Walt Disney’s style of innovation was on display in the “Il était une fois Walt Disney” exhibit that just closed at the Grand Palais museum in Paris, preparing for its March 8-June 24 showing at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal.
Unfortunately, the exhibit isn’t scheduled to appear at any museum in the United States, which will deprive native Disney fans of a convenient opportunity to see this analytical display of works of “one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, and the greatest storyteller of the 20th century,” as Parisian curator Bruno Girveau describes him.
It’s unclear why no museum in the U.S. will make room for the show.
The exhibit demonstrates Disney’s use of a typical approach for conceptual innovators — creating innovative new works by building on works of the past. (For comparison, think of conceptual innovator T.S. Eliot’s profuse use of references to past literature in “The Wasteland.”)
As a review of the Grand Palais show stated:
The premise is that Disney took great influence from Old World artistic traditions. Many of his early animators were European emigres from continental art schools, including Albert Hurter of Switzerland, Gustaf Tenggren of Sweden and Kay Nielsen of Denmark.
A turning point for Disney –whom Girveau compares to an orchestra conductor, overseeing the work of other artists — was a 1935 trip to Europe. Disney brought back more than 300 illustrated books for his animators.
Many are on display, along with original art and other treasures. Disney opened up its 70,000-piece archive for the curator — not something it does often, said Nathalie Dray, spokeswoman for the Walt Disney Co. in France. More than 500 Disney pieces are on display.
The show also borrowed works from museums around the world, placing oil paintings in gilt frames alongside the Disney animations they helped inspire. A scene from the spooky forest in “Snow White,” where trees come to life and grab at the heroine with spindly branches, is next to an eerie 1900 painting of anthropomorphic trees by William Degouve de Nuncques.
As the curator’s outline of the exhibition states, “Walt Disney gave up drawing at an early stage; his talent lay in his infallible intuition, both in choosing and using his artists and finding literary or artistic sources for his films. … [On his 1935 trip, Disney] took back to California as many illustrated books as he could, to build up a stock of images meant to inspire the Studios’ productions. Much of this treasure trove of more than three hundred works is still kept in one of the departments of the Walt Disney Company near Los Angeles. Editions from the 19th and early 20th centuries, with fairy tales by the brothers Grimm and Perrault, largely dominated the selection.”
Among the artistic links that the exhibition highlights:
- Pinocchio’s village was modelled on the mediaeval city of Rothenburg in Bavaria.
- Sleeping Beauty’s castle was a cross between the illuminations of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, drawings by Viollet-le-Duc and the extravagant castles of Louis II of Bavaria.
- Forests took their inspiration from 15th-century Chinese painting, Japanese prints or American or English forests.
- Bird’s-eye views drew on the work of the American regionalist painters Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.
- The influence of Gaspard Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin’s landscapes can be seen in Fantasia, and that of the Flemish and Italian primitives in the décors for Sleeping Beauty.
- The 19th- and early 20th-century illustrators who radically renewed the theme of anthropomorphism had a profound influence on Disney Studios: Grandville, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Benjamin Rabier, Heinrich Kley and Beatrix Potter inspired many Disney characters.
- Character development was a complicated process involving countless meetings in which Walt Disney took an active part. He outlined their main traits – and overall graphic appearance if he was not satisfied with the initial sketches. These discussions and the combination of several sources – historical, pictorial and cinematographic – gave rise to the main characters who were then animated from model sheets and sometimes plaster prototypes. But
- (T)he roles played by the scenarists, artists and Disney himself are so closely interlocked that it is difficult to reconstitute he process. The ambiguous figure of the Wicked Queen in Snow White is a good example. While Disney suggested that the Queen should be a mix of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf, but her face finally took the features of the American actress Joan Crawford (1908-1977) and her general silhouette seems to be derived from the column statue at the entrance to Naumberg Cathedral in Germany. The transformation of the Queen into a Witch is taken from various cinematographic versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And the Witch herself perpetuates the iconographic tradition developed during the 19th century.
The exhibit also explores Disney’s influence on and connections with other artists, including Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and Dali. Dali and Disney worked on the film “Destino,” which wasn’t completed until 2003, with a boost from Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew. Of that collaboration, “some hundred drawings and paintings have survived, the most spectacular of which are shown in the exhibition.”