[An introductory note: You'll find very full, well-illustrated coverage
of the Paris exhibition at Ben Simon's site, Animated-Views.
The exhibition opened in Montréal, Quebec, on March 8, 2007, at the
Musée des Beaux-Arts and was up until June 14; more information
is at this
link. Some items included in the Paris version were not seen
at Montréal, and vice versa, but the catalog indicates that
all the Paris items originating with the Disney studiothat
is, all the items of greatest interest to students and fans of Walt
Disney's filmswere part of the Montréal version
as well. An English-language
version of the catalog is now available at amazon.com.To read feedback about this review, including a detailed rebuttal by Didier Ghez, click here.]
The Disney studio's in-house newsletter, the Bulletin, for
May 17, 1940, included this message from Walt Disney addressed to
"all studio members":
Since we are about to resume the running of pictures in
our theatre each Wednesday evening, I want to explain to all members
of my organization the purpose of these showings. The entire idea
was conceived with the thought of showing only those pictures that
would not only be helpful but would stimulate the minds of the creative
groups in the work they are doing. For that reason, we select only
those pictures that tie in with the work we now have in production.
Therefore, because of this arrangement and due to the limited seating
capacity in the theatre, which even now is unable to care for all
of the creative groups, it is obvious that everyone cannot attend.
I want to emphasize at this time that these pictures are not to
be considered in the light of `entertainment' nor are we running
in competition with the motion picture houses in the city. May I
ask for your cooperation in this situation?
clear from that statement, and many others, that Walt not only expected
his artists to find inspiration in a variety of sources, he all
but ordered them to do it. Bear that in mind when you hear statements
about who or what "inspired" the Disney artists, as with
this wall text at the entrance to the huge exhibit called "Il
Était Une Fois...Walt Disney" ("Once Upon a
Time... Walt Disney"), which closes January 15 at the Grand
Palais in Paris: "The exhibition confronts the original drawings
from the Disney Studios, which have never been shown in a major
exhibition, with the European art works which inspired them."
There are a number of problems with that statement, not least the
inconvenient fact that Disney drawings and paintings have been exhibited
in museum settings many times since the 1930s. (There's a very short
list, at the back of the catalog, of what are presumably considered
minor exhibitions.) I curated a 120-item Disney show at the Library
of Congress in Washington in 1978the occasion of my only encounter
with Lillian Disneyand the Whitney Museum in New York hosted
a much larger show, "Disney Animation and Animators,"
in 1981. As for "the European art works which inspired them,"
I have trouble reconciling that statement with the kitschy German
satyrs and even kitschier English fairies in the paintings that
fill too much wall space at Paris. "Inspiration" is not
a word that sits comfortably alongside such stuff.
The exhibition's great virtue is that it puts on the walls and
into vitrines many very interesting objects, most of them originating
in the Disney studio. Its crucial failing is the simplistic thinking
that compresses into the word "inspired" many different
relationships. "Il Était Une Fois" would
clearly not exist were it not for the example of Robin Allan's book
Disney and Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films
of Walt Disney, but Allan's book is subtle and intelligent
in ways that the exhibition is not; thus his use of the unexceptionable
"influences," as opposed to the exhibition's much broader
Allan was involved in the exhibition and wrote an essay for the
catalog, but he fell desperately ill in the summer of 2005. I have
to believe that the exhibition would be better if he had been in
good health during crucial stages of its preparation. I smile when
I think about Allan's mention in his book of a "topographical
mistake" in the Toad half of The Adventures
of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (a film not represented in the exhibition):
the Disney artists stumbled by introducing distinctively American
fences into the English countryside. There's nothing nearly as amusing
about the show in Paris.
The two sets of seven film clips showing continuously near the
entranceone set from Disney cartoons, the other from various
live-action films that supposedly "inspired" the cartoonssum
up the exhibition's problems. The clips include a couple of obvious
parodies, of King Kong and Modern Times (what do they
have to do with European sources, anyway?), one or two bull's-eyes
(German expressionist films like Murnau's Faustbut
didn't everyone in Hollywood, Orson Welles included, see them and
steal from them?), and a few more whose only connection appears
to be a coincidental resemblance. There's evident in these clips,
as throughout the exhibition, an urge to pile on sources of "inspiration,"
as opposed to making the more demanding effort to distinguish the
various kinds of influences involved and then assess their importance
to the finished product.
The unhappy result is to encourage the sense that the Disney artists
borrowed heavily from inferior sources, and that their work is on
the same level. (The exhibition's final section, devoted to recent
art that borrows from Disney, reinforces that reading. It's hard
to see in many of these pieces anything more than contempt for the
Disney originals.) The exhibition catalog is an exceptionally handsome
book, and perhaps its text, which includes contributions by Charles
Solomon and Pierre Lambert, makes careful distinctions that aren't
evident in the exhibition itself. I read French, but on a Lucky
Luke level, and although I've skimmed much of the catalog, I
won't pretend to have read any part of it closely. In any case,
it's what's on the walls that really matters.
An important thing to remember about southern California in the
1930s and 1940s, when the Disney films were at their peak, is that
there weren't a lot of museums well stocked with Old Masters. Unless
they had grown up on the East Coast (or in Europe) and haunted the
museums there, the Disney artists were dependent on reproductions
for much of their knowledge of fine art. Perhaps for that reason,
some of their strongest influences were artists whose work spread
through engravings or lithographs or some other means of reproduction.
Heinrich Kley comes first to mind, but there were others, like Doré,
Grandville, Rackham, N.C. Wyeth, and the German illustrators whose
work Joe Grant introduced to his colleagues. Not only is the influence
of these artists readily discernible, but it was often acknowledged
by the Disney artists themselves. There were easel painters whose
work entered the studio at one or two removesAllan traces
Franz von Stuck, an academic painter of centaurs and fauns, through
the Swiss-born Albert Hurter and into Fantasia's "Pastoral
Symphony"but they simply had less impact on the films.
Inevitably though, large, richly colored paintings look more important
in an exhibition than more modestly scaled reproductions of drawings
in black and white.
In addition to its fundamental problems of scale and selection,
the exhibition suffers in other ways. For example, there's a misplaced
emphasis on Allan's idea that the picturesque Bavarian town of Rothenburg
ob der Tauber was transformed into Geppetto's village in Pinocchio.
I've been to Rothenburg, with Pinocchio in mind, and
the resemblance is simply not that clear-cut. It would be fascinating
to see a true side-by-side comparison of real town and cartoon town,
but the exhibition offers nothing so direct. It is, in any case,
Pinocchio's characters that establish the film's location
as a sort of fantasy Europe where a coachman might be English, a
woodcarver with an Italian name German, the idle boy Lampwick an
American teenager, and so on. Settings weighted toward northern
Europe, as Pinocchio's undoubtedly are, can't overpower its
welter of accents and origins.
I was particularly disappointed by the display of illustrated books
from the studio's old library (the books are now housed at Walt
Disney Imagineering in Glendale). There was evidently no effort
to single out the volumes that Walt Disney brought back from Europe
in 1935. He certainly didn't bring back all the books on display;
some were published after World War II.
The first floor of the exhibit is broken down thematically"Architecture,"
"Anthropomorophism," and so on. Despite the superfluous
European objects and the dubious wall texts, there's a lot to enjoy
here, like the background painting from the opening scene of Pinocchio
that is included in the "Architecture" section. This is
the scene, showing on a loop a few feet away, in which the camera
pans down from the stars and across the roofs of Geppetto's village,
finally moving down a street toward the lighted window of his shop.
It's abundantly clear here, even more than in the film, what simple
means (camera movement, a little effects animation) have been employed
to marvelous effect.
It's when you move down to the second floor, and the themes give
way to displays devoted to individual films, that the exhibition
both ceases to make sense, in terms of its stated purpose, and begins
to justify itself. There's still a lot to complain aboutsome
films with strong European connections are shortchanged or ignored
altogetherbut there's a great deal of top-of-the-line Disney
material. In the Pinocchio section alone, there are plaster
models of major characters like Jiminy Cricket and Stromboli (I
remember the wonderful Monstro model very well from my Library of
Congress exhibit), and Gustaf Tenggren's watercolors, so perfect
in their storybook atmosphere. Ahead lie Mary Blair's colorful sketches
for Alice in Wonderlandappealing on their own terms,
however questionable as cartoon designsand David Hall's much
earlier and very different drawings for Peter Pan. And then
there are Eyvind Earle's bejeweled background paintings for Sleeping
If, like me, you find the best Disney films fascinating and even
the lesser films worthy of close study, there is much to admire.
What a pity that the exhibition whispers a negative message, that
the artwork, and the films for which it was made, are really rather
A few years ago, I wrote about what I called "Disneyism":
defining the best qualities of the Disney films in terms that foreclose
discussion of what actually makes the films worth watching. Similar
thinking is visible in "Il Était Une Fois,"
which neglects almost entirely the central achievement of the Disney
filmsthe creation of a new and tremendously potent kind of
figural artas it tries to determine what "inspired"
this or that background painting. As always, I'm amazed by how readily
orthodox Disneyism and its adherents, at the Walt Disney Company
and outside it, can absorb something like the Paris exhibition,
or Neal Gabler's
Walt Disney biography, and then proceed as if such things will
not, in their ultimate effect, diminish the reputations of Walt
Disney and his best works.
I remember being startled a few years ago when I was reading Walt
Disney's Nine Old Men: The Art of Animation, John Canemaker's
very well-researched collection of biographies of the famous Disney
animators. In the chapter on Ward Kimball, Canemaker quotes a Disney
studio memorandum in which Eric Larson, another of the nine, remembered
being with a psychologist friend when they encountered Kimball,
who was dressed in typically gaudy and eccentric attire. The psychologist,
Larson wrote, "motioned toward Kimball and said: 'There's a
guy with the biggest inferiority complex I've ever seen.'"
What a departure from the orthodox depiction of Kimball as a madcap
genius! There's nothing new in the idea that great art can grow
out of mental disturbances of one kind or another; but what about
great animation? Kimball's animation in the 1940s and early 1950s
is, for my money, far more exciting than that of most of his colleagueswould
it be as good if he hadn't had that inferiority complex that Larson's
friend spotted? And what about other people,
at other studios, like Bob Clampett and Rod Scribner, whose work
was comparably unconventional?
That line of inquiry would have limited potential, obviously,
but the results could be interesting (for an example of a highly
regarded survey of the quirks of artists of other kinds, click here).
How much more stimulating it would be to read a well-informedthe
critical qualifieressay of that sort, as opposed to all the
orthodox Disneyist bromides that are merely longer versions of this
recent peroration by John Culhane in a letter to the New York
Times: "In personality, Mickey, like Walt, was genuine,
cheerful, enthusiastic, humble, confident, versatile, adventurous,
clever, charismatic and, above all, warm." Yes, and they both
To get back to "Il Était Une Fois," or,
as we can say now that the exhibit is about to open in bilingual
Canada with an English-language
catalog, "Once Upon a Time... Walt Disney." In sum:
anyone who cares about the Disney films should make every effort
to get to Montréal to see the exhibition. Just ignore what
the curators tell you is important about what you're seeing.
[Posted January 8, 2007; introduction updated July 9, 2007]