Matisse Picasso and Disney

A new exhibition puts the man who gave us Mickey in pretty exalted company

JAIME J. WEINMAN March 12 2007

Matisse Picasso and Disney

A new exhibition puts the man who gave us Mickey in pretty exalted company

JAIME J. WEINMAN March 12 2007

Matisse Picasso and Disney

A new exhibition puts the man who gave us Mickey in pretty exalted company


Walt Disney was a European at heart. Or that’s the impression a museum exhibition is trying to give. Once Upon a Time... Walt Disney premiered at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris, which usually hosts the likes of Matisse and Picasso. Now the exhibition arrives in Canada on March 8 at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts for its only North American showing (for now). Bruno Girveau, the man responsible for the show, told Maclean’s why it has caught on with audiences and even critics in France: “It’s a huge surprise to see that even if Walt Disney was not a cultivated man, he was interested in European culture and literature and music.”


Girveau is the chief curator in charge of collections for the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. An intense-looking man with spectacles and a stubble of beard, he has been trying to find a way to mount a Disney exhibition since the mid-’90s, when he was watching Disney’s classic animated films with his kids and realized how good they were. But he knew that it would be tough to get one of the most famous representatives of American corporate culture into a Continental museum. “It was impossible, especially in France, to do such an exhibition, about a man who is for the French the baton of mass culture,” he told Ben Simon at (which featured comprehensive coverage of the Paris exhibition).

Finally Girveau hit on a way to make Disneyana acceptable even to the most hardened

veau, was the key to making Disney respectable for a non-mass audience.

Girveau’s exhibition places Disney in the so-called canon of European art by showing

art snobs. He found his inspiration in a 2000 book by cultural historian Robin Allan, called Walt Disney and Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney. As you can guess from the title, it was about various European artists whose work had an impact on the look and style of Disney’s films. Allan, who consulted on the exhibition, pointed out that many Disney movies took their cues from classic Western painting, sculpture and architecture. And that, for Gir-

bits from Disney films side-by-side with older art that looks somewhat similar. A storyboard for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with the heroine wandering through the dark and scary forest, is juxtaposed with a similarly dark, scary forest from the 19th-century French illustrator Gustave Doré. A collaborator of Disney’s, the Swiss painter Albert

Hurter, is singled out for incorporating turnof-the-century German art styles into animation. “He knew very well all the German symbolist painters,” Girveau says, “and I think it’s very unexpected to see that the Pastoral Symphony in Fantasia is directly influenced by those painters.”

Even live-action cinema gets into the act, with a collection of movie clips that were referenced in Disney cartoons. The witch’s terrifying transformation sequence in Snow White was influenced by German expressionist movies like F ritz Lang’s Metropolis. There are American movies in there too, like King Kong, but the overall point seems to be that Disney could be as arty as any foreign film.

This focus on Disney’s sources has paid off in critical acceptance. “In France, there is a very strong anti-American feeling,” Girveau explains, “and we were afraid of a bad reaction. But it was really a surprise for everyone to see how many influences Walt Disney introduced in his movies, unexpected influences like German expressionist cinema. So even in the cultural world, people realized that the movies of Walt Disney are works of art.”

Of course, since Disney didn’t do much drawing himself after he became a producer, an exhibition of “Disney” art is really about the art of the people who worked under his supervision. And in a museum context, it helps that the collection doesn’t just feature animation drawings: Disney commissioned full-scale paintings from so-called concept artists, to demonstrate what a film should look like. The works of Mary Blair, which inspired unique colour schemes that were incorporated into movies like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland (not to mention inspiring a fan website called “Mary Blair Cannot

Be Killed!”), don’t look that much like the final designs, but they do look a lot like paint-

ings you’d expect to find in a museum.

The fact that Disney depended on so many different artists actually helps the exhibition look more artistic and museum-worthy. You can’t always tell from the movies, which were homogenized into what Girveau calls the “Disney style,” but his artists created background paintings or animation sketches that

are not very Hollywood-like. Girveau devotes a lot of space to Sleeping Beauty and its designer, Ervind Earle. Earle’s idea was to give the movie the

flat look of pre-Renaissance paintings, and his backgrounds hang in the museum as an example of how Disney allowed his employ-

ees to paint in a classic European style. Girveau doesn’t speculate on whether that might have contributed to Sleeping Beauty’s underperformance at the box office.

There’s not much talk about Disney’s failures or setbacks here, let alone his artistic limitations. Girveau has understandably tried to sidestep the kitschy side of Disney, his infamous tendency to take literary and artistic sources and dumb them down. But you can still see it here and there in the exhibition; when you look at some of the paintings or drawings, and then compare them to the movies we know, you can get the impression that something was lost. As a producer, Disney guided his artists to create a finished product that would reflect his vision; but that means that artistic personalities were swallowed up like Monstro the whale swallowing Pinocchio. And it’s the opposite of what an art museum usually stands for: the celebration of individual artists and their styles.

And all this focus on peripheral things—the artworks that mildly influenced Dis-

ney, or the paintings that were made in preproduction—could be seen as sidestepping the big question: what are we to make of the finished artistic creations, the movies themselves? In an essay on his website,, animation historian Michael Barrier attacked the exhibition for its display of what he called “Disneyism”—“defining the best qualities of

the Disney films in terms that foreclose discussion of what actually makes the films worth watching.” For Barrier, the exhibition spends all its time on pointless attempts to link the Disney films with various sources of artistic inspiration, instead of trying to come to grips with the real Disney style: Disney’s achievement was “the creation of a new and tremen-

dously potent kind of figurai art,” but you wouldn’t know it from exhibits with titles like “Dali and Disney.”


Still, if Once Upon a Time... Walt Disney doesn’t necessarily tell us what made Disney great, it showcases a lot of great art, from inside and outside the Disney studio. Didier Ghez of disneybooks. was just happy to see Disney’s animators

and concept artists get their due alongside the works of great Europeans. “As all of you know,” he wrote, “Disney’s artists’ works do not pale in front of those of those masters.” Maybe that’s what really matters at a museum: it’s good for art to be European, but it’s even better to be good. And Disney’s people were good. M