Inspired and inspiring: a look at the visual language of Walt Disney

The dual exhibitions at The MET, NY, and the HNI in Rotterdam illustrate a narrative that connects Disney’s inspiration and his continued influence on contemporary design.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Mar 01, 2022

Walt Disney is a pivotal character; often referred to as a dream maker, he brought to life some of the most ambitious and loved stories of all time. While today Disney as a studio continues to grow in scale and influence with its acquisition of both the Star Wars franchise and Marvel cinematic universe, it is important to remember that all of this began with gouache on celluloid, animation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. In spite of the success of the movie, it was not Walt Disney’s crowning glory but rather the first of many visual and design explorations that he undertook. But what inspired him?

Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, Disneyland Paris, 1988 by Frank Armitage | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art |  The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, Disneyland Paris, 1988 by Frank Armitage Image: Courtesy of Walt Disney Imagineering Collection © Disney

Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts, organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA and the Wallace Collection, analyses the art that inspired the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ hand-drawn animation. Establishing a correlation between 18th century decorative arts and 20th century animated films, the MET exhibition grounds Walt Disney’s American fantasies into objects from the Parisian Rococo period. In addition to the two centuries that separate them, one has to consider the fact that Rococo art and craftsmanship were accessible to an elite few. Disney, on the other hand, has and continues to have an unmatched global reach and has captured the imagination of generations. This aspect of Disney is captured in another exhibition at the Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, titled The Architecture of Staged Realities.

Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts Image: Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met © Disney

The two exhibitions were conceptualised independently, but they do illustrate the expansive narrative that connects product design from the Rococo period to objects of the 21st century. It also places Walt Disney and the Disney Studio as a connector or perhaps even an interpreter. Both the exhibitions cite the importance of Walt Disney’s experience as part of the Red Cross during World War I as one that had a deep impact on him.

Overview of the exhibition installation for The Architecture of Staged Realities | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art |  The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Overview of the exhibition installation for The Architecture of Staged Realities Image: Aad Hoogendoorn, Courtesy of HNI

The MET exhibition identifies it as a moment that inspired him to reference European decorative arts. Wolf Burchard, Curator at The Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, explains, “In mounting The Met’s first-ever exhibition devoted to Walt Disney and his studios’ oeuvre, it was important for us to explore his sources of inspiration as well as to recognise that his studio’s animated interpretations of European fairytales have become a lens through which many view western art and culture today. Our fresh look at this material, which prompts an effervescent dialogue between the drawings and illustrations of some of the most talented artists in the Walt Disney Animation Studios and a rich array of the finest 18th century furniture and porcelain, brings to life the humour, wit, and ingenuity of French Rococo decorative arts.”

  • Designed by Narcissa Niblack Thorne (American, 1882–1966) French Boudoir of the Louis XV Period, 1740-60, ca. 1937 | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    Designed by Narcissa Niblack Thorne (American, 1882–1966) French Boudoir of the Louis XV Period, 1740-60, ca. 1937 Image: Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY
  • Cinderella, 1950 (Disney Studio Artist, background painting), Cinderella, 1950 (Mary Blair, concept art) | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    Cinderella, 1950 (Disney Studio Artist, background painting), Cinderella, 1950 (Mary Blair, concept art) Image: Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney

The HNI exhibition recognises Disney’s involvement in translating this European aesthetic into a version that resonated with the American family unit. Somehow, this process, is now often referred to as Disneyfication, of converting the art of the French royals into an aesthetic that captivated the global imagination. Saskia van Stein, curator of The Architecture of Staged Realities in a conversation with STIR mentions, “He was looking for a story that everyone would identify with to create one American history, you could say. But using European fairytales, folklore and storytelling, which he then domesticated by giving them feel-good narrative.” She added, “There is a chronology through the exhibition of the material that we found. It is very multidisciplinary and the leading thread is a quote by Disney that is ‘Imagination is the model from which reality is built’.”

Clock with pedestal, 1690; Beauty and the Beast, 1991 (Peter J. Hall, concept art) | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art |  The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Clock with pedestal, 1690; Beauty and the Beast, 1991 (Peter J. Hall, concept art) Image: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney

With these two perspectives, the significance of Walt Disney’s oeuvre and legacy align. The MET exhibition features 60 objects from the 18th century European decorative arts and design alongside 150 production artworks and works on paper from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, Walt Disney Archives, Walt Disney Imagineering Collection, and The Walt Disney Family Museum. The exhibition particularly highlights the visual references to Gothic Revival architecture in Cinderella (1950), medieval influences in Sleeping Beauty (1959), and the Rococo-inspired objects brought to life in Beauty and the Beast (1991). The juxtaposition of the artefacts and the artworks creates a magical illusion of bringing the artefacts themselves to life. If we were to then look at the object at the MET in comparison to the objects at the HNI, the impact of the ‘Disneyfication’ of historical reference becomes even more abundant.

  • One of a pair of candlesticks 1735–50 by Juste Aurèle Meissonnier; Beauty and the Beast, 1991 (Kevin Lima, concept art) | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    One of a pair of candlesticks 1735–50 by Juste Aurèle Meissonnier; Beauty and the Beast, 1991 (Kevin Lima, concept art) Image: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney
  • Teapot with cover, 1719–30 attributed to the Aufenwerth Workshop; Beauty and the Beast, 1991 (Chris Sanders, concept art) | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    Teapot with cover, 1719–30 attributed to the Aufenwerth Workshop; Beauty and the Beast, 1991 (Chris Sanders, concept art) Image: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney

Van Stein’s curation at the HNI acknowledges some of the limitations of Disney’s narrative, which for the most part grow from the historical references. Acknowledging that many of the earlier narratives propagate “a largely uniform identity, with the traditional white family at its heart”. The exhibition is actively committed to including, through providing work assignments, the voices and perspectives that are insufficiently represented or deliberately marginalised, in Disney’s stories.

Installation view of The Architecture of Staged Realities featuring the Green Landscape Dress by Marga Weimans (from the Wonderland collection, Spring/Summer 2009), 2008, polyurethane and plastic. Groninger Museum collection, purchased with support from the Mondriaan Fund | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Installation view of The Architecture of Staged Realities featuring the Green Landscape Dress by Marga Weimans (from the Wonderland collection, Spring/Summer 2009), 2008, polyurethane and plastic. Groninger Museum collection, purchased with support from the Mondriaan Fund Image: Aad Hoogendoorn, Courtesy of HNI

The objects in The Architecture of Staged Realities exhibition were collected specifically to highlight Van Stein’s alternative perspective. In doing so she creates divergent storylines that range from the personality cult surrounding Walt Disney himself to the utopian dream of the 1960s EPCOT Centre. The objects and the exhibition design are meant to connect the animated world of Disney to the amusement parks and finally to our living rooms. The exhibition design by Frédérique Albert-Bordenave was given its visual identity by graphic designer Irene Stracuzzi, and narrator Van Stein’s curation in seven chapters.

Presentation of several scale models in the exhibition The Architecture of Staged Realities | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Presentation of several scale models in the exhibition The Architecture of Staged Realities Image: Aad Hoogendoorn, Courtesy of HNI

Van Stein elaborates, “For the first aspect of the exhibition, I started working with the early films and looking for visual clues. For example, the village that Disney himself grew up in, in Missouri is nearly identical to Disney World’s Main Street. So, I looked for antique and vintage postcards so one can make a visual link. One of the other things Disney did to disseminate his ideas was to foster a life-long affiliation with Life Magazine. The exhibition has enlarged copies of that as well.” She continues, “The second aspect comes from the archive of the (Het) Nieuwe Instituut which I could lean into. I could look into postmodernity and also the neo-colonial introduction of everything that we build now. The third aspect is the assignments to young designers and architects, to shed light on notions of the copy and the original, and displaced narratives.”

Installation view of The Architecture of Staged Realities featuring We consider this a lone hiccup in an otherwise long and fruitful business arrangement by Simon Wald Lasowski, 2021 | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
Installation view of The Architecture of Staged Realities featuring We consider this a lone hiccup in an otherwise long and fruitful business arrangement by Simon Wald Lasowski, 2021 Image: Aad Hoogendoorn, Courtesy of HNI

While Burchard’s curation established the reality of Disney’s world; Van Stein highlights the real-world interpretations of Disney in our contemporary. In many ways, the two exhibitions underline the timelessness and location-less architecture and design of Disney through real-world objects. It also clearly indicates why one cannot simply dismiss Disney as kitsch or an aspect of pop culture, but rather a significant part of understanding our evolving visual culture. The timing is also appropriate considering 2023 will be the 100th anniversary of The Walt Disney Company.

  • Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    Gallery view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met
  • Installation view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts | Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art |  The Architecture of Staged Realities at the Het Nieuwe Instituut | STIRworld
    Installation view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts Image: Paul Lachenauer, Courtesy of The Met

The Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts exhibition is on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until March 6, 2022, while The Architecture of Staged Realities is on view at the Het Nieuwe Instituut till March 27, 2022.

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