The art of Disney

The art of Disney

Walt Disney deserves more than the video store. He should be in the museums

Walt Disney deserves more than the video store. He should be in the museums
In art museums across the world,someone who really ought to be there is missing. They’ve left Walt Disney out. Though handmade,Disney’s drawings were made with a studio-factory of his own devising. They’re active and rounded and juvenile,and they perform; they’re wholesome and scary,fantastical,folklorical and eerily transmissible. They put into the century a new mode of depiction that wasn’t there when it started but was everywhere when it closed.

Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) grew up in the middle of the country,on its farms and in its cities and little unpaved towns,a skinny,strangely gifted kid drawing flip-books for his pals. His art looks American,but not entirely,Disney having gotten a serious jolt of Europe when he drove ambulances in France during World War I. Once he’d seen “Paree”,young Disney did not go back to the farm. Instead,he found his way to Hollywood,where,starting in 1928 with Steamboat Willie,he made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,Pinocchio,Fantasia—astonishing things.

Officialdom once cheered him,Harvard and Yale gave him honorary doctorates on two successive days in 1938,but today if you go into the art museums you won’t find him,only his reflections.

There’s a Mickey Mouse at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and another at the National Gallery of Art. The Hirshhorn’s is a cartoony-constructivist,round-eared,square-eyed,steel-and-aluminum “Geometric Mouse” by Claes Oldenburg,1971. The gallery’s is an early Roy Lichtenstein oil,“Look Mickey”,1961,in which he’s fishing with Donald Duck. These aren’t Disney’s; they’re there only because pop is unthinkable without him. Andy Warhol multiplied the mouse and sprinkled diamond dust on his “Double Mickey” (1981),a silk screen that brought $113,525 at Sotheby’s in 2002.


Disney’s exclusion isn’t a conspiracy. Too much of what he made,especially later,looks robotic,less the output of an artist than the merchandise of a brand. And not even his best work is comfortably collected. What would you buy—his throwaway sketches,individual frames other artists painted,reels of film,DVDs?

Still,he deserves more than the video store. Disney was the one who made drawing move. Earlier artists had explored animation—Georges Melies in France,Winsor McCay in America—but only tentatively. Disney went way beyond them. First he got rid of its jerkiness,and then he made it sing (When You Wish Upon a Star,Whistle While You Work,Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?) and coloured it.

Neal Gabler’s 2007 biography reports that Disney’s studio ground all of its own watercolour pigments,installed a spectrophotometer to measure them precisely and kept 1,200 distinct colours on its shelves. “Practically every tool we use today,” said Chuck Jones,of Bugs Bunny,Porky Pig,Wile E. Coyote and Looney Tunes fame,“originated at the Disney studio.”

No wonder Salvador Dali came to work with Disney,who shared the creepiness,the mining of memory,dream and irrational juxtaposition that we attribute to the best of surrealists. “The night of our meeting,” wrote Dali,“I spent almost entirely without sleep.” Disney’s most surreal episode is the one in which Dumbo,drunk by accident,zooms off into a hallucination of blaring trombones,pink elephants,morphing blobs and infinite regressions.

Another surreal quality of his animation is its animism. Disney breathed bits of his living self into all his dancing toadstools,hippos and marching mops. The waves in the storm scene in Pinocchio aren’t water,they’re also monsters. Bambi is as much a person as a deer,but he sure looks like a deer. While creating him,the Disney studio brought in all the deer film it could find.
Our electrical,shiny,noisy 21st-century art brings with it a distinctive past just as much as painting does. It legitimises retrospectively the art Walt Disney made.
_Paul Richard,LATWP