In Review

Inspiring Walt Disney: a ‘scholarly’ show that raises the stakes for curators everywhere

Exhibition pairs drawings from Disney’s animations with rococo works from the Wallace Collection

In 1918, a 16-year-old Walt Disney made the first of many visits to France, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. The trip would have a pivotal effect on his career: he had come to work as a Red Cross driver, but left as a devotee of the country’s decorative arts. He found a “huge influence” in the creations of the rococo movement, an exceptionally theatrical and ornamental late Baroque style, to which some of his studio’s best-loved films owe an immense debt.

This idiosyncratic exhibition pairs original drawings from Disney’s animations with rococo works from the Wallace Collection, taking in everything from paintings to “candlesticks, clocks and teapots”. It demonstrates how Disney’s drawings took their “main creative cues” from rococo artists and designers. Like them, Disney sought to “create an illusion of movement” in his work; and just like them, he was “a pioneering artist who brought superlative draughtsmanship and emerging technologies together”. It makes a “fascinating” show.

Disney’s fantasies seem “without precedent”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer: “pink castles, talking sofas, a butler based on a golden candlestick, mirrored ballrooms that stretch into an infinity of twinkling reflections”. Yet they all have their sources in French 18th century art and design. Objects from elaborate rococo clocks to “outlandish turreted vases in pistachio and gold” seem to have sprung straight out of one of the impresario’s films. “A home movie shows Walt and his brother Roy wandering, enchanted, around Versailles. Very rapidly, you start to see the origins of Cinderella.” 

Originally, the opening of Beauty and the Beast was based on the most famous rococo painting of all, which hangs in the Wallace Collection – Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing. It was cut in the end, but scenes based on the painting made it into the later Disney productions Tangled and Frozen.

“Disney buffs” will love this show, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. The Wallace fills an entire wall with 24 drawings created for Cinderella’s “miraculous transformation” from “shabby kitchen urchin” to “radiant princess”. Incredibly, they account for just one second of animation. Yet, for me, the real revelation is that “it prompts a new understanding of the decorative arts of the rococo period”.

Disney understood that rococo craftsmanship was “fiercely animated and full of delightful transformations. When a Disney table starts to dance or a teapot starts to sing it’s because French rococo tables do, indeed, appear ready to dance and French rococo teapots do, indeed, have an operatic presence.” This is a “scholarly” show that raises the stakes for museum curators everywhere.

Wallace Collection, London W1 (wallacecollection.org). Until 16 October

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