Art Reimagined in the Cinematic World of Netflix and HBO

A still with Omar Sy, who stars in the new Netflix series Lupin. Image courtesy of Netflix.
Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, Venus and Nymphs Bathing, 1776, oil on canvas, 85 x 100 cm. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, 1482, tempera on panel, 203 x 314 cm. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A still with Omar Sy, who stars in the popular Netflix series Lupin. Image courtesy of Netflix.
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From Netflix’s Bridgerton to HBO’s The Undoing, encounters between famous pre-20th century art and people build romantic tension and dramatic intrigue, lending a whole new appreciation to experiencing art in the real world.

 

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

While a fair number of people in the world have not experienced the physicality of viewing art in the past year or so (or some very rarely at best), there is something oddly resonant about watching such encounters on our screens via television series and movies.

The best part is, there is no need to look very hard. Encounters between art and people have always played a visible and predominant role on screen, from the Alex Katz painting Harbor #9 (1999) perfectly mirroring Ben Affleck’s character’s state of mind in Changing Lanes (2002) to Josh Brolin’s protagonist angrily destroying copies of a lost Francisco Goya study based on Saturn Devouring his Son (1819–1823) in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010).

Now, to our delight, the latest streaming hits are not quitting this trend; making concerted effort to build evocative moments and sharp insights around visually arresting, famous art, sometimes even in monumental art spaces. Here is a list of five such memorable encounters.

 

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, Venus and Nymphs Bathing, 1776, oil on canvas, 85 x 100 cm. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Venus and Nymphs Bathing (1776) in Bridgerton

In season one of Bridgerton, the romantic regency era Netflix series everyone is talking about, a visit to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition at Somerset House in London sets the stage for some of the show’s most romantic and amusing moments. A hilarious and insightful exchange featuring two fan favourites Eloise Bridgerton and Penelope Featherington involves the Neoclassical painting Venus and Nymphs Bathing (1776) by French Rococo artist Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1724–1805), who showed some 150 works at the Paris Salon and received multiple prestigious appointments during his heyday.

The painting is framed perfectly for the shot, the vivid colours, clear contours, and nude mythical figures in casual movement stealing the attention of the viewer. Even as the camera cuts away to the two young women studying the painting, we want to see the it again. Yet, Bridgerton is not taken with it. Responding to Featherington’s comment about the artwork’s familiarity, she is quick to observe its failing: “Like all of these paintings, it was done by a man, who sees women as nothing but decorative objects.”

 

 

Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (c. 1650) in Bridgerton

Bridgerton gets another mention on this list, mainly because a climactic romantic moment taking place in front of an artwork is one thing, but said moment being inspired by conversation about the work is definitely worth a shoutout. Cue this electric exchange between the two main protagonists Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset about an artwork at the Royal Academy, reportedly identified as leading Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp’s Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (c. 1650).

Basset’s late mother favoured the pastoral landscape and Basset professes that he does not understand her taste. Bridgerton explains what she genuinely feels looking at the artwork and in doing so, opens a door to a whole new level of emotional and physical intimacy between the two characters who had just been friendly and flirty up until that point. It is, by far, one of the best uses of art and romance in a streaming series.

 

J.M.W. Turner’s Paintings in The Undoing

HBO’s prestigious drama and crime thriller, The Undoing has received a lot of buzz since it premiered last year, not least for the unforgettable line by British actor Hugh Grant in one of his creepiest roles, “I killed the family sister”. However, the art shown on screen has also been getting attention, namely because some of its more evocative scenes were filmed specifically at The Frick Collection on New York’s Upper East Side.

The uber-wealthy elderly patriarch Franklin Reinhardt, played by Donald Sutherland, is also, surprise, surprise, an art collector. He enjoys spending his afternoons sitting in the museum, specifically in front of two Joseph Mallord William Turner paintings, Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile (1826) and Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening (1826). The scenes here display Reinhardt’s marked tenderness when talking to his daughter, and detached disdain when dealing with the detectives investigating his family, encapsulating the spectrum of his complex character, akin to the paintings he favours. Reinhardt even has a Turner in his own penthouse living room.

 

 

Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, 1482, tempera on panel, 203 x 314 cm. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Primavera (1477–1482) in Medici

A historical drama about the iconic Medici family in Florence, Italy, during the early 15th century is bound to be abundant with Renaissance art and artists. The second season of Medici on Netflix even offers a fictionalised storyline about the origins of Mars and Venus (1483) by Sandro Botticelli. However, the final moment of the intense and exhilarating season involves another Botticelli painting, Primavera (1477–1482).

Following the true-to-life death of his brother Giuliano, Lorenzo de’ Medici visits Botticelli’s studio as his patron and friend, to find the artist working on a different rendition of the earlier Mars and Venus painting, one that focuses on spring. (In the series, the earlier painting is destroyed following a series of betrayals.) Medici, who is grieving and preoccupied with threats against his life and family, is caught off guard by the makings of such a hopeful visage. Even after he walks away, the viewer gets to witness a sped up process of the painting being completed, set to the show’s resounding soundtrack, the camera focusing mostly on the famous artwork until credits begin to roll.

 

 

A still with Omar Sy, who stars in the popular Netflix series Lupin. Image courtesy of Netflix.

 

The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) in Lupin

French heist Netflix series Lupin, helmed by the charismatic Omar Sy, is more than just a well-executed caper that begins with a thrilling episode shot mostly at the Louvre. Equal parts mischievous and heart wrenching, it also has “plenty to say about class, racism and systemic corruption. Restitution, too.” This is exactly the case in the opening scenes where the main character, Lupin, a French-Senegalese con artist, is casing the Louvre for a potential heist, while working as a cleaner. A protagonist of contemporary times, Lupin, however, is inspired by the fictional gentleman thief of writer Maurice Leblanc’s 1905 L’Arrestation d’Arsène Lupin.

One of the show’s most interesting moments happen when Lupin stands wielding a mop in his cleaner’s jumpsuit, staring at the renowned Mona Lisa (c. 1503–1519) which is out of frame, while oblivious to the massive art behind him, in all its sacred and profane glory, The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) by Paolo Veronese, representing the kind of privilege and wealth the main character attempts to dissect and exploit in equal measure.

Commissioned by the Benedictine monastery on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the painting offers a luxurious interpretation of an episode from The Bible (2013), setting it within a Venetian wedding. In the next shot, we see the Mona Lisa Lupin has been staring at, so simple compared to the immensely detailed and rich Veronese painting, but without any of the usual crowds and cameras in front of it. Then, we understand what held him entranced—not so much the art, but the private access to art in demand.

 

 

 

 
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