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The Hidden Art Masterpieces in BoJack Horseman

The new season of Bojack Horseman, like the previous ones, uses iconic art pieces by the likes of O’Keefe, Monet, Kinkade, and Kandinsky to add to the rich visual fabric of the show.

A comic version of David Hockney’s “Portrait of an artist (pool with two figures)” (1972) plays a central role in Bojack Horseman’s visual and cultural identity (all images courtesy of Netflix).

A horse in a white speedo swims to the end of a pool, while another horse in a red blazer looks on, the hills of Los Angeles unfurling in smoggy greens and blues in the background.

That’s a David Hockney! you yell at the screen in smug and surprised victory. Albeit it’s two anthropomorphized horses where Hockney and his former lover once were in the 1972  “Portrait of an artist (pool with two figures),” but the visual semblance is too strong to ignore.

You find yourself excitedly pointing out Warhols and O’Keefes to no one in particular. Is that a Lichtenstein? you wonder out loud.

This is the experience of an art-history nerd watching Bojack Horseman, the critically acclaimed animated comedy series and cult hit on Netflix that brutally satirizes Hollywood, or rather, Hollywoo. The series — about to release its fifth season —follows the trials and tribulations of the titular character, a fifty-something pill-popping, bottle-hitting actor whose heydey was the schmaltzy ‘90s sitcom Horsin’ Around. He seeks to recapture that fame while also navigating his web of equally narcissistic self-destructive friends and frenemies, humans and anthropomorphized animals alike.

And all the while in the background, like a low-grade art fever, the show plants iconic paintings, photography, and sculpture.

Netflix will release the new season September 14, and it is no exception to the previous ones — with the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Claude Monet, Thomas Kinkade, Wassily Kandinsky, and many more adding to the rich visual fabric of the show.

Animated and live-action series alike have paid homage to famous artworks before. “The Simpsons Did It” meme is relevant here. That show has used Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942) and Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1490–1500) to name a few instances, but perhaps no series has ever done it quite as consistently and lovingly as Bojack Horseman.

The Hockney painting, for example, appears five minutes into the first episode of the series, in Bojack’s home office, cementing itself as a visual and cultural touchstone for the show. Two minutes later, Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece “The Birth of Venus” (1485) makes its first cameo at the Elefante restaurant, in which context Venus is played by a coy elephant. The title sequence itself shows a Warholian horseshoe canvas above Bojack’s bed. By the end of first season, viewers are treated to the work of Henri Matisse (“La Danse” 1909), Rothko (take your pick), and Keith Haring (“Dancing Dogs” and others), as well as a Bojack version of the 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold photo of a nude Burt Reynolds lounging on a bear skin rug.

This parade of art has fans of art history buzzing. Redditors started taking note shortly after the first season aired in 2014, and by 2015 the online art publication Sartle had blogged about it, creating a very useful list of featured art — Bojack Horseman: All the Art References!”. Several outlets, like The AV Club and Cultura Colectiva, followed suit.

The work of Thomas Kinkade, “painter of light” and king of sugary kitsch, is present for pivotal moments in Princess Caroline’s storyline.

With all this chatter, it’s time someone checked in with production designer and co-producer Lisa Hanawalt, whose illustrations have laid the visual foundation for the show, to find out why a cynical comedy about Hollywood features so much artwork. So Hyperallergic did.

“I always liked when a show has backgrounds that make you want to pause and rewatch it,” Hanawalt explains. “The Netflix model is really friendly to that.” Hanawalt is a self-described art nerd and student of art history. She attended UCLA for fine art with the aspirations of becoming a gallery painter.

“I think this show is a way for me to explore a lot of different things: I can be a gallery painter, an architect, a furniture designer, a costume designer,” she says. “I thought it would be fun to do these parodies.”

Early inspiration was the Gary Larson Far Side collection of wiener dog art, where pups were painted into canvases from Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893) to Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (1931). As a kid, it made a great impression on her. As did the pop art of Haring. “He was such an artist of his time. I grew up with Keith Haring everywhere,” she says. “He’s also an artist who really liked to paint animals.”

As for Bojack Horseman, the commitment to art references really did all begin with the Hockney painting. “That was one of the very first things I drew for the show when we were doing the pilot,” she says.

The painting serves its function well. With his crystalline blue pools, Hockney created an iconography for a city like few artists have. The British painter captured the elite zeitgeist of Los Angeles in his images of private swimming holes in all their pristine, luxurious, vapid, and lonesome glory. In their blinding brightness, the pools tapped into a melancholy side of Hollywood, in the same way they do in the series, like the intro where Bojack sinks into the waters of his own pool, channeling a listless Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

“It’s so L.A., and it’s so wistful for Bojack to be watching a version of himself swimming, trying to understand himself,” Hanawalt says of her version of Hockney. “It’s also very vain.”

Towards the end of season one, Bojack and his then-memoirist Diane Nguyen have an exchange — one of the few that directly acknowledges an artwork — that underlines the running theme of vanity.

“Bojack often felt the need to impress me with materials items,” a voiceover of Diane says, leading into Bojack explaining the painting. “You can see from the teeny-tiny brushstrokes that this is very expensive,” he says. “The colors, um … this one, they don’t even have a name for it, that’s how exclusive it is.”

In addition to the Hockney, Hanawalt’s favorite art reference is the painting in the bedroom of Sarah Lynn, Bojack’s now grown-up child costar from Horsin’ Around, as seen in season three. It’s inspired by the 19th-century “Ophelia” of Sir John Everett Millais (1851-52), based on the tragic character from Hamlet who takes her own life. In the Bojack version, it’s Sarah Lynn floating in the water, a grim foreshadowing for the character’s fate.

Hanawalt says this painting was created by Sarah Harkey, a background artist for the show. “It was really well drawn,” she says. “It’s very evocative. We know now what happens to Sarah Lynn”

The art placed on the show runs the gamut from elevating the plot or character backstory to serving as a time-period marker or playful visual pun, to not actually being a specific artwork at all, but rather a creation of Hanawalt and her team.

“It depends on the painting; some are not references,” Hanawalt says. “Other times, it really is a reference to what is happening in the plot.”

For example, some fans have come to the conclusion that a painted nature scene hanging behind Bojack’s dining room table is referencing post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau. Turns out, it’s not.

“I could see why people think that; he had a very flat approach” Hanawalt offers. “But it’s not a Rousseau painting.”

For me, the series of faded red graphic prints in Bojack’s kitchen have been a code I’ve wanted to crack from the beginning. Are they some esoteric Bauhaus graphic design reference, or perhaps some minimalist woodblock prints from an artist I wasn’t familiar with? The answer is neither. They are just decoration, Hanawalt says. Well, better luck next time.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower work – in this scene a blue version of “Single Lily with Red” (1928) – and all its connotations reinforce the sexual themes of episode three of the new season.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hanawalt has been impressed with some gleanings of her art-inclined audience. There is a triptych of paintings by ‘80s neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the office of Herb Kazzaz, the head writer of Horsin’ Around. Their estranged friendship is one of the major plotlines of season two.

In 2016, a Redditor posted their take on the symbolism of the Basquiats, correctly reading the trio from right to left, stating how they illustrate the evolution of Bojack, from a happy guy who’s just like everyone else to a celebrity who will do anything, including hurting those closest to him (like Kazzaz), to remain tethered to the spotlight.

“Someone on Reddit figured out the Basquiat,” Hanawalt says. “I thought that was just for me.” (In fact, a Redditor by the username of “ponytv” with a tag of “production designer” even weighed in on the thread saying: “I designed the artwork for this background and just wanna say your read is the closest to my intention, and it’s very gratifying to see that so many viewers picked up on this subtle detail. Good eye! All of the paintings are also very directly inspired by Basquiat pieces.”)

One of my favorite art moments in Bojack unfolds in episode nine of season two, which showcases the work of the oft-derided “painter of light,” Thomas Kinkade. A literal cat lady, and on-again, off-again Bojack agent, Princess Caroline, along with a team of characters, breaks into an art store as a diversion for a Bojack scheme. The art store houses a gallery with several pieces including a Hannah Jansch driftwood horse sculpture (in this case, walking on two legs, not four), a George Rodrigue blue dog painting, what seems to be a Lichtenstein, a version of “Dogs Playing Poker” (here they are playing Connect Four), and an (ersatz) Kinkade titled “Glowing Fuzzy Nonsense.”

As a Hollywood agent, Princess Caroline’s life is an exercise in controlled chaos and self-destruction, and this moment is particularly rife with turmoil. “Why does everything have to be a big complicated mess,” she says over the whine of a security alarm. “Like look at this Thomas Kinkade painting. It’s simple and serene and pleasant.”

In the next scene, overcome by its calming effect, she walks into the painting, the alarm bell transforming into birdsong, and strolls across a footbridge to a stream-side cottage.

“Well, another beautiful, serene day in magical fantasy painting world,” she later says from the cottage porch with a heavy sigh. To which her maid (played by her real-life agent nemesis Vanessa Gecko) responds, “If you really wanted the simple life, you’d have the simple life.”

It’s a poignant point, as the simple life is what Princess Caroline had growing up and desperately wanted to escape. In the upcoming season, for the first time, the show delves into Princess Caroline’s backstory where a Thomas Kinkade painting hangs in the living room of her childhood home, a backdrop for her mother, an alcoholic maid who works for the wealthy family next door.

“I thought it would be fun because she has a moment with a Kinkade painting early in the show, and it would be fun to have it in her childhood home,” Hanawalt says.

“His paintings are considered so cheesy and corny, but if you’re having a connection with them — and people really like them — that’s not bullshit,” Hanawalt continues. Princess Caroline is a sophisticated character, she adds, so it’s interesting to see her moved by what is considered sentimental kitsch.“I like Kinkade — why not? He was the master of light. He can paint better than I can,” Hanawalt says.

Art people have lots to look forward to in season five. Monet’s “Bridge Over a Pond of Waterlilies” (1899) is now part of Diane’s story. A Halloween flashback episode overflows with art — look for a feline version of Alex Katz’s 1985 “Green Cap” painting — as does an episode about the asexual Todd Chavez visiting the home of his asexual girlfriend’s very sexual parents. Let’s just say you’ll see a lot of O’Keefe’s flower work. Now please go find all the art I missed. Happy art-spotting!

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