Walt Disney’s Wonderful World

and its Roots in European Art

19 September 200825 January 2009

This fascinating, multimedia exhibition offered surprising new insights in the imagery of master storyteller Walt Disney (1901-1966). Whether young or old, everyone knows the classics of animated movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940) or The Jungle Book (1967). Still, only very few people realize how the images of these movies are deeply rooted in European art and literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the juxtaposition of original drawings, paintings, figure models and film clips produced by the early Walt Disney Studio (1928-1967), with paintings and sculptures by German Romantics, French Symbolists, Victorians or Surrealists, the exhibition revealed concrete relations between popular and high culture, between literature and film, as well as between American and European art.

The beginnings of the Walt Disney Studio

The exhibition started with a survey of Disney animation’s development: from early black and white animated shorts, such as Steamboat Willie (1928), one was guided towards the first full-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which signifies Disney’s breakthrough, and which raised the animated movie to the level of the Hollywood classics. The pioneering role of the Walt Disney Studio was demonstrated in this exhibition through rarely seen original sketches and paintings from the collection of the Disney Animation Research Library in Los Angeles. The Studio employed a team of international artists, as Walt Disney himself had abandoned drawing early on, in order to devote himself completely to his real talent, story telling. He concentrated on discovering literary and artistic sources, which he then had transformed by his highly gifted artists into masterpieces of animation.

Source of inspiration

When Walt Disney travelled through Europe in 1935, he acquired over 350 illustrated books, ranging from fairy tales to classics of literature and art history. This library became a crucial foundation for his Studio: artists like Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Breughel, Giovanni Piranesi, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Gustave Moreau, Victor Hugo, Arnold Böcklin, Franz von Stuck, Moritz von Schwind, Caspar David Friedrich, Gustav Carus, Edwin Landseer, John Anster Fitzgerald and John Atkinson Grimshaw can thus be pointed out as concrete visual sources of inspiration for the draughtsmen. This also applies to the works of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, which lead to a revival of Gothic architecture in the 19thcentury, or Castle Neuschwanstein, the principal creation of the Bavarian King Ludwig II, which were also familiar to Disney and his collaborators.

Artits from Europe

For his Studio, Disney only engaged the best artists, many of them immigrants from Europe, where they had received a classical academic art training; for example, the Swiss Albert Hurter (1883-1942), the Swede Gustaf Tenggren (1896-1970) or the Dane Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). They combined their extensive knowledge of European art and folklore of various epochs with the influences of their new home, the United States. These were the ideal conditions for creating a new visual language, which ultimately conquered the entire world.

Dalí and disney

Thus, in Munich, masterpieces of animation art created during Disney’s life were paired with masterpieces of art history which served as their sources of inspiration. The short movie Destino,which is based on collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dalí, marked the culmination of this exchange of visual mediums. Both geniuses had high esteem for each other, and Disney commissioned a short movie from the great surrealist, for which Dalí realised many sketches and paintings. The movie itself, however, was only realized posthumously in 2003 and was shown in the exhibition.

Under the title Il était une fois Walt Disney, aux sources de l’art des studios Disney, this exhibition was first presented in 2006-07 at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris and at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, meeting there with great success among audiences and critics alike. Commissioned by the French Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the curatorial team was led by Bruno Girveau, Guy Cogeval and Pierre Lambert. Bruno Girveau, chief curator at the Paris École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and Roger Diederen, curator of the Kunsthalle, adapted the exhibition for Munich with extraordinary new loans. After Munich, the show had its final presentation at the Helsinki City Art Museum (25.2.-31.5 2009). Besides the many private and public lenders from all over the world, we would like to extend special thanks to the Walt Disney Animation Research Library and the Musée d’Orsay for their generous support of this project.

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