It is very difficult for art museums to treat the Hollywood product in a coherent and enlightening way. Popular culture and art culture are not the same thing, so traditional curatorial strategies often collide.
The latest example is "Inspiring Walt Disney: Animating the French Decorative Arts", recently inaugurated at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens of San Marino. The plan is to show what 20th-century Hollywood was like in 18th-century Rococo Europe to find visual sources for everything from Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland to Cinderella's celluloid ball gown.
And especially for Beauty and the Beast — here, just in time for its 30th anniversary on television this week, commemorating Disney's beloved 1991 musical animation show on ABC-TV and Disney+. (Obviously, the + means one year ahead of the specified anniversary.) Isn't that lucky?
Or at least boring, like the comic murals in the galleries where the exhibition takes place. An ascending staircase and gilt-bronze furniture create a soft context for several 18th-century French and German decorative objects: teapots, candlesticks, cutlery, tall clocks, etc. – as well as prints, book illustrations, posters, some travel memorabilia, some music videos and concept art for various Disney projects including theme parks in Paris, Hong Kong and Anaheim.
It is essentially meaningless. The only moment of satisfaction comes at the end, when two pairs of crazy potpourri "tower vases" appear, each nearly two meters tall.
They are attributed to the Sevres sculptor and porcelain designer Etienne-Maurice Falcone, best known for his colossal bronze statue of Peter the Great on horseback in 1782 in St. Petersburg. Petersburg, Russia. Huntington bought several vases in 1927, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought many more in 1956. The architectural towers are decorated with domes, buttresses, roofs and thunderbolts, they are decorated with rocks, battlements… cartouches, precious trophies and colors . We are close to the fictional Sleeping Beauty Castle, heavily inspired by Neuschwanstein Castle, a real 19th century castle in the Bavarian Alps.
The play, staged by the Met and Wallace Collection in London, where it had previously been seen, was shortened for Huntington's performance. New York's roster of 60 18th-century European arts and crafts has been drastically reduced to 19 in San Marino and is now complemented by a major exhibit of Huntington's Sevres tableware. A pyramid of vases is topped by a rotating chandelier reminiscent of Kevin Lima's witty design for Lumière, the cinema patriarch who is transformed into a living chandelier by a cruel wizard.
In some ways, this much smaller version is a boon. We are not talking about a wealth of fascinating art, nor about the discovery of cultural science. After all, if you're going to make an animated film about an 18th-century European romantic fairy tale, turning to 18th-century European art for visual ideas isn't exactly a good idea. Between Charles Perrault writing moral fiction in France and the Brothers Grimm writing parables in Germany, the era represents the pinnacle of the fairy tale genre. What else would you do?
When I saw the show at the Met in the spring, where its sparse spaces stretched endlessly from room to room, my eyes quickly perked up. I've seen the ornate gold chandeliers carried over into the interior design of the movie Beast's Castle, I've seen it all. At Huntington's, less is more.
One of the problems with the show is that none of the items in it were specific cartoon inspirations from the animator. Everything is standard, imprecise and vague. Ms. Potts, the matriarch of the Beast's kitchen, cheerfully drawn in pastels by Chris Sanders, vaguely resembles the fat German earthenware teapot in the nearby display case. The Lumière is nowhere near as ornate as the ornate Huntington Chandelier.
Close enough? Not really, just superficially, but you get the idea.
The distinction between public and private is central to the distinction between popular culture and artistic culture, but the play does not address this critical distinction. Instead, you think the museum might unwittingly inflate the legitimacy of Hollywood cartoons with an artistic pedigree that Disney doesn't even need. A live-action fantasy of something like Beauty and the Beast is pretty remarkable in itself.
It was Walt Disney's idea to bring European high culture to the American masses. Failing to do so – see the tumultuous Fantasia saga, loved by film critics and hated by classical music critics ("disgusting," said Igor Stravinsky, whose music was included in the film), he came up with something original.
Perhaps instructively, during his travels in Europe, Disney collected goods rather than works of art to bring back to Burbank. The exhibit includes miniature furniture, small utensils, and souvenir dishes that she has purchased. The Giaugaus were as much an inspiration to him as the great workshops of Sèvres or those of Fragonard.
A curious omission: there are no fancy boxes on display, although fermented ground tobacco from pillaged European colonies was the drug of choice for unemployed aristocrats. This seems like a missed opportunity given the generations of American consumers who are adjusting to the modern ritual of watching dancing hippos and whirling Fantasia mushrooms.
Also missing: the main theme from the original show.
Jean Honoré Fragonard's famous foam painting Forest Amusements, Swing (c. 1767), part of the Wallace Collection, was originally used as a model for an opening scene in Beauty and the Beast, but was later cut from the film. It was also cut from an entire exhibit where it could have brought some clarity.
how? The full, though rarely used, title of the brilliant painting is 'Fortunate Events on a Swing', as the unusual painting depicts a young girl's provocative pink dress floating in the wind as she swings on velvet in a luxurious walled garden. A "lucky accident" is an unexpected opportunity for her lover, lying, stretched out in the bushes under her, to see the target of her perfume, hidden in all these sparkling clothes.
Forget Disney. A true Hollywood parallel is Billy Wilder mocking Marilyn Monroe by cooling her private parts in a smelly subway in The Seven Year Itch. Good luck Uptown MTA.
Eighteenth-century French arts and crafts are nothing short of shameless obscenities, with Disney art rarely accompanied by words that emasculate French arts and crafts as much as enliven them. Sensual and sexually stimulating pleasure is about 180 degrees different from another person's chaste activities. The differences between the two matter, but this is a show about the superficial similarities between art culture and popular culture. The direct intentions of each remain out of focus.
No sex, no drugs – inspiration is real, but superficial, superficial. Although funny at times, that's why this exhibit.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.