On Succession, art has nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with power and value


There have been many artworks featured on HBO’s series Succession, whose finale airs Sunday (28 May), and in its promotional materials, including everything from an unnamed Paul Gauguin work in Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) safe at a Geneva freeport, to Peter Paul Rubens’s The Tiger Hunt (1615-16) looming behind Roy and his four children in the show’s season one poster.

The prominent inclusion of art has served various purposes over the course of the series’ four seasons, from playing a role in the portrayal of specific characters to foreshadowing plot twists. Often, the works seen in characters homes and offices are by lesser-known artists.

“We like to keep folks guessing about the art in Logan Roy’s apartment,” says Stephen Carter, the production designer for Succession. “We kept [the art] less recognisable so as not to draw attention in a repetitive way over the many scenes and seasons.” He adds, “No doubt there are some minor Picassos, a Matisse or two, etc. And a bunch of pieces that [Logan Roy’s wife] Marsha’s dealer picked out.”

Sometimes, the design team opted for the types of work that is currently trending among “commercial decorators”, Carter says. Other times, they “embrace a recognisable string of pieces—Warhols, for example—which are both recognisably blue chip and may invite interpretation”.

Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and Greg Hirsch (Nicholas Braun) sitting before two apparent Old Master paintings in a scene from the fourth episode of season three of HBO’s Succession Macall B. Polay/HBO

Carter adds that, “Like the media companies in our universe, we embrace some real (Time and Forbes magazines, Bloomberg News, etc.) but Fox and CNN don’t seem to exist; we do something similar with art.”

As for the allusion to the Gauguin works in Logan Roy’s freeport vault, Carter believes “that was the writers having fun”. Gauguin’s life and legacy have come under growing scrutiny in recent years—particularly as it relates to his treatment of Polynesian people—which may only make his works’ presence in Logan Roy’s collection more fitting.

“There’s a plausible backstory—Gauguin is having a moment of reckoning for his exploitative relationships with teens girls in Tahiti and yes, one might draw comparisons with Logan and his wolf pack at [Brightstar] cruises,” Carter says. “At the end of the day, [the Gauguin reference is] more about setting up Karl’s joke that burning them for the insurance money would be the dream, financially speaking.”

And while it may seem like Gauguin’s tropical-hued works are too vibrant to suit Roy’s austere taste, this disjuncture is intentional.

“Throughout the series, I’ve positioned Logan as sort of a black hole of aesthetics,” Carter says. “His art is doubtlessly chosen for him by a string of nervous curators and buyers, and if they get it wrong, they get sacked. Or chosen by wives, same fate applicable.”

Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin), Caroline Collingwood (Harriet Walter) and Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) sit beneath a modernist still life in a scene from episode seven of season two of HBO’s Succession Graeme Hunter/HBO

He adds, “The siblings are also infected, so that the immediate Roy family have tastes that feel very art-directed and safe and magazine spread-ready. No unique personal investment in the art choices. I think that approach quietly contributes to the spiritually hollow nature of the show.”

This may also explain why some of the art Logan Roy owns is kept in storage, alluded to but never actually seen on display in his townhouse—his art purchases are primarily about economic value, not appearance.

“I think Logan looks to the older art movements as being valuable because they’ve stood the test of time and proven their worth,” Carter says. “They’ve been in museums and institutions since before he made his billions. He probably doesn’t trust more recent trends—just like he can’t really trust his own kids—because they could just be BS at the end of the day. He can’t tell if they are serious.”

The Rubens painting that was featured in an early poster, on the other hand, reflects “both a sense [of] wealth and the violence and struggle going on below the surface of the family”, Carter says. That work did not make it into the show, but was well suited to the adverting campaign where “you need things to read easily; to make their point from the side of a passing bus”, he adds.

A promotional poster for the first season of HBO’s Succession featuring Peter Paul Rubens’s The Tiger Hunt (1615-16) HBO

  • The final episode of Succession airs on HBO on 28 May


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