Art style

How Succession Art Paints a Picture of Power

A promotional poster for the first season of Succession featuring an evocative painting by Peter Paul Rubens. (all images courtesy of Warner Media)

Succession, the immensely popular satirical drama from Jesse Armstrong, follows the dynastic battles of the Roy family against Waystar RoyCo, a crime-tainted media conglomerate run by toxic patriarch Logan Roy. Really, though, this show is about how terrible rich people can be. And you know what rich people like? Art collection.

So it’s only fitting that the sterile white walls of Waystar’s Manhattan offices and the posh apartments of the Roys are adorned with paintings and sculptures. Many of them are deliberately mundane, camouflaging themselves in unsuspected ways in the ingeniously staged and aseptic modern interiors that echo the empty personalities of the protagonists. But other works of art in Succession seem to reveal a deeper meaning, channeling narrative and visual strategies to heighten tension and foreshadow major storylines.

Ahead of the third-season finale this Sunday on HBO and HBO Max, we discuss five particularly compelling curatorial picks that paint a picture of power, deceit, and unfettered capitalism — from Baroque paintings to a contemporary art installation. imaginary in New York’s Hudson Yards. . (For those who haven’t watched the show, be warned: there are some spoilers below.)

The Bloody Tiger Hunt by Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Tiger Hunt” (1615-17) (via Wikimedia Commons)

The first promotional poster for Succession famous featured a work of art to set the stage for what was to come. Logan Roy and the four pretenders to the throne of Waystar RoyCo stand in front of “The Tiger Hunt” by Peter Paul Rubens (1615-1617), a dynamic composition from the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes which pits man against the beast in a vicious evocative confrontation. Inspired by a supposedly destroyed Leonardo masterpiece, “The Battle of Anghiari”, Rubens depicted a dense web of charging hunters and bloodthirsty felines with no clear winner or distinction between predator and prey. The canvas is one of four in a cycle seized by the French from the former palace of Schleissheim in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, a 12-year struggle for European dominance that was almost as ruthless and contentious as the Battle of the Roy children for control of their father’s media empire. (Bonus: a fan of the show discovered an image by Kendall apparently disguised as Napoleon in a recent Season 3 episode.)

A contemporary photograph This portends a total collapse

Brian Cox as Logan Roy in Succession season 1, episode 1, with art by Frank Thiel.

An image of a towering glacier in the show’s pilot episode appears as low-key boardroom art at Waystar RoyCo’s headquarters, but a closer look reveals some disturbing subtext. The photograph is ‘Spegazzini #01’ (2012/2013) by artist Frank Thiel, a limpid portrait of the eponymous mammoth glacial formation in Argentine Patagonia. It’s part of a series that reflects on the “strength and majesty” of the natural world as well as its “fragility and endangerment,” says a press release from gallery Thiel, a binary that also describes all the ego of this exhibition. Plus, if you ask me, nothing says impending doom like a giant chunk of ice. The chromogenic fingerprint is hung up during a meeting for Vaulter’s failed acquisition of Kendall, when Logan unexpectedly walks in and asks his son to sign “housekeeping” paperwork. The request makes Kendall, who expects to be announced as the company’s new CEO on his father’s 80th birthday later today, visibly nervous…and we all know how that goes.

Dutch portrait of Louis XIV’s spy

Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy, Brian Cox as Logan Roy and Hiam Abbass as Marcia Roy in Season 1 Episode 5 of Succession.
Peter Lely, “Portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth” (c. 1671-1674) (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the fifth episode of season 1, Kendall begins to organize a vote of no confidence against her father, while Tom Wambsgans, Shiv Roy’s fiancé, hires cousin Greg to shred documents related to Waystar’s cover-up of serious crimes in the company’s cruise ship division. . Logan’s brother, Ewan Roy, is invited from Canada to celebrate Thanksgiving, resulting in a bitter exchange between the two siblings. Amidst this kerfuffle of stabbings and betrayal is Dutch Baroque painter Peter Lely’s portrait of Louise de Keroualle, a spy of Louis XIV of France before she became the favorite mistress of King Charles II of England , then Duchess of Portsmouth. According to the Getty Museum, where the work is located, De Keroualle strategically used his influence to strengthen the ties between the two monarchs. From the wall of Logan Roy’s living room, she amusedly attends the catastrophic family dinner, sensually playing with a lock of hair while Ewan confronts his brother: “It’s not all about the money. You haven’t heard of ethics? (Obviously he didn’t.)

A revealing scene from Dante Hell

A poster for the second season of Succession, with Bouguereau’s canvas in the background.

As at the start of the show, the work chosen for a poster announcing the second season of Succession is anything but subtle. The beleaguered Roy siblings, along with Tom and cousin Greg, sit around a dining table with Logan at the head, the only standing figure. “Dante and Virgil” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850), an oil painting depicting a scene from Dante Hell, hangs on the wall just behind him. And not just any scene: taking place in the eighth circle of Hell, reserved for forgers and imitators, the painting shows the author and his guide Virgil looking at two damned people leaving. One of them, the heretic Capocchio, is bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi, an Italian knight who impersonated a deceased man and forged his will to claim his inheritance. Could this be a sly nod to the character of Logan, whose death is an ever-imminent fantasy in the eyes of Roy’s megalomaniacal children? Adding to the suspicious and specific reference, Bouguereau has made the work his third entry for the Prix de Rome after failing to win the prestigious prize twice before, and the Musée d’Orsay, where the work resides, claims that the artist was “hungry for revenge.” (Spoiler: he lost again.)

And finally, an immersive vaginal installation

Alan Ruck as Connor Roy, Justine Lupe as Willa Ferreyra, Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy and Matthew Macfadyen as Tom Wambsgans in episode 7, season 3 of Succession.

In Season 3 Episode 7, as part of her increasingly desperate attempt to appear socially relevant, Kendall Roy throws her 40th birthday party at none other than The Shed, the multidisciplinary arts center located in the Hudsons. Manhattan Yards. (The neighborhood is the largest private development in the United States, built to the tune of $25 billion, and has been derided as an ultra-luxurious playground for billionaires; it’s also home to the controversial Vessel structure that made four deaths by suicide.) To enter Kendall’s sad rich boy jubilee, guests including siblings Connor, Roman and Shiv walk past video screens showing writhing sperm and through an art installation in tunnel shape made of pink inflatable material. At the end, they are greeted by a woman in a nurse’s costume who exclaims, “Congratulations! You have just been born into the world of Kendall Roy. The immersive environment was imagined for the show, but it evokes the whimsical, made-for-Instagram art “experiments” that wannabes like Kendall would likely flock to, as well as expensive “street art” and NFTs. (The installation is also a likely nod to Nikki de Saint Phalle’s much edgier “Hon” (1966), in which visitors enter an enormous sculpture of a pregnant woman’s body via a tunnel, or cervix.) In a particularly timely moment, the episode touches on intellectual property issues when Roman asks Kendall if he got permission from their mother to create the piece. “Call me old fashioned,” Roman said. “But I think you should ask before building a giant replica of someone’s vagina.”