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The Met Illuminates Walt Disney’s French Fairytale Influences

Metropolitan Museum of Art Disney exhibition

With refreshingly blunt honesty, one of the earliest walls of text in the exhibition asks the very important question, ‘It’s Disney, but is it art?’

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Visiting “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts,” which opened recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is like enjoying a fine bottle of champagne to mark the slowly but steadily improving state of the museum world. It’s hard to think back now and recall that, at the beginning of this year, there were no exhibitions for a peripatetic art critic to see; now, there are far too many to fit into his schedule.

Fortunately, The Met’s latest installation is worth everyone seeing and enjoying, not so much because it’s enlightening (which it is), but for the sheer pleasure of it. Walt Disney (1901-1966) needs no introduction, but his connection to fine French art and design probably does. The 17-year-old Walt managed to leave Chicago and get over to France to serve with the Red Cross, just as World War I was ending.

Although he did not get to see any action himself, as his older brothers did, he did get to see some of the grand houses set in the French countryside, as well as visit museum collections, and this became but the first of many subsequent trips to Europe. Knowing this background provides an interesting insight into what came later, for there is something very French in both feel and appearance in many of the Disney versions of classic European fairy tales.

Gallery view of “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.

With refreshingly blunt honesty, one of the earliest walls of text in the exhibition asks the very important question, “It’s Disney, but is it art?” For those who are at least somewhat familiar with “Fantasia” (1940), that question might be easier to answer, but the great strength of this show is to take the more familiar characters, objects, and locations from childhood memory, and juxtapose them alongside the types of things that spurred the imagination of Disney and his team to create these films.

The exhibition also challenges visitors to think about where the line between high art and popular culture actually runs, and The Met is more than happy to help explore that question: after all, “The Vultures” (c. 1937), an image from “Snow White” (1937), has been in the museum’s permanent collection since all the way back in 1938.

Gallery view of “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.

“Inspiring Walt Disney” also celebrates the 30th anniversary of “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), a film Walt Disney had wanted to make but never managed to get off the ground. The material related to this film constitutes the largest single segment of the exhibition.

Gallery view of “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 10, 2021–March 6, 2022). Photo by Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met. © Disney.

In total, around 150 objects from Disney and his collaborators, including animation cells, concept art, drawings, and props from the 1930s through to the 1990s, are featured alongside antique French paintings, sculpture, furniture, and decorative objects, most from the 18th century. There are also video screens showing animation clips, to remind the visitor of how these inanimate objects were brought to life on film. It’s such an unusual show that I can only offer some of the juxtapositions I found striking in touring it.

There are the huge, richly illuminated manuscript pages from “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) in a glass case across from one of the famous late Medieval Unicorn Tapestries, which helped inspire the look of the film. An unusual 18th-century bracket clock with a face that looks, well, rather like a face is displayed next to some of the concept art for Cogsworth, the clock-butler from “Beauty and the Beast.” Nearby, a scarlet Louis XV sofa with gilded arms and legs is shown against a deep blue wall, near designs for the interior of the Beast’s castle, where the furniture tended to scurry about when you weren’t sitting on it.

Case attributed to André Charles Boulle (French, 1642–1732); After a design by Jean Berain (French, 1640–1711); Clock by Jacques III Thuret (1669–1738) or more likely his father, Isaac II Thuret (1630–1706) Clock with pedestal, ca. 1690. Case and pedestal of oak with marquetry of tortoiseshell, engraved brass, and pewter; gilt bronze; dial of gilt brass with white enameled Arabic numerals; movement of brass and steel. 87 1/4 x 13 3/4 x 11 3/8 in. (221.6 x 34.9 x 28.9 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1958 (58.53a–c).
Beauty and the Beast, 1991. Peter J. Hall. Concept art. Watercolor, marker and graphite on paper 23 7/8 × 18 in. (60.6 × 45.7 cm). Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney.

Then there are the most over-the-top Sèvres Rococo vases you can imagine, complete with lids that make them look like models for some vanished chateau built for Madame du Pompadour. These are, appropriately enough, grouped together and surrounded by a series of original plans and elevations for the various Disney castles, which any architect or engineer would love to pore over.

In short, everywhere you look in this show, there’s a wealth of material to pause and marvel at, as well as learn from. Even the doorways separating the galleries are designed to look like they are from a castle in a Disney fairy tale film.

Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, Disneyland Paris, 1988. Frank Armitage. Gouache and acrylic on board 45 x 21 in. Walt Disney Imagineering Collection. © Disney.

I was immediately struck by the richness of color in many of the objects contained in this show, and of course this is no accident. From a stylistic standpoint, the luxury on display in Disney’s work, particularly in “Cinderella” (1950), was the antithesis to the sunsetting, drab era in which it was screened.

“There is certainly no question,” notes Wolf Burchard, author of the exhibition catalog that accompanies the exhibition, that both Hollywood and designers at this time “set out to exhaust the full spectrum of the Baroque and Rococo in response to post-War and post-Depression austerity.”

We forget that for many years, both before and after World War II, there had been shortages of all kinds of consumer goods. With the optimism and leadership provided by America at the beginning of the 1950s, things took a brighter, more colorful turn in both cinemas and homes; Disney was a fundamental part of that sunnier outlook.

Sèvres Manufactory (French, 1740–present). After a model by Etienne-Maurice Falconet (French, 1716–1791). Based on a design by François Boucher (French, 1703–1770). The Magic Lantern, ca. 1760. Soft-paste biscuit porcelain. 6 1/8 × 6 3/4 × 5 1/4 in. (15.6 × 17.1 × 13.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Ella Morris de Peyster, 1957 (58.60.10).

Yet if this brings back notions of what happened by the time of “Sleeping Beauty,” with suburbia and large families spread out all over the place, it also brings us back to where we came in, wondering why The Met would put on a show juxtaposing rare, luxury art objects of the 18th century with pop-culture flotsam and jetsam from (roughly) the middle of the 20th. Yet all of us, even pretentious art critics, were children once. We were caught up in magical tales and our own imaginations, as Disney himself was.

He just managed to hold on to that sense of the wonder of creation and imagination, the seen and the unseen, and kept bringing it back over and over again for both children and adults to enjoy. That sense of wonder is still all around us, even in the midst of all of the ugliness coming out of our screens, if we are willing to look for it, and then stop and let it in when we find it.

Sèvres Manufactory (French, 1740–present). Jean-Claude Duplessis (French, ca. 1695–1774, active 1748–74). Vase (vase à tête d’éléphant) (one of a pair), ca. 1758. Soft-paste porcelain. 15 7/16 × 10 5/16 × 6 1/4 in. (39.2 × 26.2 × 15.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1958 (58.75.91a, b).

Case in point, during the press preview, I noticed one of the journalists in attendance sitting on a bench in a darkened corner of the exhibition. She was dimly lit from above by a gilt-bronze Rococo chandelier, and by the video screen across from her seat. For several minutes, she sat in enraptured solitude, watching the ballroom scene from “Beauty and the Beast” play over and over. And there was a tremendous look of joy on her face.

“Is it art?” Who cares? Go, have a great time, and learn something—and by all means, take the kids.

“Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through March 6, 2022, after which it will travel to the Wallace Collection in London. Be sure to check with the appropriate museum regarding their respective ticketing and Covid policies.

A sumptuously illustrated hardcover catalog is available if you can’t make it to either during the show’s run, which would be a great Christmas present for the Disney fan in your life, or for that hard-to-shop-for person who seems to have everything, as this is quite unique.