“How on earth did a version of this work by Matisse end up in an animated comedy about being 12 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 (1943), and Elliot and Diane have sex underneath a spitting image of La Gerbe (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 “
” all over the boy’s pants, to cameos from
–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 exist 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 explained, 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 said, “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, famous artists? Tang told me there were several reasons, ranging from the practical to the personal. The Matisse motif, he said, 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 décor 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 explained.