True Magic

‘Inspiring Walt Disney’ colors The Huntington

By Leah Schwartz

For most when thinking of Disney movies and its parks, childhood comes to mind — with every memory tinged with a warm, safe glow. 

This is especially true for Southern California, where Disney made its home. The connection with timeless Disney classics and Disneyland is palpable. 

The Huntington Library’s MaryLou and George Boone Gallery is the third venue to host the exhibition “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts,” originally shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then at the Wallace Collection in London. 

Running through March 27, it all began in 1923 with the inception of Disney Studios. 

The exhibit is the first museum exhibition devoted to Walt Disney in this part of the world since 1914, when “Fantasia” was released.

“For those of us in Southern California, Disney is all around us,” says Melinda McCurdy, curator of English art at The Huntington.

“And so I feel like this show here in this place is really special and really important that we’re doing it. This audience is built in.”

Wolf Burchard originally curated the exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He said “everybody can relate to Disney in one form or another and will have a reaction either positive or negative.”

The exhibit explores Walt Disney’s fascination with 18th-century French and European Rococo aesthetics and decorative arts, inspiring his films and theme parks. 

The collection features roughly 50 pieces of 18th-century European design and decorative art, many of which are from The Huntington’s own collection and will be shown alongside hand-drawn production artworks from the Walt Disney Archives, Walt Disney Animation Research Library, Walt Disney Imagineering Collection and the Walt Disney Family Museum. 

Born in 1901 under modest circumstances, Walt Disney served as an ambulance driver in France following World War I. It was during this time that he first became enamored with European art. On his second trip to Europe in 1935, he acquired 335 art and illustrated books, a few of which are on display at the exhibit. This collection became a source of aesthetic inspiration for Disney artists for years to come.

Strolling through The Huntington’s gallery, guests will see original storyboard sketches of Cinderella’s iconic transformation. 

“The idea of the potential transformation is really important in this exhibition, which of course is part of the fantasy and imagination,” Burchard explains.

Museumgoers will also see hand-drawn scenes from Disney’s arguably most Rococo film, “Beauty and the Beast,” which is set in 18th-century France and was completed after Walt Disney’s death in 1966. The animators nod to the era with the film’s costumes and architecture. An essential reference was the famous ballroom scene, which was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Burchard recounted how Disney animators decided to establish the ballroom scene.

“I want to make the point that we’re not saying that this is the source of inspiration that Disney artists use and that they tried to replicate that, because they’re obviously creative artists in their own right. They want to create something new,” Burchard says. 

“So that’s the starting point. And then they realize that Belle and the Beast are dancing the waltz, so they turn around in circles. So it would be much better to create a circular or oval room. And that’s what they ended up doing. And this is an important scene in the history of animation because it’s the first CGI interior ever created.”

The exhibit, which aligns with Disney Studios’ 100th anniversary, speaks to how Disney has evolved over the years and its timeless appeal. 

“We know the French decorative arts in the hands of incredibly talented Disney artists, inkers and animators have changed the lives of all,” says Christina Nielsen, the director of the art collections at The Huntington.

“This show is incredible for showing the way the historical artworks, several hundred years old that were incredibly vivid and lavish in their time, in the hands of Disney Studios became very lifelike.”

Disney animation studios and 18th decorative art workshops were spaces of collaboration. One Disney film alone is produced by hundreds of animators — just as one decorative art piece might have passed through 40 to 50 artisans. 

“So what this exhibition does is that it brings together two forms of artistic expression that may at first seem worlds apart,” Burchard says. 

“On the one hand, you have Disney hand-drawn animation made for a large international audience, and then on the other, you have Rococo, decorative works of art made for a small European elite. And yet, when you bring those two worlds together, you will find many areas of overlap in their artistic intuition and workshop practices in the advances they’ve pushed in design and technology.

“Neither of those two forms of artistic expression can be really put into a particular category. People ask, ‘Is animation art?’ This is a question that nobody will ever be able to answer, and the same is true of decorative arts. Decorative arts are really the kind of an underdog in traditional art because they’re not architecture, they’re not painting, they’re not sculpture.”

At the heart of this exhibit and Walt Disney’s vision is imagination, which is the thread that ultimately connects the workshops of the 18th-century artisans to the Disney animators of the 20th century. 

“The term ‘magic’ is one that was always associated in the 18th century, with porcelain and then later with Disney Animation. It’s something that the people had never seen before.”

“Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts”

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Monday, March 27; closed Tuesdays

WHERE: The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino

COST: $25 general admission; weekend and Monday holiday reservations required 

INFO: huntington.org

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