Friday, 16 February 2018

ART IMITATING LIFE: Altered Carbon and Francisco Goya

Warning: contains some spoilers for Altered Carbon.

By the later part of the Altered Carbon, we get know Takeshi Kovacs sister Reileen, who has been quite a big deal, if a shadowy figure, in this futuristic, transhumanist world. In her apartment we get to see the kind of decor tastes that she has, namely flashy weapons and baroque/romantic art. The most noticeable painting featured in the series is Francisco Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Son" (1819-1823), which is featured prominently in key scenes.

The painting depicts the Titan Saturn, who took to eating his children after it was foretold that a child of his would over throw him. Goya's depiction is especially violent, with the gore vividly highlighted against an intense chiaroscuro, the madness in the gods eyes quite frightening. Part of a series of Black Paintings never meant for public view, Goya painted "Saturn Devouring His Son" straight onto the walls of his house, created amidst worry of his own mortality as well the state of his country and loathing of war and religion.

In the context of Rei and her character though, the painting becomes more of a threat. Explaining her job to Takeshi in episode eight, she describes herself as a "titan of industry dealing with the weakness of the flesh", a not so oblique reference to the painting. In the last episode, Rei spouts "I'm going to eat you up" to her brother, solidifying fully her stance as the bad guy. Coupled with the copious weapons in her apartment, we gather quickly that Rei's main mode of working is through forceful violence.

Another way to view the painting is that Rei sees herself as the son getting eating, or rather, the one that got away. Eventually, Saturn's son Jupiter survived and usurped his father as king of the gods. In Altered Carbon, the rich and powerful are seen almost as gods, as they have the money to buy new sleeves and live on indefinitely, and they also live in the clouds, with the Bancroft's living in a huge tower and Rei living in a sadistic flying pleasure palace called Head in the Clouds. Perhaps this is to reference the Olympian gods taking over the terrestrial Titan's, taking their place as the new leaders.

We also see later on in the show Peter Paul Rubens "Saturn Devouring His Son" (1636), suggesting that perhaps the subject matter is more the focus of this symbolism. Dead people's corpses whose original stacks can't use any more are reused by other stacks, a constant devouring of flesh, the body becoming but a "meat prison". We see the rich abuse the poor's bodies, who are not so easily cloned, as well as their own, just for fun or stress management. Either way, the act of consuming flesh to preserve your own existence is a theme that is successfully represented throughout the series, and these paintings provide a nice easter egg.

However, saying that, a part of me finds its extremely frustrating when film and TV insist on putting famous works of art in their productions. Children of Men managed to justify having Michelangelo's "David", but the likes of Calvary broke its suspension of disbelief with its inclusion of Holbein's "The Ambassadors" (which I wrote about here). Altered Carbon is set hundreds of years in the future, but surely these works of art are still protected and revered? Are they to suggest that Madrid's Museo del Prado sold two of its most priceless paintings because the world is more interested in VR hotels? Or perhaps these paintings were stolen, but considering the amount of art we see in the series, including Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" which Laurens Bancroft owns, that must of been quite a crime spree, and not something to be ignored. Or, perhaps maybe, these are vainglorious rich guys that like to have signifiers of wealth and there's some very profitable forgers out in this world. For me personally, the inclusion of these incredible but hugely famous works of art suspends my disbelief in the show.

Listen to our podcast review of Altered Carbon here.

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