“Inspiring Walt Disney: Animation of French Decorative Arts,” which opened this month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a classic holiday exhibit: family-friendly, frothy, not asking for much weight. And like the holiday season itself, its promise is a bit overrated.
The exhibition traces, often in granular detail, the disparate elements of European aesthetic movements that Disney animators, around 600 strong in the late 1930s, swept away in his films: French rococo in “La Belle et the Beast ”(1991); Neo-Gothic architecture in “Cinderella” (1950), late Middle Ages and early Dutch art in “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), 19th century Germanic romanticism in “Snow White” ( 1937). All of these stories originate in Europe, so the idea that the Disney machine rooted its visual interpretation in European art isn’t as big a leap as, say, the staging of “Hamlet” in Manhattan in the time of the year 2000.
As the title suggests, there are many 18th century French gilt bronze and whorl candlesticks and molasses biscuit porcelain figurines, but there is also, thanks to the four Disney films included in the thesis, a good part of german, dutch, and british examples as well. And these pieces, 60 in total and largely from the museum’s own collection, are more than two-to-one outnumbered by objects on loan directly from Disney: 150 pieces of concept art, works on paper, and footage from films from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library. , The Walt Disney Archives, The Walt Disney Imagineering Collection, and The Walt Disney Family Museum, which may make an exhibit viewer feel like Alice is falling into the rabbit hole in a sponsored content article. (The Met says the show is not underwritten by Disney, which I’m not sure makes this level of sanctioned corporate capriccio better or worse).
The original “Beauty and the Beast” is a rococo-era fairy tale written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, and later popularized by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. (Jean Cocteau also made a popular film version, in 1946). None of these three treatments featured anthropomorphized Boulle clocks and teapots with inexplicably English accents, considered Disney’s triumph. The exhibition credits which flourish, however, to Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, whose 1742 novel, “The sofa, a moral tale”, tells the story of a man punished for his lack of sincerity by having his soul condemned to inhabit sofas until he witnesses a true declaration of affection.
The exhibit explains that this ancestor was unknown to Disney animators and attributes the company’s invention to serendipity. The Met tries to base this section with a sumptuous red velvet sofa (ottoman nightlight) dated around 1760, to show its Rococo roots.
While there is no bad excuse for looking at a magnificent Sèvres sofa or table service, richly adorned and miraculously complete around 1775, as also seen here, its implicit affinity with the back kitchen duo ” Beauty and the Beast ”from Disney’s Ms. Potts (morphed into a teapot) and her son Chip (a cup of tea) feels wan and contradictory. In fact, we learn that Disney animators found it impossible to translate Rococo’s sinuous lines, settling on sterilized stylistic expression instead. This is the most disappointing seen here in the cartoon costumes for its male characters: Rococo’s flamboyance has been toned down so as not to alienate American concepts of masculinity. A historically correct Gaston would have appreciated a richly embroidered waistcoat and ruffled frill, rather than a plain V-neck whose only adornment was its plunging neckline.
Beyond the visuals, there is a closer parallel between Disney’s goal of mass entertainment and the shallow expression of Rococo pleasure that remains unexplored in the show (the exhibit is curated by Wolf Burchard, associate curator at Met). The two schools reflect the myopic optimism of their creators, Rococo, with its excess of ornamentation, its palette of pastel colors and its curved shapes evoking youth and eroticism; Disney with its flattened ideas of good and evil and tidy endings. This optimism paid off better for Disney than Rococo, whose aristocratic decadence helped spark the French Revolution.
The exhibition is content with forced rhymes, such as the suggestion that a restless still life of a buffet by Alexandre François Desportes (1661-1743) perhaps resembles the choir line with dancing candlesticks from “Be Our Guest” , and that the satyr who presides over the feast table has a kinship with Light.
One of Disney’s most obvious and enduring influences is Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, a 19th-century historicist confectionery built in honor of Richard Wagner. It’s the direct model of Disney theme park centerpieces around the world and multiple iterations of its logo, so it’s surprising that Neuschwanstein only makes a brief appearance towards the end of the exhibit. Although to be fair, “Inspiring Walt Disney, the animation of the Burgenromantik” doesn’t stumble so easily.
You’d think Disney would object to the Met’s analysis of their appropriation techniques, but the exhibit is careful not to use the “A” word (the extensive catalog addresses this idea more fully). Disney films are “influenced” and “inspired” by European art rather than wholesale lifts of it. But the exhibition would be better served by locating Disney’s work in the continuum of the lightly veiled flight that animates the history of art. There is no shame in stealing, as Rubens’ copies of Titian upstairs attest.
Instead, the exhibition provides a fascinating, albeit unintentional, analysis of the particularly American compulsion to take European ideas and make them a little worse (coffee culture, bread, democracy) and of the compulsion of companies to make these ideas a little worse.
The most interesting artefacts provided by Disney are the concept art panels of its famous animators – the brightly colored and almost abstract gouaches of Mary Blair; the deeply layered background paintings by Eyvind Earle; soft pastels evocative of Mel Shaw; and Kay Nielsen’s lavish preparatory sketches, all of which were largely thrown or flattened, depending on the exhibit, in the realism of Disney’s matte finish. They look utterly alien to their final counterparts, and one can’t help but fantasize about the richness of these films had they been true to their artists’ vision.
Is Disney Releasing Art? It’s not really a question that troubles the exhibition, but one that the exhibition insists on printing in large print anyway, presumably to anticipate criticism. In 1938, we learn in the series, when the Met accepted Disney’s gift of an animated film of “Snow White” into its collection, Walt Disney cunningly suggested that many of the old masters that he would join would make good employees, even as the man who was arguably the biggest employer of artists in the country billed as the rube (“Well, take da Vinci. He was a great partner for the experiments. He could have been to tinker as he pleases by working for us… But don’t ask me anything about art. I don’t know. ”).
Today as then, the Met positions its current Disney inclusion in the same bold vision, as if Disney were still a cutting-edge animation studio and not the world’s largest entertainment IP conglomerate.
Self-awareness is not necessary; Disney transcended the high-low debate a long time ago. A better question is whether a large arts institution devoting programming to a multi-billion dollar corporate giant is best serving an audience (the Met allows Conde Nast to do this once a year, of course, with his Costume Institute Gala).
The moment you’re spat in Petrie’s European Sculpture Court, it’s hard to tell who this is all for. Decorative arts enthusiasts are likely to balk at the dilution of form, much of which is visible elsewhere in the museum without commercial interruption; and it’s doubtful that the Disney finalists, who may be enraged in their devotion, have a rococo-shaped hole in their hearts.
“Children believe what you tell them and they don’t question it,” says the preface to “Beauty and the Beast” by Cocteau. Naivety certainly helps here, too. I saw a little girl in a tulle tutu trying to climb a display case of Meissen porcelain statuettes by Johann Joachim Kändler, particularly enchanted by a group, a fox accompanying a singer on the harpsichord. She was having a good time.
Inspiring Walt Disney: French Decorative Arts Animation
Until March 6, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.