Artworks are more than just plot clues in The White Lotus season 2 – they are the show’s silent witnesses

by AryanArtnews
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Artworks are more than just plot clues in The White Lotus season 2 – they are the show’s silent witnesses

In Western art history, a mise en abyme is a technique of placing one image within another, or a story within a story. It serves the purpose of illuminating the hidden meaning in an image. It can also be considered an allegory.

To say this technique is used in The White Lotus, season 2 would be an understatement.

Everything in the show, from painting and sculpture to film and literary references, to fashion, and even an erupting Mount Etna in the distance, function as allegorical cues to the show’s unfolding drama.

The White Lotus serves as a critique of the rich and the entanglement of money, power and sex against the backdrop of a luxury hotel decorated with art historical artefacts.

Fans of the show will be familiar with the widespread phenomenon on social and popular media of interpreting the meaning of the books read by characters in season 1. In season 2, it’s the artwork that caught the attention.



Read more: Freud, Nietzsche, Paglia, Fanon: our expert guide to the books of The White Lotus


Renaissance art and film

The placement of art in the show is both masterful and purposeful. Fans spent much of the season using visual interpretations of the artwork to try to solve the mystery of who died in the opening minutes of a flashback in episode 1.

Videos on social media show fans playing the role of a quasi-art historian in a mock BBC documentary to interpret the allegories in key paintings featured in each episode. For example, one such fan pointed out the visual resonance between the character Albie Di Grasso (Adam DiMarco) and the painting Saint Sebastian by Pietro Perugino (1495).

In the painting, Saint Sebastian is tied to a column and his flesh is pierced by arrows. We see the painting in the background of a scene where Albie is brought to orgasm by a woman, Lucia, who he does not know is a sex worker. It’s hard to ignore the ironic symbolism of the bleeding martyr next to the love-struck, innocent and clueless Albie. The painting gives us a clue to his own potential martyrdom: to save Lucia from her profession.

St. Sebastian (Perugino, Louvre).
Wikimedia

In another scene, Lucia (Simona Tabasco), the sex worker, sneaks into Albie’s grandfather’s room to shower after an all-night orgy with other guests. As she packs her bag to leave, she sees her namesake, Saint Lucy in a painting by Domenico Beccafumi (1521). When Lucia saw the painting, she paused and superstitiously made the sign of the cross, as if asking for the saint’s forgiveness.

Saint Lucy by Domenico Beccafumi, 1521, a High Renaissance reworking of a Gothic iconic image (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena)

Although there is an intense focus on Renaissance art in the show, there are also cinematic and literary references. The script plays with themes of patriarchy, heterosexual dynamics and the male gaze directly from Michelangelo Antonioni’s l’Avventura (1960) and Francis Ford Copolla’s The Godfather (1972). There are also references to Elena Ferrante’s novels adapted for the television show, My Brilliant Friend (2018), by the “companions” Lucia and Mia (Beatrice Grannò) who bear striking similarities to the “good” and “bad” girl characters, Lenù and Lila.

Beatrice Granno and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia.
Warner

The most iconic film reference is to Antonioni’s l’Avventura, where Harper retraces Monica Vitti’s footsteps as she is objectified by countless men ogling her lust under the steps of Noto Cathedral, Sicily.

For those with prior knowledge of the above references, the appropriation of iconic scenes and characters from cult films expands the viewer’s cultural investment in the television show, showing how art imitates art.

Art as a commodity of the rich

While these new forms of interpretation are entertaining, they obscure one of the show’s critiques: the role of art in the lives of the wealthy.

Tom Hollander and Jennifer Coolidge enjoy the opera in The White Lotus season 2.
Warner

This criticism offers us a clue to understanding the role that art plays in the show – since decoration, art signifies luxury and taste, it provides a veneer of culture that is bought rather than learned or made.

Like a vase bought at IKEA for a vacation rental, in this luxury hotel, art serves the ubiquitous purpose of providing a tourist attraction and reinforcing wealth and status.

As Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) tells Quentin in the final arrest episode, “What a life you have. I mean, this boat, your villa. Oh, my God, everything you have is a work of art.”

Art: a path to a character’s inner world

One of the more interesting functions of art in the show is the interactions between the characters and artwork at crucial moments of psychological turmoil.

There is the infidelity warning of the Testa di Moro legend. These vases decorate the hotel. The legend is reinforced in a scene when Harper’s husband, Ethan, believes his wife cheated on him in revenge for his own close encounter with sex workers. He gazes ominously at the decapitated head of the Testa di Moro in his hotel room, a colorful ceramic vase of a Moorish man wearing a crown decorated with fruit and flowers.

The Testa di Moro.
Wikimedia

The scenes with Tanya are full of symbolism. She is the drama’s ultimate tragedy and her vulnerability and mortality connect most powerfully with art historical references.

Her tears are symbolized in the painting of a bent over weeping woman clutching a dagger. Through interpretation, the pathos of the figure in the painting is transferred to Tanya who is always crying.

This pathos (as well as the dagger) also connects to the scene of Tanya at the opera. Clues to her fate are linked to the tragedy of Madame Butterfly.

It is clear that the artworks personify the characters in the show and serve as an entry point to their inner turbulent worlds. The scenes that connect the art with the characters suggest an alternative reading for the empty, lost or treacherous sociopathy that is central to the criticism in The White Lotus.

The artworks are the show’s silent witnesses, observing the characters’ moral compasses, looking at them beneath the world of luxury, class, taste, sex and wealth.

In this world of appearance and resort, art and allegory give us access to what lies beneath the visible surface of shiny things, and as the climax reveals, beneath the Mediterranean Sea.

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