Binging On Art.

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.

Source: The Sartler

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.

Source: The Sartler

And the Keith Haring paintings in a ’90’s flashback.

Source: The Movie Goer

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.

Source: Imgur

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.

Source: Imgur

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:

Source: The Sartler

To high modernism and contemporary. There’s even a bit of graffiti:

Source: YouTube

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.

Source: Cultura Colectiva

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.

Source: BuzzFeed

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.

 

9 Comments

  1. Allison

    I may need to catch up on this show. I’m a big fan of Squidbillies as well. And I’ve gotten kind of hooked on Rick and Morty… like I need more TV in my life.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It’s funny, I almost quit watching Bojack early in the first season, but then the characters sucked me in. And now I think I should check out Squidbillies, and you’re yet another person who’s recommended Rick & Morty, although I’m also trying to catch up on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Adventure Time. Doing kind of a retro thing.

      Reply
  2. mydangblog

    I’m actually almost finished the first season. Luckily, I haven’t gotten too far into the show, so now I can start looking at the background more carefully! Happy New Year, Christopher! You’re a wonderful writer and you always make me think–I can’t wait to read more from you in 2018!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that your posts are a highlight of my week. To paraphrase The Bangles, Sunday is a fun day. And I hope I didn’t give away too many spoilers about Bojack.

      Reply
  3. Ann Koplow

    As usual, your blog makes me want to binge on new things, Chris. Happy New Year and thanks for making past years happier for me.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m always glad your posts are daily so I never have to wait to binge on them. We’re early into the year but I hope it’s going well, and that you’re staying warm.

      Reply
  4. Arionis

    Emotionally difficult sarcastic animated comedies about anthropomorphized animals with a lot of inside jokes about celebrity culture? Yes, please. Just went on my list.

    As a side note. This month will start the last season of Portlandia. I’m a little sad.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      At least the dream of the ’90’s is still alive in Portland, and, just like Battlestar Galactica, we can always watch one more episode. And I hope you enjoy Bojack. It’s hard to watch at times but there’s a season 3 episode that is just pure hilarious genius.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Below The Surface. - Freethinkers Anonymous

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