Art museums have a really hard time dealing with the Hollywood product in a coherent and illuminating way. Mass culture and art culture are not the same thing, so the usual curatorial strategies often run aground.
The latest example is “Inspiring Walt Disney: Animation of the French Decorative Arts,” which has just opened at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. The plan is to show how 20th-century Hollywood looks to 18th-century Rococo Europe as we search for visual sources for everything from Sleeping Beauty’s Disneyland castle to the celluloid Cinderella’s ball gown.
And for “Beauty and the Beast” in particular—look, it’s just in time for this week’s 30th anniversary TV special, which remakes Disney’s beloved 1991 animated musical show on ABC-TV and Disney+. (Apparently, the + is extra for the anniversary in question.) Lucky isn’t he?
Or at least tacky, like the cartoon murals in the galleries where the show is set. Swinging stairs and ormo furniture, a relatively small handful of 18th-century French and German decorative objects – teapots, candlesticks, dinnerware, a long clock, and the like – plus engravings, book illustrations, poster graphics, some tourist souvenirs, a few Paris, Hong Movie clips and concept art for various Disney projects, including theme parks in Kong and Anaheim.
Mostly piffles. A single moment of pleasure finally comes when two pairs of frantic “tower vases” for potpourri, each about six feet tall, show up.
They are attributed to the sculptor and designer of Sèvres porcelain, Etienne-Maurice Falconet, most commonly St. Petersburg, Russia, they are best known for their massive, 1782 bronze statue of Peter the Great on horseback. Huntington purchased one pair of vases in 1927, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York purchased the other pair in 1956. mug cartridges and jewel-toned colors. We are in the visual environment of Sleeping Beauty’s imaginary castle, mostly inspired by Neuschwanstein, a real 19th century castle in the Bavarian Alps.
Held in London, where it was previously watched by the Met and the Wallace Collection, the show was downsized to be presented at Huntington. New York’s list of 60 works of 18th-century European decorative art and design has largely fallen to San Marino’s 19th and is now filled with a massive display of Huntington’s own Sèvres dinnerware. At the top of the dishware pyramid is a curved candle holder intended to evoke Kevin Lima’s sleek design for Lumière, the film’s homemaker, who has been transformed into a living candlestick by a ruthless sorcerer.
In some ways, this much smaller version is an advantage. We’re not talking about gripping art galore here, or illuminating cultural rocket science. After all, looking to 18th-century European art for visual ideas isn’t exactly a genius idea if you’re going to make an animated feature film based on an 18th-century European romantic tale. The period between Charles Perrault, who wrote moral fiction in France, and the Grimm Brothers, who wrote parables in Germany, represents the pinnacle of the fairy tale genre. What else would you do?
My eyes soon lit up when I saw the show at the Met in spring, where its fine foundation stretched endlessly in every room. A gold swirl ornament from a candlestick transferred to the interior design of the cinematic Beast’s Castle, I’ve seen it all. Smaller is definitely better on Huntington.
One problem with the show is that none of the objects in it are a particular inspiration for the animator’s cartoons. Everything is general, vague and loose. Potts, the motherly chef of the Beast’s kitchen and Chris Sanders cheerfully sketched in crayons, resembles the stout German tile teapot on display in a nearby window display. The Lumière is not as flamboyant as the flamboyant Huntington candle.
Close enough? Not superficially, not really – but you get the idea.
The difference between public and private is fundamental to the difference between mass culture and art culture, but the show does not touch upon the critical distinction. Instead, you think the museum, perhaps unintentionally, has swelled its legitimacy for Hollywood cartoons with an artistic pedigree that Disney didn’t need. The animated rag-to-riches fantasy of something like “Beauty and the Beast” is pretty remarkable on its own.
This was Walt Disney’s idea of bringing European high culture to American audiences. Look at the turbulent saga of “Fantasia” (which film critics love most and classical critics mostly hate) (Igor Stravinsky, whose music featured in the film, said “it’s disgusting”), and after failing that, he invented something original. period.
It’s probably instructive that Disney collects trinkets, not art, to bring back to Burbank on their European travels. The show showcases miniature furniture, small appliances, and plates of souvenirs he bought. Gewgaws was as much an inspiration to him as the superior workshops of Sèvres or Fragonard’s studio.
A startling omission: Although fermented, powdered tobacco from Europe’s plundered colonies is the addictive drug of choice for idle aristocrats, the show doesn’t have lavishly decorated snuff boxes. Given that generations of American consumers have been obsessed with indulging in the modern ritual of watching dancing hippos and swirling mushrooms of “Fantasia,” this seems like a missed opportunity.
Also missing: the largest single object of the original array.
Jean Honoré Fragonard’s famous sparkling painting of a forest play, “Swing” (circa 1767), the Wallace Collection’s signature canvas, was first featured as a model for an opening sequence in Beauty and the Beast, but was later cut from the film . It was also cut from the scaled-down display, which may have added some clarity.
How? The glittering painting is rarely used, but its full title is “Happy Luck on the Swing,” as the remarkable painting shows a young lady’s raunchy pink dress floating in the breeze as she rides a velvet swing in a lavishly enclosed garden. “Happy luck” is an unexpected opportunity for her lover, who kicks back, lying face down in the bushes below, to catch a glimpse of the target of her enthusiasm hidden in all those fluctuating petticoats.
Forget Disney. The real Hollywood parallel is Billy Wilder’s mockery of Marilyn Monroe chilling her private quarters on the breezy subway grill in “The Seven Year Itch.” Happy luck to Uptown MTA.
Eighteenth-century French decorative art is nothing if not depravedly obscene—words not often added to Disney’s art, which has made French decorative arts as sterile as it revives. One’s sensual, sexually stimulating indulgences are about 180 degrees from the other’s chaste, G-grade commitments. What matters are the differences between the two, but this spectacle also applies to the superficial similarities between art culture and mass culture. The explicit intentions of each are left out.
No sex, no drugs – inspiration is real but shallow, not deep. While it can be entertaining at times, so is this exhibit.
“Inspiring Walt Disney: Animation of French Decorative Arts”
Where: Boone Gallery, Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: 10:00 – 17:00 from Wednesday to Monday. Closed on Tuesdays. until March 27.
Cost: $13 to $29
Information: (626) 405-2100, www.huntington.org