Pink castles, talking sofas, a butler based on a golden candlestick, mirrored ballrooms that stretch into an infinity of twinkling reflections – the fantasies of Walt Disney are so spectacular they seem entirely without precedent. He seems sui generis, a true American genius conjuring visions straight out of thin air. Yet the butler, the ballroom and even the garrulous sofa have their sources, of all kinds, and they are far away from Hollywood in the French rococo art of the 18th century.
This is the premise of a mesmerising exhibition opening this week at the Wallace Collection in London. Inspiring Walt Disney aims to show the connection between French art and American animation across three centuries. It pairs objects and images with such persuasive intelligence that you perceive both in a different way. If you don’t generally love the gilded excesses of rococo clocks, paintings and claw-foot tables you may well by the end be seeing them anew through Disney’s eyes.
Born in Chicago in 1901, raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt Disney first went to Paris as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross after the armistice in 1918. His love of French art set in early. The first of many films on glowing screens through the show is a bewitching sequence from his 1931 classic, The Clock Store. A porcelain couple unfreeze into life before a gilded mantelpiece clock. He bows, she curtseys and so the gracious dance begins, to the minuet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Alongside is just such a porcelain figurine, intensely popular in 18th-century Paris. Immediately, you see how brilliantly Disney animates the dancers, using only black ink and wash, turning them round and round through their moves so they seem to have both human motion and a trace of their original porcelain stiffness. It touches very deeply on the childhood dream of inanimate objects magically coming alive.
Which is the very essence of rococo art itself, in a way: the impression of motion in stillness, a constant sweeping, dancing, twisting and curving, the animation of the inanimate. It is the velvet sofa with embracing arms and flirtatiously dainty feet, anthropomorphised in Disney films. It is the candlestick with the plump stomach and gilded arms, out-flung, which becomes the butler in Beauty and the Beast. Even the very fable, like Cinderella, like Sleeping Beauty, is, of course, originally French.
Sound arrives in 1928, Technicolor in 1932 – you can see it all developing here, most particularly with Disney’s trip to France in 1935. A home movie shows Walt and his brother Roy wandering, enchanted, around Versailles. Very rapidly, you start to see the origins of Cinderella. A drawing of a carriage in front of the palace, soaring windows, colossal libraries, shimmering mirrors in endless recession: the visual vocabulary is there.
It is common to talk of magic as inexplicable. You can’t see how it is done. One of the most spellbinding sights at the Wallace Collection is a whole wall of graphite drawings that shows exactly how the rags-to-gown sequence in Cinderella (1950) was achieved. Her godmother scatters the fairy dust that brings about this miracle, represented by literally hundreds of thousands of pencil dots, increasing, decreasing, shifting from one drawing to the next, to describe the dazzling swirl in which Cinderella transforms.
It took 24 drawings to make a single second of film. The women of Disney’s ink and paint department copied each one meticulously on to celluloid frames, in colour, and one of the great moments of western cinema was made.
The studios were vast, the films immense collaborations. So it was with the elaborate French clocks that chime through this show, the outlandish turreted vases in pistachio and gold that emerged from the Sèvres porcelain factories, even the tea services that turn into characters. There were concept artists – Disney himself, of course, first to last, but also Mary Blair, who came up with the look of Cinderella, and Peter J Hall and Mel Shaw, who worked on the 1991 Beauty and the Beast. The entire opening scene of this film (alas cut) was based on the most famous of all rococo paintings, which hangs in the Wallace Collection – Fragonard’s The Swing.
The girl soars upwards in her copious frills, one shoe flying free. An older man on the right thinks he’s pulling the strings, but can’t see her young lover hidden in the bushes. An animated statue of Cupid keeps the secret, knowing finger to his lips. And there in the gallery is the porcelain Cupid on which Fragonard based his figure, just as Disney worked from Fragonard.
The Swing eventually made it into both Tangled and Frozen II. And the most famous of all Wallace Collection paintings, Frans Hal’s The Laughing Cavalier, appears on the wall of the castle in Beauty and the Beast.
By the time you get to a real gold clock, merry and stout with a cheerful chime, it appears to have come straight out of a Disney animation, even though it was made in 1730. And the table opposite, an elaborate fantasia of walnut, ebony and gilded bronze, now seems to have ballet feet, drawn up in a fancy second position. You start to see the world in a different way, the hallmark of a strong exhibition.
Was Disney’s experience of French rococo art inspiration or influence, vocabulary or style? The show allows you to make up your own mind. The team who made Beauty and the Beast worked only streets away in London and my sense is that they were here in this very building, absorbing the art the way Disney absorbed French culture, which is to say, with great depth and humour. The architecture of the Beast’s castle, the sweeping staircases, the twinkling mirrors, the Hals: they are all here at the Wallace Collection; you only have to look.