And the Emmy goes to...ART!

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On the eve of the 2017 Primetime Emmys, we at Sartle recall our longstanding love affair with television. We’ve given our art-historical takes on series ranging from BoJack Horseman and Game of Thrones, to The Crown and the Handmaid’s Tale; all of which are nominated for Emmys this year! We pay tribute to the 69th Awards by showcasing five of our favorite recent art cameos on the small screen.


1. Feud: Bette and Joan

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford in Feud: formidable adversaries.

In FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan, Ryan Murphy showcases his signature style of seamlessly blending dry wit and bloated melodrama into the most sublime of high camp. Susan Sarandon (Bette Davis) and Jessica Lange (Joan Crawford) are nominated against each other for outstanding actress in a limited series or movie, mirroring the real-life rivalry of the film stars they play.

We’ve previously paid homage to Murphy’s flair for the visual in American Horror Story: Freak Show. Feud is subtler in its points of reference, but art fans will delight in a few in-jokes. One such highlight has a young Don Bachardy, celebrity portraitist and partner of Christopher Isherwood, drawing a past-her-prime Bette Davis as she rather shamelessly flirts with him. After he reveals the finished product (and the fact that he is gay) she responds, “Yep. That’s the old bag,”: appropriate, since Bachardy sketched stars with unflattering precision, after the fashion of Alice Neel. Margaret Keane’s kitschy portrait of Joan Crawford also makes an appearance in the set decoration, for fans of the “big eyes” queen and her Tim Burton biopic.


Bette Davis by Don Bachardy (left). Joan Crawford by Margaret Keane (right).


Scene from Feud, featuring the Keane portrait.


2. The Crown

Promotional materials for The Crown: John Lithgow as Winston Churchill appears center from front.


Netflix’s mega-drama, The Crown, definitely reigns supreme this season for an artwork playing an integral role in the plot. Episode 9, Assassins, revolves around Graham Sutherland's notorious portrait of Winston Churchill, played by John Lithgow in an Emmy-nominated performance. In 1954, members of the Houses of Commons and Lords commissioned the portrait to hang in Parliament. As the greatest statesman in British History, no doubt Churchill expected to appear as a heroic ideal, but the daring modernist painted the Prime Minster exactly as he saw him; as a toothless tiger worn-down by age and decades of public service.


Churchill was horrified, and Lady Churchill evidently dismantled and incinerated the painting to spare him humiliation, spurring a debate over the rights of private owners to destroy works over the rights of artists/the public to preserve them. The climax of episode 9 depicts a cathartic, ritualistic burning of the piece. The original is forever lost to time and vanity, but a secret copy may exist in a private gentlemen’s club in London, and Sutherland’s preliminary sketches are in the National Portrait Gallery.


Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland (left). Recreation of the portrait with John Lithgow’s features (right).


3. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Ellie Kemper as the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.


One great thing about the Emmys is that, unlike such snooty awards shows as the Oscars, comedies get equal time to shine. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has received sixteen nominations in its three seasons on Netflix. That a show based on the unequivocally tragic premise of child sexual abuse can be pee-your-pants hilarious is a testament to the the writing. The humor takes a page out of Mel Brooks by combining elitist sideswipes and vaudevillian shtick in the worst possible taste. One such meeting of high and low culture concerns Jacqueline White’s (Jane Krakowski's) efforts to swindle her rich ex-husband out of a priceless Mondrian by having Lillian (Carol Kane) create a forgery. Who could have foreseen that Lillian’s impression of the painting would bear an uncanny resemblance to the infamous “Monkey Jesus?”


Painfully amateur forger, Lillian, and eccentric “Cherokee” socialite, Jacqueline, observe the folly of a plot worthy of the criminal mastermind of Lucille Ball.


4. Jessica Jones

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones.


Netflix's hardboiled superhero noir won an Emmy last year for outstanding theme music, but fell short of a nomination this year. That seems like a missed opportunity, with the female-oriented comic flick Wonder Woman emerging as the only bonafide blockbuster of the summer. But Jessica Jones doesn’t warrant a nomination simply for having its pulse on the right side of the pop-culture zeitgeist. Krysten Ritter is perfect as an imperfect hero, and the seedy atmosphere lends itself to deconstructing the glossy stereotypes of the genre. That sense of atmosphere is due in part to the use of Egon Schiele’s Seated Woman with Bent Knee as Jessica’s focal piece of apartment decor.


Scene from Jessica Jones, accented by Seated Woman with a Bent Knee.


Though his personal relationships with women (or girls) were suspect, Schiele had a way of humanizing rather than romanticizing downtrodden women in his art. This aesthetic fits in perfectly with Jessica Jones’ gritty, whiskey-slugging brand of feminism.

Seated Woman with Bent Knee by Egon Schiele, in the National Gallery in Prague.

And a great nod to the actual comic books:

From Alias (Part One) by Brian Michael Bendis, 2001. 

5. Poldark

Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, Aidan Turner as Ross, and Heida Reed as Elizabeth, in Poldark.


Like Jessica Jones, the recent reboot of BBC’s Poldark lacked a nomination this year, but deserved a nod. Based on the historical novels by Winston Graham, Poldark follows the brooding antihero Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner), who returns from fighting on the wrong side of the American Revolution to resurrect his family’s crumbling mining empire in between juggling his icy ex-fiancee (Heida Reed) and fetching kitchen maid (Eleanor Tomlinson). Mining and wench-juggling also provide a convenient excuse for Ross to spend much of the series shirtless, well-tanned and sweaty.

With the high-budget-pornstar good looks of the leads and countless vistas of surf-battered Cornwall, Poldark has enough gratuitous Eye candy and moody establishing shots to watch like deleted scenes of Game of Thrones. However, It also encapsulates everything that still makes the BBC the very best of television: lurid drama narrowly saved from soap opera by impeccable performances and top-notch production values. Poldark certainly delivers on that score, with the aid of inspired art direction such as Gavin Lines mock eighteenth-century portraits. Lines’ sense of the aesthetics of the period is so historically well-informed as to suspend disbelief, even in the face of plot twists fit for Skins.


Heida Reed as Elizabeth by Gavin Lines (left). Portrait of Elizabeth Chew Smith by John Hesselius, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (right).


These are just a few of many wonderful moments of art on TV in the past couple seasons. Be sure to check out our other blogs on TV and film. And if we forgot your favorite reference, or if there’s a particular show you’d like to see us cover, please leave a comment to let us know!


See you at the Emmys!

By: Griff Stecyk
Griff Stecyk


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