Ben Stiller: Severance S1 (2022) | trailer screengrab
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Sci-Fi Thriller ‘Severance’ Paints Sublime and Subversive Art

More than just corporate propaganda, the subversive artworks in Severance hold a strange place in Lumon Industries’ ideological fabric.

Severance
Dan Erickson
AppleTV+
18 February 2022

The first season of Apple TV+’s thriller series Severance ends with plenty of questions and only a few answers. Dan Erickson created an eerily familiar world surrounding the lives of the employees at Lumon Industries, a pharmaceutical mega-corporation whose work remains a mystery to its workers and viewers. The catch is that workers electively undergo a surgery that splits — or “severs” — their work life from their home life. Severance‘s story focuses specifically on Mark (Adam Scott) and his three colleagues, Helly (Britt Lower), Dylan (Zach Cherry), and Irving (John Turturro). They work in the department known as Macrodata Refinement (MDR). In Severance‘s first season, they embark on a journey to figure out what their work is meant for.

Severance is unusually gripping because it is both familiar and strange simultaneously. With its seemingly universal if not cliché office aesthetic and relatable banality of a typical nine-to-five, Severance pokes at the 21st-century obsession with work-life balance and corporate greed. But the mystery surrounding nearly every character, the specter of corporate overlords, and the surreal peculiarities of life within Lumon Industries open the door to endless discussions of theories, puzzles, and burning questions. Why are there baby goats? What does MDR do? Who knew that John Turturro and Christopher Walken’s characters provide the television romance we all need?

As I watched each episode of Severance I was particularly struck by a particular aspect of the show: the paintings. Viewers and critics flocked to the sterile environment, furniture, and office park architecture. But for me, it was the paintings. Visual art plays an essential role in Severance, and while the paintings are not numerous, their impact appears to be far greater than one might expect. Erickson and his fellow creators and writers have constructed an art history that, in reflecting the art of the audience’s “real” world, holds the key to the show’s many secrets.

Art is a consistent motif throughout the season, often breaking with the well-established aesthetic of the office: mid-century-esque minimalism that evokes a timeless caricature of the American workplace. Production designer Jeremy Hindle takes inspiration for this look from LIFE magazines and the architecture of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (1910-61), who, in addition to world-famous furniture and airports, was renowned for his design of office and industrial parks. This sterile aesthetic makes the lush paintings prominent. However, they are not merely props that fall in or out of the office aesthetic. Instead, the acts of collection, curation, exhibition, and even preservation are all aspects of the show’s plot.  

Indeed, art begins to find its spotlight in the show’s second episode when MDR employee Irving (John Turturro) meets Burt (Christopher Walken), a member of another department called Optics and Design (O&D), and the two begin to form a close acquaintance. The paintings in the Lumon office serve as both a physical and intellectual backdrop for their budding romance, often a centerpiece of their conversation and the source of their bond.

Optics and Design is where most of the art at Lumon industries is held, and oftentimes the only access we have to the paintings. Many of the works span art-historical styles, but almost all are not actual paintings. Only one appears to be real: Frederic Edwin Church’s Aurora Borealis, a masterpiece of the 19th-century American movement known as the Hudson River School. This work is seen only briefly resting behind other paintings on a dolly at the entrance to O&D, and why this work appears at all remains a mystery.

 Aurora Borealis (1865), Frederic Edwin Church | Public Domain | Wikpedia

The rest of the paintings are the product of the realities of the world within the walls of Lumon Industries, mainly the cult-like glorification of the life and work of Lumon’s founder, Kier Eagan (Marc Geller). And many of these reflect or are even explicit references to real works of art. I am, of course, not the only one to notice some of these direct references, as the internet hype on message boards and even some critics have led to a flurry of discussion. 

One example is a painting of Kier above the water fountain in one of the halls. The image is a play on the well-known 1818 Caspar David Friedrich painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. However, in this version, Eagan is shown overlooking the Great Lakes in a sort of American twist to the staple of Romanticism. Eagan is the center of Lumon’s cult adoration, and this work’s elicitation of feelings of the sublime and power puts Kier in an almost super-human position. Yet it is also a painting that both Burt and Irving acknowledge they don’t particularly like. Burt mentions how it makes him nervous; it is such a beautiful vista, but there is always the possibility that Kier could slip and fall. Their worries seem rather silly since it is a static painting of a man who has already died and implies a real-world personal relationship with the painting’s subject that would have been impossible. Nevertheless, it feeds into the narrative of Kier as the central savior of Lumon Industries by putting him in this position of confidence and power, never able to fall from grace, even if Burt and Irving think he could.  

Another painting, “The Youthful Convalescence of Kier“, also fits into this savior narrative. Burt pulls this painting from a drawer in the O&D office since it is no longer in the exhibition rotation. Irving is thrilled, noting how he cried upon viewing it when it was on display for about a month, claiming that he was moved to see the story in a visual form after reading about it in the company Handbook. The Handbook, we learn, is like a Bible, containing the stories, teachings, philosophy, and legends of the Eagans and guides the workplace norms just as it appears to guide the philosophy behind the company’s existence. As the two men admire the painting and each other’s company, Burt begins to recite a passage from the Handbook, saying, “let not weakness live in your veins, cherished workers drowned inside you, rise up from your deathbed and sally forth, more perfect for the struggle.”

The passage’s prayer-like nature matches the painting’s ambiance, which is one of the few explicit introductions we have to Kier’s life and the founder’s history. It shows a youthful Kier recovering in bed from some injury or ailment. In the foreground, a woman prays while others attend to him. He is illuminated by the light of a candle held by a woman — perhaps a nurse — giving the Eagan founder a divine and enlightened quality to him. While the audience of Severance is not fully aware of the backstory, this painting, and the accompanying Handbook passage, lead us to believe that Kier had some sort of near-death experience and came out stronger, establishing Lumon Industries in the wake of fear, pain, and weakness. This is perhaps why Kier is so honored and praised. He is the product of his resurrection, a Christ-like association that only grows deeper in other works.

Another painting found in O&D that is the subject of Burt and Irving’s admiration is “The Courtship of Kier and Imogen”, in which the two subjects of the romance story are shown working side by side in a steel factory. Another clue into the founder’s life, this painting leads the men to recall how Kier and Imogen were “bonded by the spirit of industry”. The painting recalls art in the late 18th through early 20th centuries. The glow of molten iron as the light source, contrasting with the dark background of the factory behind, calls to mind industrial paintings that depicted factory life around the world, including Joseph Wright’s 1772 painting, An Iron Forge.

The rags-to-riches love story and working-class reality of Kier and Imogen also point to the tradition of American realism visible in the works of, for instance, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and other artists who sought to depict the real life of working-class Americans at a time of economic and industrial change. “The Courtship of Kier and Imogen”, then acts as a sort of all-American origin story of the Eagan leader, binding the mythology and reality of the company’s founding and stitching Lumon Industries into the fabric of American innovation.  

These examples of art on Lumon Industrie’s Severed Floor (which houses MDR, OD, and The Goat Room) help viewers understand the backstory of the corporation and serve as one of the few windows we have into the life of Kier Egan. On the one hand, these works show moments of the founder’s life while glorifying him and his image. Everything we know about the adoration of Kier, and the capitalist values of the Handbook, appear to be reinforced in the art on display; it is a visual memorial of the leader himself. The paintings also hold a strange place in Lumon’s ideological fabric in that they provide a backstory in a world where backstories, narratives, and personal histories are not allowed. Kier Egan is the only one to have such a history, giving him even more power over the employees who thus have no choice but to worship him and what he represents. 

Not all paintings on the Severed Floor glorify the company’s founder, however. Some have important roles in the plot of the show. In Episode Five, “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design”, Irving encounters a painting from the printer that depicts a horrific attack on the Macrodata Refinement office by the O&D team. The painting’s title, also the episode title, depicts O&D employees killing, dismembering, and eating the organs of the refiners. Within the show’s story, the image is sent to the printer to try and dissuade Irving from spending so much time with other departments, reminding him of the urban legends circulating on the Severed floor about O&D’s past attacks and gruesome behavior. When Irving and Dylan make their long, convoluted way to O&D, Dylan discovers a copy of the painting that has one subtle difference: the keycard colors are switched: it is MDR who attacks O&D. Burt informs them that this version is called “The Macrodata Refinement Calamity”, and illustrates the inverse relationship between the two departments and how the same rumors circulate in other departments as well.  

These paintings serve the specific purpose of keeping departments separate, a fact that is troubling to the workers at Lumon but also a curious point that we, as viewers, can only attribute to the corporate conspiracy and powers above. The workers note their confusion, remembering that Kier’s teachings promoted unity, family, and collaboration. 

“The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design” appears to pull inspiration from a mix of historical sources, namely the works of Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. Its composition, like that of “The Macrodata Refinement Calamity”, is one of complete chaos. Men are attacking each other as a fire rages behind them. Blood drips from sharp objects as organs spill from the abdomens of murdered workers. It recalls works like Goya’s 1814 painting, El dos de mayo de 1808, which illustrates the uprisings against the French who had occupied Spain under Napoleon’s rule. The parallels between Spain’s uprising against occupation and the conflicts between O&D and Macrodata Refinement may not be clear yet in Severance. Still, they might hint at what is possible given the power structures of the office. Is this a possible foreshadowing of what is to come?

“The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design” grotesque visuals also bring to mind one of Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son (1819-23), part of Goya’s “Black Paintings” series, created toward the end of his life during his time isolated at a house in the Spanish countryside. The work shows the myth of the titan Saturn (Cronos) eating one of his sons, fearing his children would overthrow him. Goya’s work serves as a grotesque visual parallel to the images of cannibalism and dismemberment evident in “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design” and The Macrodata Refinement Calamity”, most notably the man on the right who consumes the heart of his opponent. Here, the idea of a preemptive attack in anticipation of a revolt could relate to the rumors about the Severed Floor, as orchestrated by corporate leadership. 

Perhaps the most critical visual work in Severance is first found in episode two, “Half Loop”, and is the only work that appears in multiple instances due to its prominent placement outside the Wellness Room. For context, Irving is administered a “wellness” check with Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman). While waiting for his session, he meets Burt, and the two discuss this painting. The unnamed painting depicts an older bearded man, presumably Kier Eagan, at the entrance to a glowing cave. The figure raised hand holds a cat-o’-nine-tails whip aimed at four figures that cower in fear. The figures include two women —one in black and one in white — a jester and an anthropomorphic goat or ram that holds up one hoof toward the man with the whip. Burt reminds Irving that the work was formerly on display in the “Perpetuity Wing”, a museum-like area of Lumon Industries that serves as a memorial to the Eagan family. It is now hung outside the Wellness Room for its “calming” effect.

We learn more about this painting and its components slowly throughout the season, especially during the climactic “Waffle Party” scene at the reproduced Eagan House in the Perpetuity Wing. Dylan is the “lucky” recipient of the Waffle Party, which culminates in him wearing an Eagan mask and laying on the founder’s bed with a whip. Four figures enter the room dancing erotically, each wearing what the figures in the painting wear. It becomes clear that the purpose of the Waffle Party is to reenact the whipping and taming of these figures in what is undoubtedly one of the strangest sexual scenarios in Severance.

Viewers across the internet point to the fact that these four figures likely represent the four emotions central to the work of the Macrodata refiners: Melancholy, Joy, Fear, and Rage. Like ancient and medieval humours and temperaments (sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic, and choleric), these emotions must be tamed and controlled to achieve balance. This may be why, within the universe of Severance, Irving and Burt find the painting calming. The act of the man with the whip is to calm or tame basic human emotions. 

The painting’s iconography brings to mind numerous real-world paintings of Christ driving money changers and merchants from the Temple in Jerusalem, the Cleansing of the Temple. The Severance painting references this Biblical story and the resulting art from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. One of the most famous paintings El Greco’s 1568 painting, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, wherein Jesus yields a cat-o’-nine-tails aimed at the merchants who cower in fear of his wrath. French painter Valentin de Boulogne’s 1618 version shares a similar composition, where the Jesus figure on the left drives the merchants toward the right-hand side of the frame. In both works, the motifs are the same. 

Considering the clues and knowledge of Lumon Industries’ other artworks, we can conclude that the bearded figure is indeed Kier Egan and, therefore, a Christ-like figure. This visual representation of Kier-as-Christ fits into the larger narrative of the founder, as evident in other art and other aspects of the Lumon Industries world. For example in episode three, “In Perpetuity”, when the team of refiners enters the Perpetuity Wing and sees this painting Helly exclaims “Jesus”, to which Irving responds, “No. Kier”. In a rare look at the Outside world, we learn that the Severed Floor’s boss, Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette), keeps a religious-looking shrine to Kier in her home.

Of course, this Cleasing of the Temple-like paiting depicts Severance‘s themes of idealism and capitalism, which the show reckons with in its haunting way. It encapsulates the need to drive away or cleanse what is deemed impure – such as personal distractions – to make a given space, mental and physical, for that which is pure and sacred in corporate America. The Lumon Industires office is sterile and devoid of distractions and personal effects. Behavior is strictly controlled and monitored, limiting anything that may take away from one’s productivity in the company. For Jesus in the Cleansing of the Temple, he is depicted driving away corruption and commerce from the sacred space; for Lumon Industries founder Kier Eagan, he as depicted driving away employee’s emotions and personal interests from the sacred space of work and productivity. Either way, the paintings, and their parallels, pose an allegory of the need for suppression within a capitalist system, which cuts to the core of the questionable ethics of Lumon Industries. 

There is still much to be learned in Severance. The final episode of the show’s first season, “The We We Are”, leaves viewers with questions and eager for the much anticipated second season. In a show that prides itself on its visuals and aesthetics, it is impossible to ignore the prominence of the paintings shown throughout Severance. Clearly, there is so much information packed into these paintings that they just may hold the key to the show’s greatest mysteries. 


Sources

Stefansky, Emma. “How ‘Severance’ Made its Office Prison Look so Inviting“. Thrillist. 24 February 2022.

BWalker, Billie. “How Art Helps to Manipulate Minds in Severance“. Hyperallergic. 13 July 2022. 

 

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