Inspiring Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Wallace Collection
Inspiring Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Wallace Collection | Review of the exhibition
April 6, 2022
Once upon a time, in a distant land, there was a small kingdom. Peaceful, prosperous and rich in romance and tradition…
Well, maybe not that far. That peculiar little kingdom is the Wallace Collection, a few blocks behind Oxford Street in the town center stately home of Hertford House. However, it is rich in romance and tradition.
Inspiring Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts is curated by Helen Jacobson with Wolf Burchard and opens here after a run at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show explores Walt Disney’s personal fascination with France and French culture and how his animation studios looked like when he was 18and-century French works of art as raw material. Disney first encountered French culture as an ambulance driver in Paris after the 1918 armistice and it clearly marked his entire life.
There are homemade footage from a trip Disney, his wife and brother took to Versailles in 1935. The rapid, exaggerated gestures of those filmed make one wonder how much of this is due to the jerky quality of the old movie and how exciting is it. to this new technology. The show establishes a strong conceptual link between the new pottery techniques developed in the 1750s and the new animation technique nearly two hundred years later. A biscuit porcelain figurine of a child looking into a magic lantern (c. 1750) technically demonstrates the progress of porcelain (ripples in the fabric of clothing appear to have weight and movement) and also the sense of wonder before new. Both mediums must have seemed magical to their audience.
The show explores the idea of objects as storytellers. Two porcelain dancers from the Hochst factory (circa 1758) still suggest movement in the gazes of their heads and the delicate angles of their hands, more than 250 years after they had been returned to that position forever. The figurines are associated with images from a first short film, The clock dancewhere two characters prance a gavotte.
A magnificent knee-hole writing table attributed to Bernard I van Risenburgh (c. 1715) tells the classic story of an unimpressed goddess, Diana, caught bathing and turning the intruder into a deer, marquetry. Mother-of-pearl is used to represent the swimming pool. It is a work of exquisite genius.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s work is perhaps the most emblematic of the French aesthetic influence on Disney. The swing. It is clear to see the link: in the color palette; layering foliage and other background decor to create depth; anthropomorphism (if you look closely, the lady’s poodle is both horrified and delighted by the scene before him); romance; and playfulness, as the fainting lover prepares to catch the silk slipper thrown free from his lady’s aristocratic foot.
The show highlights the spirit and fantasy of the Rococo style, which Disney artists clearly drew inspiration from. You remember someone had the wit to see a stool like cantankerous dog barking at Mickey Mouse and giving Mrs. Potts the teapot of the reddened circles on her “face”. Sketches for the Aladdin carpet in various “moods” show how the animators could imbue recognizable human emotion into something that didn’t even have limbs, let alone anything resembling a face.
Cinderella, 1950, Mary Blair, Concept art, gouache on board © Disney
Cinderella, 1950, Studio Disney Artist, Background painting, gouache on paper © Disney
The further you go into the exposition, the more persuasive and stimulating it becomes. This inspires questions: how much did Cinderella (released in 1950) influence the 1950s concept of the ideal housewife, if at all? Her dresses have a silhouette similar to Dior’s New Look. To what extent did she influence the dominant ideal of a petite female equal? As with many notions of the feminine ideal, Cinderella’s tiny, tiny feet would have been very impractical: constantly planting your face because you can’t balance yourself wouldn’t have been very elegant. How much does the fantasy of an enchanted world populated by inanimate objects that are in fact not only animate but actively useful owe to the indifferent post-war brutality that Disney witnessed at just 16?
A highlight of the show are the stills of Cinderella’s magical transformation from rags to riches. The sequence required 24 drawings per second and you see them here, with hand-drawn fairy dust and sparkles, the illusion of weight in Cinderella’s dress and ballet arm movements. Looking behind the curtain of illusion risks spoiling the magic but here, counterintuitively, it just adds to it. The same could be said of the entire exhibition. Whatever the subject, any look behind the workings of genius is fascinating. This show highlights how one man’s vision (as it usually was until recently) can change the world if it’s singular and strong enough.
Cinderella may not have been redheaded or had a Caribbean crustacean sidekick (and thus will always be inferior to Ariel for this reviewer’s inner child) but this show lacks nothing. You don’t want to leave even if, as soon as you do, you want to see the films he presents. Surely, there can be no greater compliment to this alluring show than this.
Images: The Wallace Collection
Inspiring Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts is at the Wallace Collection from 6and until April 16and October 2022. For more information visit the exhibition website here.