried in a Leicester parking lot and embarks on a quest to uncover his remains. At each step of the way, she faces pushback from the establishment, represented chiefly by male archaeologists and administrators at the University of Leicester, who dismiss her ideas because she’s a woman without any formal archaeological training.
The movie’s depiction of the university proved controversial upon its release in the United Kingdom last fall, prompting the school’s press office to release a lengthy statement. “We worked closely with Philippa Langley throughout the project, and she was not sidelined by the university,” the statement reads. “Indeed, she formed part of the team interview panel for every single press conference connected to the king.” The university added that it had offered to “help … establish the correct factual basis of the project that discovered and identified Richard III” during the film’s production, only to be refused. Langley and her colleagues at the Looking for Richard Project responded with an online FAQ addressing the points raised by the university.
Speaking with Smithsonian magazine, Langley says:
I’m not a professor. I’m not a doctor. And yes, I’m female, and yes, I’m a Ricardian, so I have revisionist views of Richard III. I think if I was doing the dig now, quite a few of the people that I dealt with … would be more aware of how they spoke and what they actually said. Because a lot of the things they said, they probably thought, “I’m being very nice here.” But they were actually being really patronizing and condescending.
Author Mike Pitts arguably puts forth the most balanced, unbiased account of the discovery in his book Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King. He asserts that Langley and the university began the excavation with different goals. While Langley hoped to find the king’s grave, the University of Leicester Archaeological Services was more interested in locating Grey Friars, the Franciscan friary where Richard was reportedly buried. In the field of archaeology, “you don’t set out to go and dig up a named individual,” lead archaeologist Richard Buckley told Pitts. “What we were really interested in was working on sites that tell us about the ordinary population. Or elucidating the plans of buildings.”
Nevertheless, Pitts tells Smithsonian he believes Langley “was the reason the excavation took place. It wouldn’t have occurred to any of the archaeologists to embark on this search in the past.” Once the dig started, however, he thinks Langley’s status as a “non-archaeologist” put her on the outside, looking in on the English king she so admires to this day.
Who was Richard III?
When Richard was born in October 1452, few could have anticipated the level of interest he’d attract. The 11th of 12 children of Richard, Third Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, he was the youngest of six to survive to adulthood. His father was the preeminent member of the House of York, one of two rival branches of the ruling Plantagenet dynasty (along with the House of Lancaster). The duke was a driving force in the early years of the Wars of the Roses, a period of violent struggle between the Yorkists and Lancastrians.
During Richard’s childhood, his father and other nobles became increasingly disillusioned with the leadership of Henry VI, a Lancastrian whose poor judgment and mental instability resulted in the loss of French lands won by his predecessor and father, Henry V. Tensions between the factions culminated in the outbreak of civil war in May 1455, with York seeking to oust Henry VI and his strong-willed wife, Margaret of Anjou, from power.
The biographer Lewis traces a formative moment for the young Richard to October 1459. At age 7, he watched his father and two eldest brothers prepare for battle, only to flee after realizing they were certain to lose. Richard, his mother and his older brother George were left behind, escaping the incident unscathed but likely traumatized by the pillaging that took place around them.
“How does a 7-year-old boy rationalize the fact that all of the men in his life have just abandoned him to face this army?” Lewis asks. “It must have left a mark on him and made him wonder about how [to] make yourself secure. How do you ensure your security [when] it can be taken away so quickly?”
The next two years saw the House of York’s fortunes rise and fall, reaching a low point with the battlefield deaths of Richard’s father and brother in December 1460 and peaking with his oldest brother Edward’s victory—and subsequent seizure of the throne—at the Battle of Towton in March 1461. Richard, who’d been sent away for his safety following his father’s death, returned from exile in time for Edward’s coronation. Elevated to the title of Duke of Gloucester, Richard was now second in line to the throne, after his brother George.
The beginning of Edward’s reign was relatively peaceful, with the young king, who ascended to the throne at age 18, leaving the business of governance to his mentor and cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. After Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight, in 1464, Warwick lost much of his influence and power, as the queen was eager to use her new position to promote her many relatives.
In the summer of 1469, Warwick staged a rebellion against Edward, launching a new period of unrest. Though Warwick initially hoped to install George on the throne, this plan failed, and he was forced to seek an alliance with his former enemy, Margaret of Anjou, and her teenage son, Edward of Westminster.
Warwick and Margaret briefly restored her husband, Henry VI, to the throne, forcing Edward to seek refuge in Burgundy. Seventeen-year-old Richard accompanied the king, making what Lewis views as a “slightly tricky decision” between supporting Warwick and George, the brother he was closest to in age, or Edward, “a father figure who’d provided [him] with all of the security” he’d enjoyed for the past ten years.
On April 14, 1471, the three brothers York (George had returned to the fold after realizing Warwick couldn’t make him king) fought alongside each other for the first time at the Battle of Barnet. Their armies emerged victorious, killing Warwick and leaving Margaret as the sole champion of the Lancastrian cause; the death of Edward of Westminster a few weeks later, at the Battle of Tewkesbury, sealed the Lancastrians’ fate. Upon his return to London, Edward likely ordered the murder of Henry VI (the official explanation was that he died “of melancholy”), eliminating the last major Lancastrian rival for the crown and effectively ending the second phase of the Wars of the Roses.
It was during these battles that Richard developed a reputation for battlefield prowess that would endure until his defeat at Bosworth in 1485. In 1472, he married Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne Neville, and began a distinguished career as a leading member of the nobility, rewarded for his loyalty to Edward with land and power in the north of England. “Richard was everything … a king [would] want in one of his great magnates,” says Henry VII chronicler Amin. “He was loyal, [and] he was dependable.”
In contrast, Amin adds, George, who was executed for treason in 1478, was “pretty much the opposite of Richard. He was untrustworthy. He was ambitious beyond measure.”
During this period, Richard was “clearly viewed as someone who is a good lord [and] military leader … and a competent nobleman able to rule vast swaths of land,” says Lewis.
How did Richard take the throne?
On April 9, 1483, Edward died at age 40. He’d fallen ill unexpectedly but lived long enough to add a provision to his will naming Richard as lord protector, charged with overseeing the government on behalf of the new king, 12-year-old Edward V. Edward IV’s wife, Elizabeth Woodville, strongly objected to Richard’s appointment, preferring her brother Anthony Woodville, Second Earl Rivers, for the role. But the dying king ignored this suggestion, perhaps realizing the Woodvilles’ social-climbing ways had alienated other prominent members of the nobility.
Exactly what happened in the months that followed is subject to much debate, in part because many of the contemporary sources were destroyed; almost all of the information available comes from lateraccounts. This is when “it all gets kind of murky, and [your view] relies entirely on a subjective assessment of Richard,” says Lewis, a proud supporter of Richard, or Ricardian, who currently serves as chair of the Richard III Society. “[You’re] always going to rely on what you already think of Richard when you try and work out what he’s doing … in 1483.”
These are the facts. On April 29, nearly three weeks after Edward IV’s death, Richard dined with Anthony Woodville, who’d spent the past decade preparing his young nephew Edward for his eventual reign, and a close associate, Richard Grey. The next morning, Richard ordered Anthony’s and Grey’s arrest and imprisonment. He then rode out to meet the adolescent king, whom he escorted into London in early May.
It’s possible Richard had by now decided to take the crown for himself as a way of neutralizing the Woodville threat. Indeed, the most commonly cited explanation for Hastings’ beheading is that he became aware of Richard’s planned usurpation, which he disapproved of as a loyal supporter of the king, if not the dowager queen and her family.
A few days after Hastings’ execution, Richard pressured Elizabeth to relinquish her younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury, and allow him to join the king in the Tower. On June 22, the date originally slated for Edward’s coronation, the canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral preached a sermon declaring the king and his siblings illegitimate. He claimed that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth was bigamous, as Edward had already been contracted to another woman at the time of their union. On June 26, an assembly of English lords and commoners petitioned Richard, now considered next in line to the throne, to accept the crown, which he did following a brief, symbolic hesitation.
Lewis notes that the bigamy charge against Edward IV, while widely said to be of dubious veracity, could hold some truth. The king was a notorious womanizer who had married in secret at least once, when he wed the dowager queen in 1464. Even if the precontract story was false, it might have seemed plausible to Richard and others in England.
Richard’s detractors maintain that he had long harbored ambitions of becoming king, plotting to seize the throne from the moment of his brother’s death, if not earlier. Both Lewis and Amin dispute this characterization, arguing that Richard backed himself into a corner while attempting to navigate the uncertainty of 1483. “Richard, for me, almost stumbles onto the throne,” says Amin. “Conspiracies and plots start to erupt and envelop him. It reaches the point where [his] only way out of this position of weakness, essentially, is to make himself king.”
What happened to the Princes in the Tower?
Of the charges leveled against Richard, the murder of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, is the most serious. After the summer of 1483, the princes were never seen in public again, raising fears they’d been killed by an unknown individual.
Amin and Lewis disagree on Richard’s guilt, though both emphasize that historians have no way of definitively determining the princes’ fate. Only one historical account, written by Italian monk Dominic Mancini in 1483, is contemporary; the rest date to the Tudor era, when chroniclers had a vested interest in legitimizing the current regime and defaming the previous king.
Having already declared the princes illegitimate, Richard paved the way for his ascent to the throne as Edward IV’s next legitimate heir. Because the princes were no longer eligible to inherit, they shouldn’t have posed a threat to the king. But as Amin says, “usurpers rarely reign easily. The mere fact that someone has taken the throne … demonstrates that the throne can be taken” again in the future.
Amin believes Richard ordered his nephews’ deaths to ensure the long-term security of his own son, Edward of Middleham. The historian adds, “I always say that for Richard to have been a good father, he had to be quite a ruthless uncle.” Even if the princes weren’t an immediate threat, it was entirely possible they’d revolt against Richard or his son in 20 years, or perhaps serve as rallying points for others acting on their behalf.
Lewis, meanwhile, says, “For me, the mistake is believing it’s a murder case rather than … a missing persons case.” Given Richard’s record of faithful service, Lewis finds it unlikely that his “first response to a crisis was to murder two young children, the sons of the brother” he’d been loyal to for all his life.
Lewis believes Richard separated the princes, sending Edward to the north of England and Richard of Shrewsbury to his aunt Margaret in Burgundy. The young Richard, he suggests, later resurfaced during the reign of Henry VII as Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne who claimed to have escaped the Tower after his brother’s murder.
Ultimately, in the absence of conclusive evidence either way, the fate of the Princes in the Tower remains unknown.
What happened during Richard’s reign?
After Richard took the throne, he and his queen, Anne Neville, embarked on a royal progressaround England designed to legitimize their reign. At each stop on this journey, the king sought to increase his popularity by bestowing grants, repaying debts and refusing large monetary gifts. But he was dogged by rumors of the princes’ deaths and disapproval of his usurpation of Edward V’s crown.
In October 1483, an uprisingsupposedly led by Richard’s greatest ally, the Duke of Buckingham, further threatened the stability of his reign. The plot sought to place Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV, on the throne, but it failed. The king, who declared Buckingham “the most untrue creature living,” ordered the duke’s execution.
A few months later, the king convened his first and onlyParliament. In addition to rewarding the men who had supported him during Buckingham’s rebellion and punishing those who had opposed him, Richard advanced a surprisingly progressive legislative agenda. He reformed the jury and bail systems to discourage bribery and corruption, created an early form of legal aid, and encouraged the courts to presume innocence before guilt.
“Throughout Richard’s time, in the north, we can see an interest in law and the application of justice,” Lewis says. “We see where he takes the side of someone lower down the social ladder against their superiors, which is quite a threatening thing to the status quo. … When Richard becomes king, he takes that attitude to the national stage,” earning the ire of the elite, “who don’t want things to change.”
According to Amin, early “1484 is Richard’s high point.” From April onward, his reign entered a low from which it would never recover. On April 9, Richard’s only child, Edward of Middleham, died suddenly at about age 10, leaving his parents “in a state almost bordering on madness, by reason of their sudden grief,” according to the late 15th-century Croyland Chronicle. With the succession in question, Richard’s position became even more precarious.
His wife died less than a year after their son, probably succumbing to tuberculosis. Even before her death, rumors had circulated that Richard wanted to replace Anne with a younger, more fertile wife who could provide him with a male heir. The king’s detractors suggested he hoped to marry his nieceElizabeth of York, but no evidence of such an arrangement exists. Instead, Richard sought a marriage alliance with Portugal, proposing unions between himself and the princess Joana, and between Elizabeth of York and the future Manuel I.
Neither of these Portuguese marriages came to fruition, as Richard was soon distracted by reports of Henry Tudor’s planned invasion of England. The nephew of deposed Lancastrian king Henry VI, the younger Henry had spent much of his life in exile in Brittany, his tenuous claim to the crown relentlessly pursued by his mother, Margaret Beaufort. In the aftermath of Buckingham’s rebellion, Henry had pledged to marry Elizabeth of York, thereby uniting the warring houses of Lancaster and York, but he was unable to fulfill this promise while his wife-to-be remained at Richard’s court.
Henry’s bid for the crown was “almost like his last throw of the dice,” Amin says. “He has nothing going for him in exile. He has no money, no wife, no family.” If Henry lost to Richard, he’d likely be executed for treason. But in the unlikely event he won, he’d be able to claim the throne against all odds.
Richard’s army met Henry’s band of mercenaries at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. The king had more military experience and the tactical advantage of superior numbers, but the tide of battle shifted after Henry’s stepfather Thomas Stanley joined the fray on his stepson’s side. (Though Richard was holding Thomas’ eldest son hostage to ensure his compliance, Thomas and his brother William ultimately decided to break with Richard and throw their lot in with the Lancastrians.)
Multiple near-contemporary or 16th-century accounts testify to Richard’s fatal bravery on the battlefield. Polydore Vergil, by no means sympathetic to Richard, for instance, wrote in the early 1500s that the king refused to flee, even as his supporters urged him to. “Richard, who knew that the people were hostile to him, cast aside all hope for the future that would come after this,” Vergil noted, “and is said to have replied that on that day he would make an end either of wars or of his life, such was the great boldness and great force of spirit in him.”
Richard continued “fighting in the thickest press of the enemy” until he was finally cut down, according to Vergil. With his death, the Plantagenet dynasty’s 331 years in power came to an abrupt end, as Henry Tudor, “the unlikeliest king to ever have ruled England,” in Amin’s words, fulfilled his mother’s long-standing ambitions and ascended to the throne.
Historical records indicated the king was buried in Grey Friars after the Battle of Bosworth, but the friary’s exact location—and, by extension, that of Richard’s grave—was lost during the English Reformation in the mid-16th century.
How has Richard’s reputation evolved over the centuries?
One of Henry VII’s first acts as king was the repeal of Titulus Regius, the document that declared Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s children illegitimate. (Henry ordered all copies of Titulus Regius destroyed, but the original version survived and was made public in 1611.) In doing so, Henry cast doubt on Richard’s claim to the throne and strengthened his own hold on power by legitimizing his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth of York. If the Princes in the Tower were dead, as was widely believed at the time, then Elizabeth should have been next in line to the throne. But she was a woman and therefore viewed as unfit to rule in her own right, so her inheritance fell to her husband.
Henry spent the first 14 years of his reign consolidating power. He’d learned from the mistakes made by his predecessors, chief among them allowing the nobility to gain unchecked power, and he sought to stem the elite’s influence by “outlawing private armies and taking their money,” says Amin. “Henry Tudor becomes too rich, too powerful to be kicked off his throne.”
These sources held sway for centuries, even as individuals like George Buck in 1619, Horace Walpole in 1768 and Clements Markham in 1906 published dissenting views. In the past century or so, the Richard III Society, founded in 1924 to promote reassessments of the king’s life, and Josephine Tey’s 1951 mystery novel, The Daughter of Time, in which a retired detective embarks on a quest to exonerate Richard of his nephews’ murders, have fostered a more sympathetic view.
“That tension and that juxtaposition, that swinging back and forth of [Richard’s] reputation, has gone on for 400 years now,” says Lewis. “Sometimes it seems to be recovering, and then it gets knocked down again.”
How were Richard’s remains uncovered?
The 21st-century resurgence of interest in Richard owes much to the discovery of his remains in 2012. Langley, who was the driving force behind the search, traces her interest in the project to 2004, when she “had this intuitive experience by the letter ‘R’ [in a parking lot], where I felt I was standing on Richard’s grave.” A screenwriter from Edinburgh, she’d been researching the king since 1998, when she read a sympathetic biography of him. Up to that point, she’d been focused on Richard’s life, but after the moment in the parking lot, she shifted gears to his death and burial.
Langley wasn’t the first to identify the parking lot as the likely location of Grey Friars. Building on the work of previous scholars, she teamed up with historian John Ashdown-Hill, who’d found a direct descendant of Richard’s sister Anne, meaning any bones unearthed during a dig could be positively identified through DNA analysis. Langley approached the University of Leicester in 2011, and excavations began on August 25, 2012, after several exploratory assessments and fundraising campaigns.
“It’s almost impossible to list the number of coincidences and chances that came together to produce the result that was achieved,” says Pitts, author of Digging for Richard III. “On the day of the setting out of the trench, Matthew [Morris] looked across the carpark and [saw] a big white line down the middle. He used that to align his trench, [so] if that line had been a meter to one side, they would’ve missed the grave, and we would be none the wiser.”
Within a few hours of starting the dig, archaeologists uncovered human remains. Initially, osteologistJo Appleby told Langley the bones probably belonged to a young man, perhaps “a well-nourished friar.” She started thinking differently, however, after realizing the skeleton had a curved spine—a condition that seemingly supported Shakespeare’s physical description of Richard. (Later tests indicated the king had scoliosis, which would have made his right shoulder rest slightly higher than his left but wouldn’t have reduced his lung capacity or made him walk with an overt limp.)
Finding the bones was just one step in the broader project of uncovering and identifying Richard’s remains. The Lost King skips over the second half of this process, jumping from the dig to a press conference announcing the discovery. “Between those two things was a massive amount of scientific study and debate and discussion among the team,” says Pitts. Contrary to the film’s depiction of events, much of this analysis was spearheaded by women, including Appleby, geneticist Turi King and archaeologist Lin Foxhall.
“The work doesn’t stop once the excavation is done,” King says. “The remains then [needed] to be identified, and this took months and months of work. Indeed, [the bones’] reinterment as Richard III”—which took place at Leicester Cathedral in March 2015, after a lengthy debate over where to rebury the king—“rested on the results of that analysis.”
According to Pitts, “It’s extraordinarily rare for archaeologists to excavate known individuals,” especially from the medieval era. Because Richard’s life is so well documented, the university team was able to compare insights garnered from his remains with the historical record.
In many cases, the findings lined up: For instance, the king’s bones showed evidence of 11 injuries sustained around the time of death, at least three of which would have been fatal. The sheer intensity of the assault supports accounts of Richard’s valiant final stand at the Battle of Bosworth. John Rous of Warwick, writing in the late 15th century, deemed the king the Antichrist, but even he admitted that Richard, “though small in body and feeble of limb, … bore himself like a gallant knight and acted with distinction as his own champion until his last breath.”
Beeple’s spinning sculpture has a serious eco message
The digital art japester Beeple—who hit the headlines in 2021 with his $69m NFT sale at Christie’s—is making his presence felt at Art Basel Hong Kong, drawing the crowds with a revolving kinetic sculpture that looks like a technicolour time machine . We bumped into the digital megastar who said he was keen to do something outside the 2D medium box. His spinning visual piece at LGDR gallery—S.2122 (2023)—is about “climate change. The water is rising [in the work] but the people will try to adapt”, he said, adding that the head-twisting assemblage has a “hopeful message”. Spread the love Beeps.
Zadie Xa, Hong Kong star, goes underground in London
Zadie Xa is having a moment. At Art Basel Hong Kong, two of Xa’s works were snapped up at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery who recently signed up the Canadian-Korean artist. The fetching pieces, both made of recycled leather and assorted shell buttons, were priced at £22,000 each. But Xa is not just making waves in Hong Kong. She has just unveiled a major public art piece on the London Underground, presenting a mural at the eastern end of Aldgate East station near Whitechapel Gallery. The eye-popping work is inspired by the mythical griffin, which was used as an official symbol by London Transport (Tfl) from 1933 until the late 1950s. The two-part piece comprises Griffin and Guardian which reimagines the TfL griffin as a seagull and fox hybrid; the second part, Underworlds Connect, shows (wait for it) a three-eyed wide tiger stepping out of a conch shell. Commuters will be delighted.
Respite at the fair on a rabbit-hugging bench
Visitors to Art Basel Hong Kong are usually strictly forbidden from touching the art. But fairgoers can, to their surprise, sit on a large-scale sculpture by Barry Flanagan at the stand of Waddington Custot. A steady stream of happy individuals, no doubt keen to rest their tired aisle-darting feet, have taken up Jacob Twyford’s offer to perch on The Handshakers piece depicting two huge rabbit-esque figures joined at the hand (or paw). Twyford, senior director at the London-based gallery, says that the sitting statue is “all about saying hello, all about love”. And we all need a little bit of that.
No, it’s not…. is it Banksy?
All the kids on the block in Hong Kong descended on the K11 musea at Victoria Dockside earlier this week to see “China’s first major exhibition of graffiti and street art” (City as Studio, until 14 May) featuring works by big name graffiti guys such as Shepard Fairey and Futura. But one particular exhibit—a dysfunctional moving mannequin spraying the wall—had people at the VIP party scratching their heads. “Who is that meant to be?” asked a number of visitors with one or two going so far as to speculate that the jerky automaton might even be the ever elusive Banksy (we’re not sure he’d like the speculative comparison though).
Art world gets in a lather over lifts at H Queen’s
The art world may have been missing from Hong Kong for the past few years due to Covid but one of the city’s most pressing problems persists—the lifts at the H Queen’s building in the Central district which seem to take an age to go up (and down). Hordes of eager art buffs descended on the skyscraper earlier this week to see shows at David Zwirner (Rirkrit Tiravanija) and Hauser & Wirth (Rashid Johnson). But the elevators were packed out, prompting the (mainly) high-heeled guests to make their way down by (shock horror) the stairs. A worker at H Queen’s, bemused by the disgruntled party crowds, quipped that he’d forgotten “during the Covid years how nobody ever had to go down via the stairs”.
WANTED! Men and women willing to travel to the beautiful tropical colony of Kourou in the Americas. All material needs supplied. All expenses paid.
Eight months later…
It’s hard not to laugh when you think about Monty Python, but the reality of France’s 18th-century colonization efforts is truly horrifying. It was one of the world’s greatest government-caused humanitarian disasters, and it’s a story that should be shared, remembered, learned from, and never be repeated in any way.
It all started at the end of the Seven Years’ War. The Treaty of Paris forced France to cede its colonies in Canada, Grenada, Dominica, and Tobago to Great Britain. The small settlement of Cayenne in Guyana (now French Guiana), called France Équinoxiale1 at the time, was the country’s only remaining colony on the American continent2. Bounded by the Maroni River in the north and the Oyapok River in the south, Cayenne was a small, impoverished colony of about 575 settlers and almost 7,000 enslaved people.
Having lost its largest and richest colony, France was determined to expand its small foothold on the South American continent. If successful, at some point in the future, it could be used as a base of operations for launching attacks against British possessions in North America and the West Indies. In 1762, France’s minister of the navy and colonies, the Duc de Choiseul, began organizing a massive colonizing expedition to Cayenne and Kourou, a river about 37 miles northwest of Cayenne. Kourou was chosen because it was believed to be a lush area full of beautiful plants and abundant gold3.
The Duc de Choiseul’s administration recruited settlers from all over France and parts of Europe, especially Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland. Even the island of Malta was targeted as a source of settlers. Choiseul promised that anyone traveling to Rochefort, the port of embarkation for the expedition, would have their travel costs and subsistence covered, and their transportation to Guyana would also be free.4 Once in Guyana, the colony’s organizers and King Louis XV promised to fully support the settlers for two-and-a-half years. They would be given plots of land; housing; food, including all the vegetables they were familiar with in Europe, cattle (they even transported 14 water buffalo and their handlers from Civitavecchia, Italy!), and all species of poultry; as well as clothing.
The king himself ordained that the colony would be a land of enlightenment. A place with all the advantages of the British American colonies – only better. The importation of enslaved Black people was expressly prohibited except in the direst circumstances, and the native Indians would be protected. They even encouraged marriages between the settlers and native women. Settlers were promised a society with freedom of conscience with no imposition from the government, freedom of religion, and freedom of maritime commerce; the settlers would pay no taxes. Additionally, any settlers who managed to give birth to a son would receive a reward.
Worried the colonists would become depressed, feeling trapped so far from their home countries, the organizers recruited a troupe of clowns and musicians to entertain the new colony. There were tambourine players, several horn players, a violinist, a guitar player and composer, and nine German musicians (I’m not sure what instruments they played). They even recruited an 8-year-old harpist from Koblenz. Also recruited were botanists, naturalists, doctors, agricultural workers, merchants, artisans, and the “most virtuous and the most understanding men to be governors and intendants”5 of the settlement. The one thing the government neglected to supply was enough food.
Convinced by all the extravagant and too-good-to-be-true promises, nearly 17,000 men, women, and children, mainly from Alsace and the Rhineland, streamed across France to take the French government up on its offer. A naval administrator named Victor Pierre Malouet was tasked with reviewing the new settlers. He was shocked by what he saw, calling it a “deplorable spectacle.” He stated the new colonists were “imbeciles of all kinds” mixed with farmers, merchants, nobles, artisans, city folk, gentlemen, civil and military servants, and a troupe of clowns and musicians.6 Another source called the settlers “the scum of the population of the east of France.”7
While the settlers living in Cayenne before this expansion attempt did manage to support themselves, mainly with the help of enslaved persons and native Indians who hunted and fished, they certainly didn’t produce enough to support the thousands of new settlers, no matter how many supplies were sent from France. Cayenne’s governor and the colony’s leading planters thought it was sheer madness to send so many unacclimatized Europeans to Guyana and expect them to start plantations without the help of enslaved people. Most likely trying to save themselves, they refused to help or support the new settlers in any way.
The first group of Kourou settlers managed to clear a small plot of land (with the help of enslaved people loaned by a nearby Jesuit mission) and started building 14 rows of leaf-covered huts. But before the shelters could be completed, 300 more settlers arrived, quickly followed by more than 1,400 others. The settlement’s leadership tried to stop the flood of immigrants, but their efforts failed. In the spring of 1764, another 1,400 settlers arrived and were sent to the Isles du Salut, a small group of islands off the mouth of the Kourou River. Before you get excited by thinking, “the Salvation Islands, well, that can’t be too bad!” believe me, no salvation was involved. The island group’s original name was the Isles du Diable (the Devil’s Isles), but the name was changed so it wouldn’t terrify the people sent there. Within months they had packed 1,300 more people onto the islands. At one point, so many tents covered the islands that a passing British merchant ship thought the tents housed an invasion army.
In the end, somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 people were sent to Kourou. Packed together into such tight quarters under terrible living conditions, most settlers succumbed to epidemic diseases (most likely typhoid fever), starvation, or simply from pure despair within a few months of their arrival. The medical officer on site in the fall of 1764 was trying to treat 1,400 to 1,500 sick people every day. They died so fast, and in such numbers they couldn’t even be counted.
Surgeon Bertrand Bajon described the colony as one of “sorrow, indolence, foulness, filth and despair.”8 When Étienne François Turgot, the governor of Guyana arrived in December 1764, nineteen months after the first settlers arrived, he wrote, “I could not restrain my tears…I saw myself surrounded by a multitude of emaciated and pale widows and orphans of both sexes bathed in tears, who clasped their hands and raised their eyes towards heaven.”9 Turgot and his entire household became sick almost immediately, and 12 of its 20 members died. The new governor was nearly blinded.
By April 1765, Turgot had abandoned the colony with about 919 survivors. Over the few years of the colonization attempt, about 3,000 survivors managed to return to France, but they continued to die from the diseases they brought back. They also launched epidemics in the ports to which they returned. Despite the masses of people delivered to Guyana, by 1770, the population had only grown to about 1,178 people.
After the colonization of French Guiana failed, “French colonial interest turned to buying slaves to fill the colony.” And while France retained control of Guyana and some islands off the coast (it would lose St. Domingue in Toussaint L’Ouverture’s rebellion of 1791-1803), the Kourou collapse essentially ended France’s ambitions as a continental power in the Americas.
1. The Latin word Équinoxiale means “of equal nights.” It refers to French Guiana’s location on the equator, where the days and nights are of equal length.
2. For those of you thinking, “What about New Orleans?” like I was, in 1762, France had ceded Louisiana (everything west of the Mississippi, including New Orleans) to Spain in the Treaty of Fontainebleau, so as far as France was concerned, New Orleans was no longer a French colony.
3. The Guyana region was once thought to be the location of the mythical city El Dorado.
4. One gets the impression from Emma Rothschild’s paper “A Horrible Tragedy in the Atlantic” that the promise of reimbursing travel costs was probably not fulfilled. See page 76 for the story of a newspaper that reported a German servant girl begging for help after her family, now destitute, had walked from Alsace to Paris. The editor of the paper was promptly arrested for reporting on the situation, probably to prevent word from getting out that the grandiose promises being made by the French government were not being kept.
5. November 27, 1763, letter from the Duc de Choiseul to Voltaire.
6. Victor Pierre Malouet, Collection des Memoires et correspondances officielles sur l’administration des colonies, et notamment sur la Guiane française et hollandaise, Paris, 1802.
7. From Précis historique de l’Expedition du Kourou, pages 47-48.
8. M. Bajon, Memoires pour servir a l’histoire de Cayenne, et de la Guiane françoise, (Paris, 1777), volume 1, page 61.
9. December 24, 1764, letter from Étienne François Turgot to the Duc de Choiseul.
“A Horrible Tragedy in the French Atlantic” by Emma Rothschild, published in Past & Present, August 2006, No. 192, pp. 67-108.
“Colonial Experiments in French Guiana, 1760-1800” by David Lowenthal, published in The Hispanic American Historical Review, February 1952, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 22-33 relate specifically to the attempt to colonize Kourou.
The film Inside, which hit US cinemas last month, is an art caper story—a tale built around a crime going wrong.
Here, the US actor Willem Dafoe plays an art burglar for hire in a film that is more of a premise than a story. It is a point of departure for a solo performance by Dafoe, whose character, a burglar named Nemo, is lowered by helicopter into a New York penthouse full of art. The apartment’s owner is said to be in Kazakhstan; his place is filled with objects that are as expensive and generic as the art on the walls: think Architectural Digest. Nemo’s mission is to steal works by the Modern master Egon Schiele.
Forget the age-old starving artist trope—now we have the starving art thief
From the outset, a feeling sets in that this heist is a victimless crime; that a person who owns a flat this luxurious can afford to replace anything stolen from it. Nemo is stuck there when an alarm goes off and seals the doors and windows. That moment turns the trapped criminal into a victim. Forget the age-old starving artist trope—now we have the starving art thief.
Desperate, Nemo searches for a solution to this lost-in-the-arthouse dilemma, damaging or repurposing art as he struggles for a way out, even mimicking (or saluting?) Ai Weiwei with a tower of furniture to breach the skylight. Staying alive takes precedence over all else. You can’t eat a Schiele, or can you? What about the tropical fish in the stylish aquarium? Nemo’s destructive frenzy is perfect fodder for the mainstream target audience that might be sceptical about what constitutes contemporary art these days.
The survivalist fable in the enclosed space unfolds like theatre. In what can feel like an over-extended improvisation with long close-ups, Nemo confronts his solitude, hunger, thirst and extremes of hot and cold when the temperature controls (for the art) go haywire. Losing his mind, Nemo starts drawing on the walls, raising the obvious question about whether art is the ultimate form of insanity. Nemo’s tortured predicament is ambiguous: art is the unaffordable treasure that attracts a thief (and lures us, the audience, as voyeurs), yet it is of no value as Nemo faces dying alone.
Inside is the first feature by Vasilis Katsoupis, who directs television commercials in Greece. The screenplay is by Katsoupis and the British film-maker Ben Hopkins, with the art in the film (actual works by Francesco Clemente, Adrian Paci, Maurizio Cattelan and others) chosen by the Italian curator Leonardo Bigazzi.
Dafoe, who played Jesus in the 1988 epic The Last Temptation of Christ, is more of a John the Baptist character here, stranded in a high-rise desert of luxury. But Dafoe is nothing if not adaptable: in his early 60s, he played a 37-year-old Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate (2018), directed by Julian Schnabel. One of his finest roles was in The Florida Project (2017) as the manager of a motel filled with indigent families trapped in the landing path of the airport that serves Disneyworld.
Unexplained plot holes
Katsoupis’s camera captures icy high-rise privilege, with the hard edges of slate and steel and rarefied appliances. As Dafoe scratches away at that veneer, all Katsoupis needs to do is leave the camera on. The minimal script may have more unexplained holes than the furniture that Nemo tears apart, but this is an actor’s film, with Dafoe roaming the set as a man who never met a grimace he did not like. Even for him, it is still a struggle to hold the audience’s interest, locked in a small space with no one but yourself to talk to for 105 minutes.
Inside is an exercise—ultimately a perplexing one that wears thin—for a performer who is game for a challenge. Dafoe will move on to the next tortured character, while we are left wondering how no one in the building heard the deafening noise of a helicopter hovering overhead when Nemo first arrived.
A previously unknown painting by Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock was seized during an anti-organised crime raid in Sofia, Bulgaria, officials said this week. The painting dates from 1949 and could be worth up to €50m, according to experts cited by Bulgarian National Radio. Authorities have not released a description or photograph of the work.
The painting was discovered during a joint operation between Bulgarian and Greek anti-organised crime forces coordinated by Europol, according to BNR. Sister raids also took place in Athens and on the island of Crete. Three Greek citizens and one Bulgarian citizen have been detained over the operation. Five additional paintings by what the BNR describes as “prominent artists” were discovered during the stings.
The alleged Pollock painting has been handed over to specialists from the National Art Gallery in Bulgaria, according to Bulgarian news agency Novinite. On the back of the canvas is a dedication to the American actress Lauren Bacall that appears to have been written by Pollock himself, Sofia’s deputy city prosecutor Desislava Petrova said during a press conference Wednesday (22 March), according to the BTA, the national Bulgarian News Agency.
“Dedicated to my very talented and dear friend Lauren Bacall, Happy Birthday,” the inscription on the back of the painting reportedly reads. The message is dated 16 September 1949, which was Bacall’s 25th birthday, prosecutors said. Bacall was a noted art collector, and items from her collection of art and jewellery sold for a collective $3.6m at Bonhams New York in 2015 after her death the year before. No Pollock paintings were included in the sale.
The prosecutor’s office said the painting has ever been catalogued and has not been registered as missing, according to the BTA.
The most valuable Pollock painting to ever sell at auction, Number 17, 1951 (1951), fetched $53m ($61.2m with fees) during the first of two court-ordered auctions of Linda and Harry Macklowe’s art collection in November 2021. Last May, Pollock’s Number 31 (1949)—completed the same year as the alleged Pollock found in Bulgaria—sold at Christie’s New York for $47m ($54.2m with fees).