LONDON — When organizing exhibitions as part of a program to entice the paying public, curators are surely obliged to consider what angles will be most unusual, exciting, or different. Proving the influence of one style upon another can be especially tricky, and can undermine the exhibition’s goal. Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts, curated by Helen Jacobsen and Wolf Burchard, is buoyed by a wealth of examples that succeed in this, remarkably demonstrating the stylistic influence of French 18th-century applied and decorative arts on the 20th-century behemoth of American animation, Walt Disney Studios. Focusing on commonalities between two such disparate eras hits the curatorial quota of “unusual” and “different,” but also, cannily, has a vast potential audience beyond regular gallery goers; there is probably not a person in the Western world who has not encountered Disney, and its presence here will undoubtedly trigger a Pavlovian emotional response in any visitor (familiar soundtracks playing throughout had this 30-something writer automatically welling up). The show was previously at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but its current location in the Wallace Collection at Hertford House, an opulent extravaganza of applied decorative art such as that mined by Disney, could not be more fitting. These combined conditions predestine it to be a surefire hit.

Indeed, so familiar are the animated feature films — specifically 1950’s Cinderella and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast — that encountering these popular culture items within the wider context of art history rather than the historical vacuum of our personal memories is likely to have a huge psychological impact. This realization occurs repeatedly throughout the show, as we are treated to visual origin stories in which rough drafts of characters are nearly, but not quite, the final form we know so well; the tantalizing effect is like witnessing a song being written in real time. For the watercolor concept designs for Cogsworth, animator Peter J. Hall channeled Parisian clocks from c. 1690 to 1720. Handily such a clock from the Wallace collection is positioned nearby, illustrating the commonality in form and style. It is a long-case upright box, decorated with gilding and Boulle marquetry, and the curators are at pains to highlight the shared anthropomorphic tendencies of both items — the clock face sits atop a “body” delineated almost as if wearing a uniform complete with yellow-gold trimming. It takes little effort to imagine an uppity, starched pomposity were either to come to life. 

Installation view of Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts at The Wallace Collection. Foreground: Sèvres Manufactory, potpourri vase and cover (c. 1761) (photo Olivia McEwan/Hyperallergic)

We are also shown how Disney animators adapted French interior design for scene setting. A child may not immediately associate the ballroom in Beauty and the Beast with Versailles, yet designs by Michael Hodgson directly modeled on its spectacular Hall of Mirrors show how forehead-slappingly obvious is the connection. Especially fascinating is the joyous freedom the animators were given in this adaptation; a pencil design layout by Ed Ghertner for the Beast’s library is a technically incorrect mash-up of several conflicting perspectives, nudging it into the whimsical fairytale realm. A bit like Piranesi cranking his architectural drawings beyond realism, such bending of strict perspectival rules is a gateway to the fantastical.

In fact, so closely do the Disney animators assimilate the sensibility of French design that on occasion their source material appears almost as a pastiche, more Disney than Disney itself. Between 1918 and 1919 Walt Disney served as a Red Cross Ambulance Corps driver outside Versailles, then Paris. In 1935 he revisited Europe and brought back more than 1,000 pieces of miniature furniture and ceramics, as well as 335 illustrated books, which formed the basis of his animation studio’s resource library. One such example here is a copy of The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales from the Old French by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, illustrated by French-British artist Edmund Dulac. The book is open to a plate showing the Sleeping Beauty lying recumbent in bed. Her rich French 18th-century costume, finely wrought furniture, and lashings of soft drapery anticipate the Disney princess visuals in themselves, but it is the glowing cherubs magically encircling her head that uncannily seem straight out of a Disney movie.

Disney Studio Artist, background painting, Cinderella (1950), gouache on paper (© Disney)

The same applies to two tower vases from c. 1763 loaned by the Met, manufactured by the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory and designed by Étienne-Maurice Falconet. These white porcelain vases, with zingy green and gold detail, have charming architectural features that resemble mini turrets, with a railing “supported” by little buttresses around their circumference, and architectural niches separated by slanting “roofs” of articulated surface grooves. To contemporary eyes that recognize Disney’s intellectual property as kitschy plastic children’s toys, it is astonishing to see that these novelty vases came first, and by some two centuries.

Most any exhibition addressing the influence of one movement onto another will be weighted toward the latter, so unsurprisingly the exhibition is primarily curated through the prism of Disney’s interpretation. Care is taken, however, to emphasize the unified theme that Jacobsen and Burchard have identified for both: that of the “animation of the inanimate.” A final room is dedicated to the source material as a means to neatly link back to this theme. Examples of French 18th-century and rococo design are highlighted for their anthropomorphic qualities: we learn, for instance, that the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory was stretched to its technical capacity in order to produce the ambitious and complex decorative design of a ship vase, attributed to Jean-Claude Chambellan Duplessis, the Elder. The caption encourages viewers to observe how its “animation is enhanced by the decoration; the pennant flutters, the rigging seemingly shudders from the impact of the waves crashing on the base, and the fantastic marine beasts face into the wind, their moustaches streaming on either side.” This room would be impenetrable at the start, and likely skipped by many, but following the exhibition’s instructive and lively captioning, which carefully introduces its significance via the friendly vessel of Disney, visitors are better disposed to engage with it on its own.

A happy result of this is the extension of our disposition to the rest of the Wallace collection, helping to forge an understanding of the rest of its contents. The museum is low down on the list of London’s visited museums, despite its proximity to the ever-thronged Oxford Street thoroughfare. Inside, all manner of applied arts from around the globe, as well as an extensive armory, are presented amid a visually overwhelming setting — unchanged since the 18th century — of riotously opulent furniture and sculpture. Not only will this excellent exhibition draw viewers who would not otherwise consider a visit, but it will provide a gateway to appreciate the Wallace’s holdings, especially the furniture, as works of art in themselves. If anything can make what might seem a visually excessive slice of expensive-looking historical artifacts relevant for today’s audiences, this exhibition is surely it.

Disney Studio Artist, model sheet, Beauty and the Beast (1991), photocopy on paper (© Disney)
Peter J. Hall, concept art, Beauty and the Beast (1991), watercolor, marker, and graphite on paper (© Disney)
Sèvres Manufactory, tower vase with cover (c. 1762) (© courtesy the Huntington Art Museum, San Marino, California)
Marc Davis, clean-up animation drawing, Cinderella (1950), graphite and colored pencil on paper (© Disney)
Hochst Manufactory, two porcelain dancers (c. 1758), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image courtesy The Wallace Collection)
Pedestal clock, attributed to André-Charles Boulle, movement by Louis Mynuël (c. 1720–25) (© The Wallace Collection)
Mary Blair, concept art, Cinderella (1950), gouache on board (© Disney)

Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts continues at The Wallace Collection (Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, England) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Helen Jacobsen and Wolf Burchard.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...