Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Disney's European Influences

In 2006, Bruno Girveau curated an exhibition about Disney's European influences, that is now shown in the Hypo-Kunsthalle in Munich.
The idea to trace the European influences which helped Disney to craft his special "world" and imagery is certainly a thrilling endeavour, and to see so many Disney originals, cel-sets, storyboards, sketches, figurines, etc. , even short movie clips, is equally interesting and insightful in the making of-process.
With his adaptations of fairy tales and children's stories that had been illustrated numerous times before, Disney's films had to inevitably position themselves in the corresponding visual traditions such as every other artist who wants to illustrate - for example - Cinderella. For witches and fairies, dragons and knights, etc., there is an established iconography in art history to be found that every illustrator has to consider: even if he decides to break with every tradition.
That's true for Disney as well, even more so, considering, that Disney brought from his travels to Europe numerous books (mostly of the 19th and early 20th century) illustrated by Gustave Doré, Grandville, Rabier, Wilhelm Busch, Hermann Vogel, Arthur Rackham, Ludwig Richter and many others, and added them to the library of his studios: as means of inspiration for his artists. In the early years he had also some illustrators on his payroll that had already been acclaimed illustrators in their home-countries: Kay Nielsen and Gustaf Tenggren, for example. And then, of course, there is the whole "visual context" aspect: paintings and schulptures, even early films, that inspired Disney's visual and narrative.
But, and there are many buts to follow, there is not only the European influence! To single the American influence out, to ignore the Golden Age of American illustration with Wyeth, Parrish etc., and the American film history (!) results in a completely one-sided and lastly false picture. At least the French/English exhibition catalogue (published by Prestel) mentions the equally important American influences. The German exhibition shows only European examples, only Murnau and Lang films, and then paintings and sculptures from European artists mostly of the 19th and early 20th century that are supposed to illustrate the art historian context for different aspects of the Disney films. For example Stuck's and Böcklin's pans and fauns as inspiration for Fantasia, or Anster Fitzgeralds A Midsummer Night's Dream for Tinkerbell... And, sorry, but these paintings and sculptures seem so randomly selected that one can only understand the visitor who asks: what's with all the old paintings? - They are just not well enough selected to work as examples for something as complex as the Victorian fairy painting, or the German Romantic movement with C. D. Friedrich and Carus.
Even more problematic is that some of the exhibited illustrated books of Doré, Richter, etc., were from the Disney library, but others were not. Sorry, but you cannot show a random Ludwig Richter book and say it was an inspiration without giving the exact proof: in this case at least the proof that Disney had purchased this book, and not another, and (the book being property of the Studios library) was actually accessible for the Disney artists. That's the minimum of a scientific approach I would have expected: a library catalogue would have been even better.
So, even though I am quite convinced that the curators were working hard to accomplish this exhibition, the main goal of the exhibition - to show Disney's European influences - was only partially achieved: there were the Disney works and then there were the European artifacts that seemed more like a random associative conglomerate of European art than a true "search for traces" of influences.

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