Courtesy of Netflix.
The Netflix animated series Big Mouth, which premiered in 2017, shines a brilliantly ludicrous spotlight on the most repressed memories of any adult’s life: the gross, awkward years of puberty. Revolving around the tweenage tribulations of twelve-year-old Nick Birch—co-creator Nick Kroll’s fictionalized younger self—and his classmates, the cartoon is at once childish, yet not-safe-for-work.
Just a few minutes into the show’s first episode, we see Nick seated for dinner in his suburban home with his parents, Elliot and Diane; his moody adolescent siblings; and his best friend, Andrew, who’s also entering teendom. While making a toast, Elliot expresses gratitude for his kids and the child-rearing abilities of his wife, who responds that her youngest “slipped right out” during birth—prompting a visibly uncomfortable Nick to remind his parents that Andrew is also present. “He’s family!” Diane replies. “Besides, he shouldn’t be afraid of a vagina.”
Meanwhile, hanging above the family during this cringeworthy scene is a framed, solid red portrait of a choppily rendered nude female figure, seated with her legs intertwined. While watching the episode in my own bedroom, I looked up from my laptop screen at the framed print hanging on my wall. I realized why the animated picture in the Birches’ dining room looked familiar—it almost exactly resembled the one hanging above me in my bedroom, save for its color: a print from a 1952 series of cut-outs by Henri Matisse, known as the “Blue Nudes.”
“How on earth did a version of this work by Matisse end up in an animated comedy about being twelve and going through puberty?” I wondered. Indeed, it’s only one of many unexpected nods to the French artist that astute viewers may catch in Big Mouth’s premiere. Later in the episode, Andrew applies acne cream in the Birches’ bathroom next to a dead ringer for Matisse’s La Chute d’lcare (The Fall of Icarus) (1943), and Elliot and Diane have sex underneath a spitting image of La Gerbe (The Sheaf) (1953).
I kept track of all the fine-art references sprinkled throughout this hilariously raunchy series (which Netflix renewed in October for a second season). They range from a fantastical manifestation of Andrew’s hormones threatening to “Jackson Pollock” all over the boy’s pants, to cameos from Georgia O’Keeffe-esque flower paintings in the home of Jessi, Nick and Andrew’s tween peer.
As cool as these allusions were, and as much fun as I was having spotting them, I was slightly perplexed. None of the characters on the show ever have dialogue pertaining to the paintings; rather, they simply existed in the background of nearly every episode—a glaring, amusing, yet confusing motif for art lovers like me.
I got in touch with two of the brains at Titmouse, the animation studio that worked on Big Mouth, to see if they could help me connect the dots. Designers, as art director Otto Tang explains, have to draw location prototypes during early stages of production, when there’s typically little information on the characters who will inhabit these cartoon spaces. Tang and his team use a classic hack: “We generally throw in a lot of [empty] picture frames on the wall to fill up rooms,” he says, “so when we know more about the characters, we can add in art or posters or whatnot.”
But why spend the time and effort to include nearly perfect replicas of works by real, famed artists? Tang tells me there were several reasons, ranging from the practical to the personal. The Matisse motif, he says, originated from a brief mention in an early draft of a script, in which Elliot draws his own rendition of a work by the artist. This new piece of information helped Tang figure out how to best fill those empty picture frames throughout the Birch home—after all, Elliot was clearly a Matisse fan, and though the scene was eventually cut, its effect on the decor stuck. As for the wall hangings resembling O’Keeffe’s iconic flower paintings in Jessi’s house, “she and her mom are quite feminist, so we thought those would be fitting,” Tang explains.
Courtesy of Netflix.
There’s also a more logistical explanation regarding animation styles. “If we make things too complex, those paintings aren’t going to look very good—and they should look amazing across every shot,” explains producer Nate Funaro. Indeed, one can imagine that Matisse’s stark, block-colored cut-out shapes are easier to animate than, say, a 17th-century Baroque painting. Tang offers the example of Vincent van Gogh, whose Post-Impressionist paintings with complicated brushstrokes would not only require far more time logged in the workroom, they also wouldn’t quite match the aesthetic of the show. “I couldn’t put a van Gogh portrait in the living room because he doesn’t fit stylistically,” Tang explains. “Human beings don’t look like that in this particular world.”
Tang and Funaro also aimed to include versions of artworks that, once translated into their animated forms, could still evoke the “feeling” of the artist who created them, without nailing every detail. This not only saves animators time, it also curtails any potential legal troubles. While using an exact replica of an artwork for commercial purposes without permission—such as a TV show appearance—could be grounds for copyright infringement, the Big Mouth team was careful to make things look just a bit different, like turning Matisse’s Blue Nude red, or hanging Elliot and Diane’s copy of La Gerbe upside down. “It’s a balance between how easily we can reproduce a certain work of art, and how easily viewers can recognize it without it looking exactly the same,” Tang says.
Big Mouth’s art historical references climax in the eighth episode, which revolves around a house party thrown by Nick’s 16-year-old sister, Leah, while their parents are gone. Here the Big Mouth crew packed in more real-world art than ever before, beginning with a set of bright Matisse-like cutouts in the kitchen that act as a playful backdrop to Leah guzzling wine from a red plastic cup. She later plays a game of “suck and blow” with three party-goers while a large copy modeled on the artist’s Dance paintings (1909-10) hangs behind them, with the its gallivanting nude figures visible, providing a fitting counterpart to the youthful sexual tension emanating from the group.
Perhaps most notably (and blatantly), the same episode also features a cameo by the ghost of Pablo Picasso. In the scene, Picasso takes a break from painting an almost true-to-life version of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) to console a drunken Nick, who’s found himself pressured to hook up with an older high schooler and having to face his insecurities about the size of his prepubescent genitalia. To make the tween feel better, Picasso opens up about his own unique member: “Y también, my dick is a triangle—it is over here,” he says, before lifting up his quintessential striped shirt to reveal a geometric penis on his lower right torso. “This is why I invented Cubism,” he continues.
Above all, the Big Mouth team used these clever artistic allusions in hopes of creating an environment that read more “reality” than “animated sitcom.” While the show already contains enough painfully relatable content from our most awkward years (first kiss, first menstrual period), placing realistic details throughout the show—such as a painting some might recognize, and maybe have a copy of themselves—allows viewers to identify with the show even further. “We try to have real-world references hiding wherever we can,” Tang explains. “We really want it to feel authentic, so when the outrageous stories unfold, they’ll still feel grounded in reality.”
And, of course, it’s also just fun. “I’m a fan of these artists,” Tang continues, “so I know there’s people out there, like you and me, who’ll notice and get a kick out of it.”