Each week in 2016, an art historian has taken a photo in the news and compared it with a great artwork for BBC Culture. Here’s our round-up of images that have shocked and inspired us.
January: Tim Peake’s spacewalk
In the 1960s, writes Catherine Ingram, space travel had a different colour. As the US artist Andy Warhol described it, back then “silver was the future, it was spacey – the astronauts wore silver suits”. This photo of British astronaut Tim Peake’s spacewalk reminds Ingram of Warhol’s 1966 work Silver Clouds, with “a sense of the infinite – that there are no walls or ceiling or floor; that where you are goes on forever”.
February: A soldier in the Free Syrian Army stands guard
Taken as a major ceasefire in the war in Syria came into effect, this photo shows a soldier who “seems forever poised on a threshold”, according to Kelly Grovier. Arguing that the perspective of this photo works in the same way as a 19th-Century trompe l’oeil, he looks at how news photos help break down “the barrier between the stresses of a conflict raging in an inconceivable elsewhere and the retinas of distant readers”.
March: The father who saved his son
Snapped at the instant when a bat slipped from the hands of a baseball player and a fan instinctively stretched out his arm to save his son, this heart-stopping photo went viral in March.
April: Ruins at Palmyra
After Palmyra was retaken by Syrian forces, a photographer captured the extent of the damage wrought by militants. Joseph Eid held up a picture he’d taken of the Arch of Triumph at the ancient city in 2014 – against the backdrop of the arch in ruins, after it was destroyed by the so-called Islamic State. Kelly Grovier looked at Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, a work that Grovier believes is “cruel to be kind by forcing observers to confront an isolated, if vivid, instance of the destruction of heritage he believes is raging all around us in a world obsessed with the superficial rewards of the fast-and-easy here and now”.
May: The woman who defied neo-Nazis
A photo of a single figure standing up against nationalists at a rally in Sweden went viral in May. When Afro-Swedish social activist Tess Asplund came face-to-face with a May Day march of 300 uniformed nationalists in Borlänge, she faced them silently, fist clenched. Her spontaneous reaction was unstaged and yet, according to Kelly Grovier, the image has all the “power of Delacroix’s epoch-defining painting” Liberty Leading the People (1830).
June: A Chinese lawyer with torn clothes
Taken in Nanning, Guangxi, this photo shows a lawyer outside a district court. He told reporters that when he refused to hand over his mobile phone, court officials violently attacked him and nearly ripped his clothes off his body.
July: Fishermen surprised by Whales
August: A human pyramid
Taken during a festival in Barcelona’s Gràcia district, this photo “shows scores of Barcelonans in a surge of torsos and limbs that culminates in the outstretched arms of a soaring figure atop the living tower”.
September: A protestor in Santiago
“Staring is power,” writes Kelly Grovier. “The ability to command another’s gaze, to transfix their mind and muscles by using nothing more than… one’s unblinking eyes, requires discipline and courage of purpose.” This photo of a standoff between a protester and a Chilean policeman in Santiago prompted Grovier to consider the meaning of an unflinching gaze. In her 2010 work The Artist is Present, performance artist Marina Abramović stared into the eyes of visitors. It was a reminder of John Ruskin’s belief that “All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness.”
October: Man and machine
After the world’s first Cybathlon – an international competition for disabled athletes assisted by robotic technology – Kelly Grovier looked at art’s fascination with the blurred boundary between man and machine. The contest, in the Swiss city of Zurich, included “competitors whose physical shapes are a fusion of athleticism and cutting-edge engineering”.
November: A sinkhole in Japan
On the day of the US election, a sinkhole appeared in Japanese city of Fukuoka. Social media users were quick to see the event as an omen, offering competing prophecies attached to the crater.
December: Stars in time-lapse
We began the year with a spacewalk, and end with the stars – as shown in this time-lapse photo taken in Indonesia.