Pinky castles, talking sofas, a butler based on a gilded chandelier, mirrored ballrooms that stretch out into an infinity of shimmering reflections – Walt Disney’s fantasies are so spectacular they seem totally unparalleled . It seems sui generis, a true American genius conjuring up visions straight out of nowhere. Yet the butler, the ballroom, and even the chattering couch have their sources, of all kinds, and they are a far cry from Hollywood in 18th-century French Rococo art.
It is the premise of a fascinating exhibition opening this week at the Wallace Collection in London. Inspire Walt Disney aims to show the link between French art and American animation across three centuries. He associates objects and images with such persuasive intelligence that you perceive the two in a different way. If you don’t usually like the gilded excesses of rococo clocks, paintings, and claw-foot tables, you might just see them again in the end through Disney’s eyes.
Born in Chicago in 1901, raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt Disney first went to Paris as a Red Cross paramedic after the 1918 armistice. His love of French art took hold early on. The first of many films on bright screens across the show is a haunting sequence from his 1931 classic, The clock store. A porcelain couple come to life in front of a golden clock. He bows, she bows and so begins the graceful dance, to Mozart’s minuet Don Giovanni.
Next to it is such a porcelain figurine, extremely popular in 18th century Paris. Immediately you see how brilliantly Disney animates the dancers, using only black ink and wash, making them twist and turn through their movements so that they appear to have both human movement and a trace of their original porcelain stiffness. It touches very deeply on the childhood dream of inanimate objects magically coming to life.
Which is the very essence of rococo art itself, in a way: the sense of movement in stillness, a constant sweeping, dancing, twisting and bending, the animation of the inanimate . It’s the velvet sofa with enveloping arms and delicate and charming feet, anthropomorphized in the Disney films. It is the candlestick with its plump belly and golden arms, unfolded, which becomes the butler in The beauty and the Beast. Even the fable itself, like Cinderellato like Sleeping Beautyis, of course, of French origin.
Sound arrived in 1928, Technicolor in 1932, we see it develop here, especially with Disney’s trip to France in 1935. An amateur film shows Walt and his brother Roy strolling, enchanted, in Versailles. Very quickly you begin to see the origins of Cinderella. A drawing of a horse-drawn carriage in front of the palace, slender windows, colossal bookcases, shimmering mirrors in endless retreat: visual vocabulary is there.
It is common to speak of magic as inexplicable. You can’t see how it’s done. One of the most spellbinding sites in the Wallace collection is an entire wall of graphite drawings that show exactly how the dress-rag sequence in Cinderella (1950) was achieved. Her godmother scatters the fairy dust that causes this miracle, represented literally by hundreds of thousands of pencils pointsascending, descending, passing from one drawing to another, to describe the dazzling whirlwind in which Cinderella is transformed.
It took 24 drawings to make a single second of film. The women of Disney’s ink and paint department each meticulously copied onto celluloid frames, in full color, and one of the great moments of Western cinema was achieved.
The studios were vast, the films huge collaborations. The same goes for the elaborate French clocks that chime this spectacle, the extravagant pistachio and gold turreted vases that emerged from the porcelain factories of Sèvres, even the tea sets that transform into figures. There were concept artists – Disney itself, of course, from first to last, but also Mary Blair, who invented the look of Cinderellaand Peter J Hall and Mel Shaw, who worked on the 1991 The beauty and the Beast. The whole opening scene of this film (alas cut) was based on the most famous of all rococo paintings, which is in the Wallace Collection – Fragonard’s The swing.
The girl rises upwards in her hearty frills, one shoe flying freely. An older man on the right thinks he’s pulling the strings, but can’t see his young lover hiding in the bushes. An animated statue of Cupid keeps the secret, knowing the finger on his lips. And there, in the gallery, the porcelain Cupid on which Fragonard based his figure, just as Disney worked from Fragonard.
The swing finally did both Tangled and Frozen II. And the most famous of all the paintings in the Wallace Collection, that of Frans Hal The Laughing Horsemanappears on the castle wall in The beauty and the Beast.
By the time you get to a real, cheery, sturdy gold clock with a cheery chime, it looks like it’s straight out of a Disney animation, even though it was made in 1730. And the painting opposite, an elaborate fantasy of walnut, ebony, and gilt bronze, now appears to have ballet feet, erect in a fancy second position. We begin to see the world differently, the mark of a strong exposure.
Was Disney’s experience of French Rococo art an inspiration or an influence, a vocabulary or a style? The show allows you to form your own opinion. The team that made The beauty and the Beast worked a few blocks away in London and I feel like they were here in this same building, absorbing art the way Disney absorbed French culture, which is to say with a lot of depth and d ‘humor. The architecture of the castle of the Beast, the majestic staircases, the glittering mirrors, the Halls: they are all here at the Wallace Collection; you just have to watch.