Review: The French decorative arts that inspired Walt Disney are on view in new show

Art museums have a really hard time dealing with Hollywood products in a coherent and insightful way. Mass culture and art culture are not the same, so the usual curatorial strategies often fail.

The most recent example is Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts, newly opened at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. The plan is to show how 20th-century Hollywood looked to 18th-century European rococo in search of visual sources for everything from Sleeping Beauty’s Disneyland castle to celluloid Cinderella’s ball gown.

And especially for Beauty and the Beast—lo and behold, just in time for this week’s 30th Anniversary TV special, which revives Disney’s beloved 1991 musical-animated extravaganza on ABC-TV and Disney+. (Apparently the + stands for the extra year of said anniversary.) Isn’t that lucky?

Or, at least cheesy, something like the cartoon murals in the galleries where the show is installed. Sweeping staircases and ormolu furniture provide a bland painted context for a relatively small handful of 18th-century French and German decorative items – teapots, candlesticks, crockery, a tall clock and the like – as well as engravings, book illustrations, poster graphics, some tourist souvenirs few film clips and concept art for various Disney projects including theme parks in Paris, Hong Kong and Anaheim.

It’s mostly piffle. The only moment of joy comes at the end, when two pairs of wildly crazy “tower vases” for potpourri, each nearly two feet tall, emerge.

A pyramid of porcelain tableware is topped by a candelabra in a museum exhibit.

A pyramid of Sèvres porcelain tableware is topped by a candelabra in Inspiring Walt Disney at The Huntington.

(Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens)

They are attributed to the Sèvres sculptor and porcelain designer Etienne-Maurice Falconet, best known for his colossal 1782 bronze statue of Peter the Great on horseback in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Huntington acquired one pair of the vases in 1927, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired the other pair in 1956. The architectural towers feature domes, buttresses, dormer windows, and roaring cannons, and are adorned with garlands of flowers, war trophy cartouches, and jewel-colored Colours. We are in visual proximity to Sleeping Beauty’s fictional castle, which was largely inspired by Neuschwanstein, a real 19th-century castle in the Bavarian Alps.

The show, organized by the Met and the Wallace Collection in London, where it has previously been held, has been greatly scaled down for presentation at the Huntington. New York’s list of 60 works of 18th-century European decorative arts and design has been drastically reduced to San Marino’s 19, now populated with a major display of Huntington’s own Sèvres ware. The pyramid of crockery is topped by a twisting candlestick, meant to remind you of Kevin Lima’s snappy design for Lumière, the film’s head of household staff, who has been transformed into a lively candelabra by a cruel sorceress.

In a way, this much smaller version is an advantage. We’re not talking a plethora of compelling art, nor insightful cultural rocket science. After all, if you’re producing an animated film that tells an 18th-century European romantic fable, it’s not exactly a stroke of genius to look to 18th-century European art for visual ideas. Between Charles Perrault writing moral fiction in France and the Brothers Grimm spinning parables in Germany, the era represents the pinnacle of the fairy tale genre. What else would you do?

Watching the show at the Met that spring, where its thin premise stretched endlessly into room after room, my eyes soon glazed over. I’ve seen a gold flourish decoration transferred from a candelabra to the interior design of the movie Beast’s Castle, I’ve seen them all. In HD, smaller is definitely better.

Concept art for the character made by Lumiere "Beauty and the Beast."

Kevin Lima, “Lumiere”, concept art for “Beauty and the Beast”, 1990.


A problem with the show is that none of the objects featured in it were a specific inspiration for the animator’s cartoons. Everything is generic, imprecise and loose. Mrs. Potts, maternal head of the Beast’s kitchen and cheerfully drawn in pastel by Chris Sanders, only vaguely resembles the thick example of a German faience teapot on display in a nearby display case. Lumière isn’t nearly as ornate as the floral Huntington candelabra.

Near enough? Not really, except superficially – but you get the idea.

The difference between generic and specific is fundamental to the difference between mass culture and art culture, but the exhibition does not delve into the critical distinction. Instead, one thinks that perhaps the museum is inadvertently inflating the legitimacy for Hollywood cartoons with an artistic pedigree — which Disney doesn’t even need to do. The animated rags-to-riches fantasy of something like Beauty and the Beast is remarkable in itself.

That was Walt Disney’s idea to bring European high culture closer to the American masses. Having failed at this – see the turbulent saga of “Fantasia”, which film critics loved most and classical music critics hated most (“disgusting,” said Igor Stravinsky, whose music was featured in the film) – he invented something special the process.

It’s probably revealing that Disney collected knick-knacks rather than art from its travels around Europe to bring back to Burbank. The show features miniature furniture, tiny tools, and souvenir tableware that he bought. Gewgaws inspired him, as did the superlative workshops in Sèvres and Fragonard’s studio.

A surprising omission: there are no ornate snuffboxes on the show, despite the fact that fermented, powdered tobacco from Europe’s plundered colonies was the addictive drug of choice for idle aristocrats. It seems like a missed opportunity considering generations of American consumers are getting high to indulge in the modern day ritual of watching the dancing hippos and twirling mushrooms of “Fantasia.”

A painting of a man pushing a woman in a swing.

Mel Shaw’s chaste version of Jean Honoré Fragonard’s playfully lascivious painting The Swing (circa 1767) was cut from Beauty and the Beast.


Also missing: the largest object of the original series.

Jean Honoré Fragonard’s famous foamy painting of a forest game, The Swing (c. 1767), the Wallace Collection’s signature painting, was originally used as a model for an opening sequence in Beauty and the Beast but was later cut from the film. It was also excised from the shrunken exhibit where it might have brought some clarity.

As? The full, albeit seldom used, title of the luminous painting is The Happy Chances of the Swing, for the extraordinary image depicts the suggestive pink dress of a young lady billowing in the wind as she rides a velvet swing set in a magnificently fenced garden . The “lucky chance” is an unexpected opportunity for her lover, who leans back while lying in the bushes below her to catch a glimpse of the goal of his passion hidden in all those billowing petticoats.

Forget Disney. The true Hollywood parallel is Billy Wilder teasing Marilyn Monroe as she cools her privates on the breezy subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. Lucky odds of the Uptown MTA.

Eighteenth-century French decorative arts are nothing but slovenly crude—words not often attached to Disney’s art, which neutralized French decorative arts as much as it enlivened it. One’s sensual, sexually stimulating indulgences are roughly 180 degrees removed from the other’s chaste, G-rated commitments. The differences between the two are what count, but this show addresses the superficial similarities between art culture and mainstream culture. Everyone’s open intentions are left out.

No sex, no drugs – the inspiration is real, but superficial, not deep. While this exhibition is occasionally amusing, it is also.

‘Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts’

Where: Boone Gallery, Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino

When: 10am to 5pm Wednesday to Monday. Closed on Tuesdays. Until March 27th.

Costs: $13 to $29

The information: (626) 405-2100, Review: The French decorative arts that inspired Walt Disney are on view in new show

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