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Disney at Paris

[Click here to read my review of "Il Était Une Fois...Walt Disney," the Disney exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.]

From Didier Ghez, editor of the series of collected interviews titled Walt's People: You will not be surprised if I tell you that I disagreed with most of your review of the Grand Palais exhibition. You made me think of the haute cuisine critic who, finding himself on a desert island, gets the only inhabitant of the island to serve him a marvelous and improbable dinner and complains that it is lacking a bit of salt and that part of the meat is slightly overcooked on one side.

In other words, aside from specific issues that I will detail below, my main exception with your review is that it forgets completely the context of the exhibition. Of course, one hopes one day to see a huge exhibition that focuses purely on the aesthetic and artistic quality of the animation art of Disney, coupled with a detailed focus on all the individual artists within the Disney Studio who helped this art exist. And if this could happen in France, one of the cultural centers of Europe and country of anti-Americanism and of "cultural exception" it would be even better. Right. And let’s add peace on Earth.

Or to be more serious, let’s just say that Tintin, although a comic book, is considered by all the French "intelligentsia" as an integral part of Franco-Belgian literature and high art. Disney, since the mid-'40s, definitely isn’t. In fact it symbolises in France, especially since the opening of Disneyland Paris—nicknamed by some "the cultural Tchernobyl"—the very antithesis of culture and art. It is supposedly to art what McDonalds is to haute cuisine, and so on. Which means that you have a much bigger distance to cover (from an educational point of view) to justify Disney's place in a major French museum than to justify Tintin's. Which also means that you are bound to have to make some weird concessions and to simplify your message in some ways.

First is the need to find a hook. No major French museum, however well conceived the exhibition of Disney art might be, would take the risk of exhibiting that art alone. They would immediately be accused of advertising Disney movies and DVDs. Unfairly, of course. But reviewers would not even enter the exhibition. It would be stillborn. The hook, the justification, the "spoonful of sugar," in this case were European influences. Another hook—a marketing hook this time—is the white lie "never been shown in a major exhibition." That is inaccurate. But frankly, who cares? It generates strong press coverage, creates excitement and a will to discover Disney differently. And as far as France is concerned, that claim is true.

The second element that takes us away from the ideal exhibition is the need to simplify the message. The audience that reads Robin Allan's book is an informed audience that has ample time to reflect and analyze; the crowd that goes to an exhibition like this one often knows very little about the subject matter. I am even ready to bet that quite a few people have no real idea of the preparation process that goes on behind the scenes before the final cels are painted, and that quite a few visitors believed that all the drawings were done by Walt himself or at least that Walt was a dictator that decided on the movie's style at the very beginning of any project, controlling the brains and arms of his army of trained monkey artists. Managing to break those preconceptions is a difficult task. Using comparisons with great paintings, etchings, and movies to achieve it is a simplifying but useful (if not always perfectly accurate) way to do it. I am convinced that quite a few visitors came out of the exhibition understanding at least two things: Disney’s concept drawings, storyboards, backgrounds, and animation drawings are beautiful artistic documents in themselves and Disney artists were often great artists in their own right. Having brought part of your audience this far, you could then think of organizing for them a more accurate and subtle exhibition at a latter date.

Having underlined the context of where and when the exhibition took place and the effects those factors are bound to have on its structure, let’s address a few additional details concerning your review:

* You mention quite a few "inferior sources" being represented throughout the exhibition, taking as an example the kitschy German satyrs. True, but two things are to be considered: the Pastoral Symphony that resulted from this "inspiration" is of even worse taste than the originals; the other works of art presented in the exhibition include quite a few beautiful pieces, from Brueghel to Durer, from Doré to Kley. Those are far from being inferior sources, and the drawings and paintings of the Disney artists are often of almost equal quality. I believe you saw the half-empty glass here.

* You underline the fact that quite a few features that are clearly inspired by European sources were not represented. I am among those who would have loved for the exhibition to have been even more exhaustive, of course. Who would not have loved, for example, to see some of the Hippopotamus concept art drawings of Bodrero alongside Degas's paintings? But once again we are entering the realm of the ideal, forgetting the challenges that a curator has to face in a case such as this exhibition: art which is purely unavailable, art which had already been lent to other museums, museums refusing to lend work of arts for "an exhibition about Disney" (this last part of the sentence to be pronounced with disdain).

* Finally there are some artistic licenses that I believe can be tolerated in an exhibition a lot more easily than in a book (the same way that a movie can and often should take liberties with its literary sources—as painful as this may be to the author of the book and to the fans of the work—if the resulting movie is to be a beautiful one). The books that are displayed are not all the ones that Walt brought back in 1935? There are Ty Wong and Chinese paintings in the exhibition? King Kong and Modern Times are featured at the very beginning of the exhibition? None of this is perfectly consistent, but the overall effect of comparison between great art and Disney artists’ art is reinforced and helps reveal the existence and elevate the perception of Disney artists’ works in France, of all places.

There is one last detail that I forgot to mention and that takes us back to my initial thought about the haute cuisine critic on the desert island: who would have thought that a lost indigene on a desert island would know how to cook haute cuisine, if slightly imperfectly? Who would have thought that Bruno Girveaux, a French curator, a civil servant in the most anti-American, snobbish environment there is on Earth, helped by the European offices of the Walt Disney Company (who do not know much about Disney art or Disney history), would manage to understand as much as he did about Disney artists and select so many beautiful pieces of Disney art? Granted, he was helped by the Animation Research Library, but he was the one who had the overall vision and selected what would be featured. It might lack some salt and some cooking on one side of the meat, but the overall result is beyond stunning, coming from an indigene on a desert island.

MB replies: Beyond doubt, an exhibition can have a positive effect on the reputation of an artist or a group of artists. There have been many examples in the fine arts, like the postwar abstract-expressionist shows that were so important in raising awareness of painters like Jackson Pollock. A much earlier, and perhaps more pertinent, example is the Salon des Refusés, the landmark 1863 Paris exhibition that brought painters like Manet and Monet into the spotlight. Their work was widely ridiculed then, but ultimately they won—people crowd museums to see their work, whereas their rivals in the Academy have been largely forgotten.

The central fact about such landmark exhibitions is that the work of the artists involved was presented without apologies, or what Didier Ghez cals "weird concessions." The same can't be said about "Once Upon a Time...Walt Disney." The inferior or irrelevant art that is all too prominent in the exhibition combines with the wall texts to generate an atmosphere of apology and condescension that the Disney artwork must struggle to surmount. The exhibition is not imperfectly executed haute cuisine; it's more like pot roast.

Certainly many visitors to the exhibition in Paris enjoyed what they saw, and I'm sure the same will be true in Montréal; but I can't imagine that many visitors come away with their perceptions changed and enhanced, and without that result the exhibition really has no point. That such an exhibition could be created in France may indeed be a giant step forward —for the French art establishment. But I can't see that it's any such thing for the Disney films and the artists who created them.

[Posted January 16, 2007]