RA Magazine Spring 2008
Issue Number: 98
Lights, Cranach, action!
Who would have thought that Cranach’s iconic painting of Adam and Eve from the early sixteenth century would become an animated title sequence for an American TV series. Matt Wolf charts what some may view as a miraculous transformation, others a cardinal sin
It’s not often that an iconic slice of American popular culture embraces the art of the German Renaissance – or indeed any art – but ever since its premiere late in 2004, the ABC TV series Desperate Housewives has been far from your ordinary television programme.
Among its most striking aspects has been the title sequence – for as long, that is, as this sequence has been shown. (The more recent trend has been to do away with such visual preambles and cut to the televisual chase). And there, folded into the clever, animated pop-up style of the introductory titles that set the smart tone for the show, was the work of Lucas Cranach: specifically his diptych in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna – Adam and Eve, 1510-20, where the couple are separated by a gold frame.
How did the good ladies of Wisteria Lane find themselves part of a show provoking interest among art historians internationally? The answer has everything to do with the programme taking the same wry approach to art through the ages that it takes to 21st-century suburban American life.
Conceived by Marc Cherry, Desperate Housewives in its first season had an executive producer, Michael Edelstein, who had also studied art history at the University of California. As Edelstein recalls, once composer Danny Elfman (who wrote the music for The Simpsons) came on board to write the distinctive theme tune for Desperate Housewives, it raised the bar for the accompanying titles. ‘When Danny said “yes” to us, we were thrilled and realised that we needed to find something that would live up to his music.’
Numerous titling companies were considered and the winner was yU+co, whose director on the project, Yolanda Santosa, worked with the firm’s creative director Garson Yu. Santosa, who has since moved on to launch her own Los Angeles-based branding agency, remembers the assignment well. ‘Marc Cherry knew he wanted to start with Adam and Eve because Eve is the first woman,’ says Santosa, ‘and she’s the first desperate woman.’
A trawl through the Corbis image database led directly to Cranach. ‘I came across the Cranach painting, and the look of it was so interesting to me,’ says Santosa, who was relieved to find something that was not so sexual as to make it inappropriate for network TV. What’s more, the actual style of the painting leant itself to the creative team's shrewd treatment of it.
'I love the way her head has curls,’ Santosa remarks of Cranach's Eve. 'I saw the potential for animating her hair so that it was flowing in the wind.’ And because Eve's body in the painting is slightly turned, it allowed Santosa to animate the right hand so that it could move up and down. In the Cranach canvas, the hair is to Eve’s right but Santosa’s team flipped it to the left for reasons of visual flow, covering her modesty with a leaf and moving her hand up to cover her chest. In the animated sequence, Eve plucks an apple which, as she hands it to Adam, makes a massive apple fall from the tree and crush him with the show's title. ‘We made the shape of the tree consistent with both halves of the diptych and connected them together,’ says the designer. ‘And we planted our own leaves on the ground, as well as the leaves on the tree.’ The original picture, of course, has no leaves at all.
Santosa says that the Cranach section of the title sequence wasn’t especially difficult to work on. By comparison, the work required on Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting in the Art Institute of Chicago, American Gothic, which also appears in the same 40-second intro, was far trickier: ‘Making the farmer in that painting smile was quite a challenge,’ Santosa says, laughing. Meanwhile, efforts to fold a Roy Lichtenstein into the visual mix foundered on the vexed issue of copyright.
But her company nonetheless did alter the Cranach background so that it was olive green to brighten it. ‘The painting itself still feels somewhat traditional – that’s what we loved about it, that the style was very clean and not at all splotchy – but we did have to make it a little bit more contemporary.’
Initially, Michael Edelstein was concerned that the art world might take offence. ‘Sometimes, the art historian in me wakes up in the middle of the night and says, “Are we defacing a great work of art?” And then another part of me says, “Maybe we’ve made art of our own,”’ he recalls, adding that his own academic interests lay in Byzantine art and in those artists who at the time ‘were basically creating billboards for whoever their patrons were. We now treat old art like it is sacrosanct, but I don’t believe they were as reverent about it 1,000 years ago.’
Santosa also anticipated a negative reaction: ‘After we finished with our project, we thought people were going to hate us for desecrating all these paintings.’ Instead, the sequence got its own Emmy nomination in a series that has been cloaked in accolades along the way. ‘This is still one of my favourite main titles,’ says Santosa, whose other TV credits include Ugly Betty.
The art history world, meanwhile, has responded appreciatively. ‘Anything that brings people in to look at and engage with art is great,’ says Dr Caroline Campbell, a curator at the Courtauld Institute and leading authority on Cranach. Campbell makes the intriguing point that Cranach’s elfin female nudes ‘look like 21st-century women, if you think of someone like Rubens, whose nudes were clearly much fleshier and larger compared to Cranach’s thin bodies and pert breasts.’
Indeed, talking up Cranach as ‘a canny businessman’ who was ‘among the very richest men at the time’, Campbell gives the nod to an artist who, were he alive today, might well be working in Hollywood – perhaps even on Desperate Housewives.
‘It’s funny how you do things,’ Edelstein says of his time as an art history student, ‘and twenty years later they pop up in your life.’ Or, in the case of Cranach, nearly six centuries later, as part of a literal televisual pop-up, the painter’s cool, elongated figures reflecting today’s pop-culture chic.
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