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Arty films and books to look forward to in 2021

4 January 2021

Keep an eye out for these books and films with an art-historical twist over the next few months.

Films

Ammonite, dir. Francis Lee 
The writer and director of God’s Own Country has looked to the Victorian palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) for his latest feature. Anning runs a tourist shop in Lyme Regis to fund her study of fossils, for which she receives little recognition in male-dominated scientific circles (in 2010, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of 10 British women to have most influenced the history of science). One of these scientists arrives from London to leave in Anning’s temporary care his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who has herself been fossilised by marital ennui. With a large helping of artistic licence, this film reimagines the relationship that develops between the two women.

The Dig, dir. Simon Stone 
It’s 1939, and widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has called in amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate a series of burial mounds on her Suffolk estate. With war approaching, it’s all hands on deck to uncover what will turn out to be the Sutton Hoo ship burial. In this film based on a novel of the same name by John Preston, individual human dramas are played out against the vast history of their discoveries.

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig (dir. Simon Stone).

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig (dir. Simon Stone). © Larry Horricks/Netflix 2021

The French Dispatch, dir. Wes Anderson 
Anderson has set his latest visual treat in a fictional French city named Ennui-sur-Blasé, which serves as European outpost for a fictional Kansas newspaper. Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray) is editor of the eponymous weekly rag on politics, the arts and human-interest stories, and his comical interactions with his stable of journalists include such lines as: ‘Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.’ Adrien Brody leads one of three storylines based on a feature in the New Yorker about the phenomenally successful art dealer Joseph Duveen.

Candyman, dir. Nia DaCosta 
Viewers are free to draw what parallels they will with the contemporary art world in this supernatural slasher movie co-written by Jordan Peele. A sequel to the film of the same name from 1992, it centres on a visual artist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) living in a now-gentrified former housing project in Chicago. Under pressure to deliver new work, he takes a local urban legend as a theme for his paintings, with horrifying consequences…

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Candyman (dir. Nia DaCosta).

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Candyman (dir. Nia DaCosta). © Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

Last Night in Soho, dir. Edgar Wright 
Details of this psychological horror from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz have been kept well under wraps, but given its setting in London’s Soho in the 1960s, we’ll be disappointed if the likes of Francis Bacon don’t make an appearance.

Books

The Death of Francis Bacon 
Max Porter
Faber & Faber
This book arrives in a year that also sees the publication of a significant biography of the artist by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (William Collins), as well as the exhibition ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’ at the Royal Academy of Arts (30 January–18 April). Fascinated by Bacon since he was a teenager, the author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Lanny has said of his new book: ‘It’s my attempt to write as painting, not about it.’ Don’t expect elements of art history or biography in this piece of prose, but something that ‘stinks, I hope, of turpentine and oil and fags…’

Painting Time
Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)
MacLehose
Winner of the Wellcome Book Prize for her novel Mend the Living, the French author has set her latest work of fiction in a world of fictive painting: her protagonists are students of the art of trompe l’oeil, and the novel follows them from their apprenticeship in Brussels to the sets of Cinecittà and the caves of Lascaux.

Letters to Camondo 
Edmund de Waal
Chatto & Windus
De Waal once again finds inspiration in his own history for this new book, which takes as its subject matter the Camondo family, who lived a few doors down from the author’s forebears in Paris. De Waal reveals their story, and their collection of 18th-century French art, through letters he addresses to Count Moïse de Camondo.

Second Place
Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber
Through a relationship between a woman and a famous male artist, the power of art to both save and destroy is explored in this latest novel from the author of the Outline trilogy.

The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience – 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits 
Jennifer Higgie
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
The triumphs and tribulations of artists from Artemisia Gentileschi to Gwen John and Frida Kahlo are laid out in this 500-year history, from the former editor of Frieze, of women who have made themselves their subject.

See/Saw: Looking at Photographs
Geoff Dyer
Canongate
No stranger to writing about photography – his history of the medium, The Ongoing Moment, was published in 2005 – the novelist and critic has here gathered a decade’s worth of essays on single images by artists such as Eugène Atget, Vivian Maier and Alex Webb.

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