The Art of Disney

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Editor's Note:

Wade originally wrote and submitted this column intending that it run on September 18. Unfortunately, this was overlooked and put in his regular queue, leading us to publish it today after the exhibit he discusses has closed. There is still interesting information in this story so we have no hesitation in publishing it anyway.

I just wanted you to know that the tardiness is my fault, not his.

Alex Stroup

The Art of Disney Story

One of the books I am looking to add to my collection is the 242-page catalog that is part of "The Art of Disney" exhibit that was on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo from July 15 through September 24 of this year. There have been some pages posted online by some animation fans and even though the text is in Japanese, the images are universal.

Like any good Disney story, there is an interesting backstory to this exhibit. This current "The Art of Disney" exhibit is very similar to another exhibit personally supervised by Walt Disney himself nearly 50 years ago.

When Walt was producing the animated feature film Sleeping Beauty, he realized that a great way to publicize the "high art" approach of the film as well as address the all the letters that flooded into the studio from young artists interested in animation would be to put together a traveling exhibit showcasing the history of animation as well as how animation was done.

One of the early Disneyland television shows that was a favorite of audiences was "The Story of the Animated Drawing" (first shown on November 11, 1955). The show traced the history of animation and even included the pencil test of the "soup eating" scene from the animated classic Snow White. Portions of this show were later re-edited and released to schools as an educational featurette entitled "The History of Animation."

Walt also promoted the art of animation in Sleeping Beauty in two other Disneyland television shows: "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story" (originally broadcast January 30, 1959) and "An Adventure in Art" (originally broadcast April 30, 1958).

In addition, Walt had writer Bob Thomas put together a book entitled The Art of Animation. The Art of Animation book shown on the TV show "The Story of the Animated Drawing" was a mock-up and frustrated would-be animators who tried to search for the book.

For years there had been discussions at the Disney Studio of using art instructor Donald Graham's notes when he taught at the Disney Studios along with notes from various sessions conducted by top Disney animators to create such a book. Bob Thomas utilized those resources to create an accurate look at the process of animation that would be accessible to the general public.

A dust-jacketed version was released by Simon and Schuster in 1958 and later, an edition without a dust jacket, but with a black cover with brightly colored illustrations instead, was released by Golden Press. This later edition is the one most commonly found in collections. It was the first Disney book to give official credit to other artists including featuring a photo identifying the famed "Nine Old Men." Decades later Thomas updated the book but it never truly matched the original edition for technical information about the process of animation.

As I mentioned, to promote the release of Sleeping Beauty in 1959, Walt Disney created an exhibit showing the history and development of animation. He used elements from the film itself to explain the actual animation process. The traveling exhibit was entitled "The Art of Animation: A Walt Disney Retrospective."

To put the exhibit together, Walt sent people to the animation "morgue" where the animation art was kept. Walt wanted some specific pieces and it wasn't just cel setups but backgrounds, concept art, story sketches, and more. There were three versions of this exhibit and each featured different original art.

One was showcased in Tomorrowland at Disneyland from May 28, 1960 to September 5, 1966. The exhibit in Tomorrowland featured early optical devices like thaumatropes and a zoetrope, as well as TV screens showing segments from "The Art of the Animated Drawing." It was connected to the Art Corner where future animators could purchase "How To Draw" Disney character books, flip books, and even an animation kit with a pressboard light table with pegs and punched animation paper.

Of course, young artists could also buy original Disney cels for a dollar thanks to the ingenuity of Jack Olsen who was in charge of this merchandise location, and who determined that guests might like cels that were just being tossed into the dumpster at the Disney Studio.

There were two other traveling versions of the exhibit that toured the United States beginning in 1958 and then one was sent to be shown in Europe and the other to Japan in 1960 to once again promote the release of Sleeping Beauty in those countries.

The Japanese exhibit was originally displayed at 17 department stores throughout Japan, a common practice since Japanese department stores often sponsored fine art exhibits. When the exhibit finished its tour, it was moved to the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo when the Disney Studio was convinced to donate the exhibit to the museum.

However, sometime in 1962, the museum—like many museums—found itself cramped for storage space, and donated the art to Chiba University for educational and research purposes.

Prof. Hidesaburo Genda asked the museum to donate the original works to Chiba University. Genda had already started research in computer graphics and hoped to use the artwork as a foundation for future work.

The fact that the faculty's building, then in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, had a storage facility large enough to hold the great volume of the original works also prompted the museum to donate them. However, after the faculty moved to its current campus in Chiba in 1967, only a limited number of officials at the university were aware of the existence of the art.

As the years went on, it was not widely known that the art existed. A few university staff members used it for research, primarily Professor Genda and his protg the late Professor Shigeru Oe. When Genta retired in 1982, the materials remained in storage and were forgotten.

They were rediscovered in 2004 by Chiba University in a dusty storeroom in the university's Faculty of Engineering building. The University contacted Erika Nakajima, director of Corporate Communications for Disney Japan. After seeing the lost treasures, Nakajima contacted Lella Smith, Director of the Animation Research Library in California, who immediately jumped on a plane to verify the treasure trove of artwork from 1928-1959.

It included art from the Silly Symphony "Flowers and Trees" as well as work from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. There were Mary Blair concept sketches for Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland. There was an elaborate full-color background painting by Eyvind Earle.

The collection included close to 250 pieces of original Disney art done by legends like Eyvind Earle, Mary Blair, the Nine Old Men as well as art from the ending of Sleeping Beauty that had been missing from the Animation Research Library for decades.

Some of the artwork had sustained damage over the years. Apparently at one point, some of the art had been glued down with rubber cement. The restoration was done by fine art restorer Kikuko Iwai, who had worked on the restoration of Vincent Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and Claude Monet's "Waterlilies."

However there wasn't as much damage as might be suspected. For the most part the colors were still vibrant. Officials believe the good condition of the artwork is due to the fact that they were kept in a laboratory building between 1967 and 2002 (when the building was demolished as part of a renovation project). The laboratory was a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment, and lighting was also subdued.

Once the art was restored and combined with artwork from the Animation Research Library (ARL) collection and loans from the Disney Archives and Walt Disney Imagineering, there were more than 550 pieces, making it the largest exhibition of Disney animation art ever—entitled "The Art of Disney."

"ARL has never loaned to countries outside of the U.S. for an exhibition," Lella Smith said in a publicity release for the exhibit. "There have been a few individual loans of one piece, perhaps, but never before has there been a large international exhibit like this. The Disney Company saw the proposed exhibition as an opportunity to show this art as fine art."

"The Art of Disney" follows the same basic concept as the original exhibition of nearly five decades ago by featuring the films released between 1928 and 1959. Items on display included an original picture for "Plane Crazy" (1928), the screen debut of Mickey Mouse, as well as "cel set-ups"—combinations of cels and background images—from "Flowers and Trees" (1932), Disney's first winner of an Academy Award, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the world's first full-color animated feature film.

Kan Miyoshi, a planning official for the exhibition and a curator at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, western Tokyo, which is dedicated to works of Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, said the show also aimed at attracting those who love Disney characters but do not know the films they originally came from because for today's young generation Disney means theme parks and consumer goods rather than animation.

"Ironically, many people today love characters like Snow White and Pinocchio, but have never watched their films," Miyoshi said. "Through the upcoming exhibition, we'd like to show once again the power of the Disney studio that created such great classics."

So many animation and Disney fans including myself are scrambling to find a copy of the catalog for this historic exhibit. In a future column I will rant about the catalog for another Disney art exhibit that is occurring in Paris, France even as I write this column. For those of us who collect books, the frustration and joy is the same as for those who collect Disney pins. Sigh.

The official Web site for the exhibt is here.