These ruins are to the future what the past is to us
–Carolyn Forché, The Angel of History
The following contains spoilers.
For many of us the holidays are a time for binge-watching, and if you didn’t catch it when it was released in September you may have been binging the fourth season of Bojack Horseman. If you’re a Netflix subscriber and if you like that sort of thing–I get that emotionally difficult sarcastic animated comedies about anthropomorphized animals with a lot of inside jokes about celebrity culture aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s for those who like their tea dark and bitter.
I only just started watching Bojack Horseman a few months ago and immediately noticed something. The Warhol-esque horseshoes on his bedroom wall, first seen in the opening sequence, didn’t seem all that striking, since parodies of Warhol were a cliché even when Warhol was still alive.
Then there was the painting in Bojack’s office where he and Diane start on the book about him.
Cute, I thought. Someone’s a fan of David Hockney. I recognized the painting referenced but didn’t get the full significance until I went back and looked up the original–the title is Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures).
And then there was the Matisse in Bojack’s living room.
And the Keith Haring paintings in a ’90’s flashback.
And Basquiat paintings in the office of Bojack’s former friend and mentor Herb Kazazz. The ’90’s were a peak time for both Haring and Basquait.
In the present day, when Bojack returns to the office after Herb’s funeral, the paintings are still there, although one is damaged and one almost completely destroyed–a comment on how Basquiat’s reputation fell. Perhaps it’s also a comment on how, when their relationship ended, Herb sealed off this part of his life.
Other bloggers beat me to this a long time ago, compiling several of the references up through season 3, and not every episode has an art reference, but it’s interesting to me how expansive they are. The references range from classical–I’m guessing Bojack’s tile portrait is a nod to ancient Rome:
To high modernism and contemporary. There’s even a bit of graffiti:
Sometimes what’s in the background is clever misdirection. In a season 3 episode Mr. Peanutbutter, voiced by Paul F. Thompkins, waits in a dressing room for news about his brother’s surgery. His brother, by the way, is voiced by Weird Al Yankovic, which is a deep inside reference in itself. On the wall of the dressing room are posters for Old Yeller and Where The Red Fern Grows. These turn out to not be the somber portents they would appear to be.
In the next episode, though, there is very heavy foreshadowing when Bojack’s former co-star turned pop singer Sara Lynn has a painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais over her bed. A Chagall painting in her living room is subtler but still significant. Chagall’s first wife Bella died suddenly from an untreated infection. The striking thing is, unlike other works that appear in the series, these paintings aren’t parodied but are recreated.
The show cleverly uses art history to comment on the present, the past, but is the future inevitable? It’s heartbreaking when, following her death, Bojack says, “This didn’t have to happen.” Even though he’s right we see again and again how the past is prologue. Bojack Horseman can be hard to watch because, for a satirical cartoon, it’s shockingly real. Mistakes are cumulative. The characters grow, change, and even die.And for the ones who go on it’s a struggle. As Diane says,
It’s not about being happy, that is the thing. I’m just trying to get through each day. I can’t keep asking myself ‘Am I happy?’ It just makes me more miserable. I don’t know If I believe in it, real lasting happiness, All those perky, well-adjusted people you see in movies and TV shows ? I don’t think they exist.
The nods to art history aren’t just foreshadowing or clever visual puns. Taken together they’re a reminder that we live in a period of cultural confluence. The past doesn’t just inform the present. The past is still very much with us. Why does the Botticelli in the restaurant Bojack bought on a whim have an elephant’s head? The simple answer is it’s because the restaurant is called Elefante; the subtler answer is that, according to legend, elephants never forget.
Flashbacks are regular in Bojack Horseman: we get scenes from the ’70’s, ’80’s, ’90’s, and an ultra-specific series of flashbacks to 2007. Each major character has a dark and complicated history, except possibly Mr. Peanutbutter whose cheerful disposition masks, or maybe comes from, a nihilistic outlook on life:
The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go binge watch season four, and after that take a shower so I won’t know if I’m crying or not.