I will never again look at a classic Disney movie in the way I did after seeing "Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination."
In this shape-shifting exhibition at the Dalí Museum, Walt Disney and Salvador Dalí are shown in side-by-side comparisons to advance the thesis that, improbable as it might sound, they were kindred Surrealist souls.
Yes, I was skeptical.
But this exhibition asks us to look beyond the assumptions many of us carry about the stories that end on a sunny high — Pinocchio and Dumbo, for example — to segments of these movies whose bleak darkness is made palatable their by Technicolor brightness. Think of the horror that unfolds at Pleasure Island, where young boys become donkeys, or the hallucinogenic bizarreness of pink elephants. Clips from those movies and others juxtaposed with Dalí works prove their makers' mutual love for the fantastical and the irrational. As museum director Hank Hine said, "They both dissolved boundaries between reality and dreams."
The show, which originated at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, is packed with archival photographs, Dalí paintings, sketches and movie storyboards, and 17 monitors for the extensive film clips. A bonus gallery exclusive to the Dalí Museum, "Bridges to the Future," features a virtual reality experience that, with headphones and goggles, gives viewers a three-dimensional, 360-degree experience of a Dalí painting, expanding beyond the canvas. It uses, said Nathan Shipley, who was the project's lead director, technology from the gaming world for creating art, which he believes is the first time for that application.
We begin before the fantasy with the two men's sense of groundedness in childhood locations. For Disney (1901-66), Marceline, Mo., where he lived for only five years, inspired the nostalgia that would translate into Disneyland's quaint Main Street and his larger desire to recreate the sense of community inspired by a small town. Dalí (1904-89) used the rocky sea coast of his beloved northeast Spain through his career as a constant landscape presence that grounded his psychological explorations.
In this gallery are photographs of the two as adorable little boys and some of their earliest work: Disney's cartoons for his high-school magazine, Dalí's painting of the seaside village of Cadaqués.
A gallery titled "Machines and the Unconscious," covering the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, traces Walt Disney Studio's rise as the preeminent animated movie creator and Disney's innovations with a multiplane camera that enabled him to create more sophisticated movements of characters and their surroundings for short films, the only kind of animated ones at that point. Dalí was a rising star of the Surrealist movement in Europe, known mainly as a painter, but he also collaborated with Luis Buñuel on groundbreaking avant-garde films from which we see clips.
By the mid-1930s, both men had made the cover of Time magazine, then one of the leading publications in the United States. Disney had skeptics when he began production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1934. It would be the first full-length animated film. Despite setbacks, it premiered in 1937 and, with its wide release in 1938, became a sensation, earning the equivalent of more than $130 million in today's dollars.
Sketches and clips illustrate his work in what became known as Disney's Golden Age. It was an era that produced Pinnochio, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo and Peter Pan and the cartoon franchise with Mickey et al. (Alice, Peter Pan and Cinderella, another classic, weren't completed until after World War II.) At this point, Disney had a staff of animators and technicians to do hands-on work so making the magic was collaborative.
Fantasia was his masterpiece, even though it was not commercially successful and was misunderstood at the time. In it was the full flowering of the Disney Studio's creative vision and technical prowess, set to classical music mostly performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Leopold Stowkowski. In eight segments, anthropomorphic creatures such as flowers and gold fish become dancers performing dizzying feats of choreography. It seemed to channel our dreams that live outside of the real world, just as Dalí's art did, along with using Dalí's technique of double images and metamorphosis but in motion.
So it was natural, then, that the two were mutual admirers. They were in a 1936 group show at the Museum of Modern Art titled "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism" and exchanged correspondence, but didn't meet until the mid-1940s when Dalí settled in the United States after the German invasion of Paris in 1940. The war years had been difficult for both. The lucrative European market was closed to Disney's films and his most recent ones weren't successful at home. He mostly produced films for the war effort. Dalí, too, wasn't selling much. He took on commercial commissions and spent time in Hollywood trying to drum up projects in films. One of his most famous was the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. (Though it was a very watered-down version of his vision for it.)
Disney had traveled to South America and been inspired by all of its aspects. He wanted to translate them into a film to be called Destino. He thought Dalí would be a great collaborator. Memorabilia from this era begins with a walk through a huge version of one of Dalí's paintings for the film. Though Disney gave Dalí free artistic rein and admired his unfettered imagination, he pulled the plug on the project after about a year because he grew frustrated with Dalí's inability to edit that imagination, and the studio was having financial problems. We see the collection of drawings that make up a storyboard for the movie and then a brief animation made during the project's demise. Decades later, after both men had died, Destino was realized by the studio, and it plays in a loop in the museum's first-floor theater. It's a lyrical, seamless montage of surrealist images that convey a love story to the soundtrack of a South American ballad.
Both moved on: Dalí's later works take on a mystical tone and are influenced by his studies in nuclear theory. Disney built an empire that included theme parks dealing in fantasy. Correspondence shows that they remained friends, visiting each other in California and Spain. A gallery provides photographs as testament to that friendship and sketches for the film Donald in Mathmagic Land show us the enduring influence Dalí had on Disney animation.
The final gallery is just pure fun. Strap on goggles and headphones and go on a Surrealist trip through and beyond Dalí's painting, Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus (1933-35). You'll feel a little like the two men who came together briefly but indelibly for an artistic and intellectual version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.