Each year, over one million people visit Neuschwanstein, a 19th-century castle in the Bavarian alps, famous for its Romanesque Revival style and Gothic details, including vertical limestone towers and turrets topped with deep blue pointed roofs.
Once home to a famously introverted Bavarian monarch known as “the fairytale king,” the idyllic architecture – designed more so for aesthetics rather than defense capabilities – would eventually inspire both castles from Disney’s animated films “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
Neuschwanstein also partly inspired Disney’s theme parks and logo – the latter arguably becoming the company’s most recognizable visual symbol aside from Mickey Mouse’s ears – and a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows that influences of European architecture and art don’t stop there. “Inspiring Walt Disney” showcases an array of decorative arts from centuries past that find resonance with some of the most famous animated settings fever produced, including tapestries, furniture, Boulle clocks and Sèvres porcelain. The show pairs these objects with production art and works on paper by Disney’s studio artists.
The exhibition includes gilt-bronze candlesticks, Meissen porcelain teapots and elaborate wall clocks that may remind visitors of the supporting characters in 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” who are turned into enchanted household objects and help guide Belle’s way. Also on display is the Lindau Gospels, a 9th-century gem-encrusted tome, that informed the bejeweled “Sleeping Beauty” storybook in the 1959’s film’s opening sequence.
The exhibition’s curator, Wolf Burchard, says for many Americans, Disney films were their first encounter with visual media inspired by European culture and history.
“I think it’s fair to say that ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ for instance, was for many children, the first lens through which they looked at medieval Europe, or ‘Cinderella’ and 19th-century Europe or ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and 18th-century Europe, and France in particular.”
The exhibition chronicles the travels abroad of the company’s founder Walt Disney – trips that would later influence some of the studio’s earliest films. The rural Missouri-raised animator first traveled to France during World War I as a teenager with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, but never saw any fighting. He stayed in France after the war for nine months with the Red Cross, posting in Paris across from the Louvre, near the gardens of Versailles, and in an alpine setting at Vosges Mountains.
“That was his first trip overseas, and it was a transformational experience for him,” Burchard said. “That really changed his life and the lens through which he perceived art.”
When Disney returned home he founded his animation company, first called the Disney Brothers Studio, and introduced Mickey Mouse to the world through 1928’s “Steamboat Willie,” among other innovative new animations. He traveled abroad again in 1935, this time taking a tour around England, Scotland, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy while “Snow White” was in production, and he returned with tons of books for the artists of The Walt Disney Studios.
“He bought very many French fairytales while in Paris, but he also bought quite a few German fairytales,” Burchard said, “He really liked what he called that quaint atmosphere of the German fairytales, with creatures of the wood and mushrooms that came to life.”
He also came back with visual reference points that may have later ended up in his films. Toad Hall from 1949’s “The Wind in the Willows” is believed to nod to the Tudor-style splendor of the English countryside hotel Great Fosters, according to the exhibition catalog, while its grounds may have been the reference point for the hedge maze in 1951’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
Artists ‘in their own right’
But Burchard emphasized that Disney alone was not the sole artistic voice in his studio before his death in 1966 – in fact, the studio has similarities to the workshops of European decorative arts, he said, where hundreds of artists work cohesively to create something that “looks like it was designed and made by one person.”
Disney animators were “all artists in their own right,” Burchard said. They didn’t copy any one particular art style or reference, but synthesized their inspirations into lively visual narratives. The show highlights animator Mary Blair’s vibrant concept art for “Cinderella,” including the sinuous gold-trimmed white furniture of the stepsisters’ bedrooms, to artist Eyvind Earle’s medieval vision for “Sleeping Beauty.” The seven large-scale woven compositions known as the “Unicorn Tapestries,” made in the South Netherlands around the turn of the 16th century, may have been integral to the film’s visual development, according to the exhibition. So too were other famous Dutch works, like illuminated manuscripts made by the Limbourg brothers, as well as paintings by Jan van Eyck.
Not every inspiration made it to the silver screen – such was the case with Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th-century oil painting, “The Swing.” “Beauty in the Beast” originally featured an opening sequence inspired by the painting – which features a young woman in a rose-colored gown swinging mid-air in a florid setting – but it was cut when the overall visual direction for the film changed. Fragonard’s painting was referenced again in early concept art for 2010’s “Tangled,” but never in the movie, and then finally made a cameo appearance in 2013’s “Frozen.”
It’s the Rococo period in France, which depicts scenes of romance and youth with curving lines and in ornate, pastel-hued settings that finds the closest kinship with some of Disney’s most famous 20th-century films. During that period, artists sought to create the illusion of motion through still paintings, like “The Swing” and objects, such as the undulating gold candlestick that is exhibited as a parallel to Lumiere in “Beauty and the Beast.” (Literary figures of the time also had a love for anthropomorphism, or giving inanimate objects human personalities.)
“Visually you have bright and punchy colors,” Burchard said of the similarities. “And you have the ambition to animate what is inanimate. So you create the illusion of life through animation.”
But he also draws a parallel to the intention of French decorative artists, who did not set out to make intellectual works of art, but rather things that would please the eye – a similar sentiment echoed by Disney, who insisted throughout his life that he was simply in the business of entertainment.
“These are objects that were made to encourage a visceral rather than cerebral response,” Burchard said. “(They) are supposed to look fun or look pretty, or look quirky. And then we come 250 years later, and start overinterpreting some of these objects.”
Should Disney movies be considered works of art? Within the walls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the institution would say yes. But in the spirit of the tradition of the French decorative arts, the point is not to overanalyze – and enjoy the show.
“Inspiring Walt Disney” will run through March 6, 2022.