When pop culture attacks art, and vice versa


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Which explains the enduring wonder of French Rococo, the frivolous and ostensibly expensive theatrical fashion of art, ceramics, furniture, decor and fashion that flourished in aristocratic circles from the mid-18th century before. , having gradually given way to sober neoclassicism, being completely stifled by the Revolution of 1789? And why did this dazzling visual repertoire reproduce itself in twentieth-century America as a kind of imitation art, in a word kitsch, although managed with unquestionable genius, in the animated films of Walt Disney? “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts”, a fun show at the Metropolitan Museum, answers the question by associating the pleasures of genuinely frilly historical objects, mostly from the museum’s collection, with the application of their style. in production designs and video clips of Disney films. The films include a first short, from 1934, titled “The China Shop,” in which porcelain figurines come to life and are pretty dancing minuets; two classics from the fifties, “Cinderella”, released at the beginning of the decade, and “Sleeping Beauty”, which comes out at the end of it; and, forming the piece de resistance, an extravaganza in which atavistic pottery, candlesticks and clocks athletically celebrate a romance for their owner in “Beauty and the Beast” from 1991.

Walt Disney himself had admired the look from the start – as evidenced by the amateur images in the show of him with his family prowling Versailles in 1935 – and he came, artfully, to grasp its viability for his coming revolution. in popular culture. At the age of twenty, in 1922, Disney had founded a studio called Laugh-O-Gram Films, in Kansas City, with the help of artist Ub Iwerks. He quickly went bankrupt. In less than a year, he returned to Los Angeles. Short comic animations featuring Mickey Mouse, who first appeared in 1928, and the growing cast of Animal Friends of the Lovable Rodent have thrilled moviegoers around the world. But Disney aspired beyond this rudimentary success and began producing narrative feature films of folklore, often with sinister and gripping elements. I believe his breakthrough in this regard, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), was the first film I have ever seen. I was told that I screamed at the Witch Queen’s first appearance and continued until I retired from the theater. (And don’t get me started on the trauma, shared with other old tykes of my generation, from the slain mother to ‘Bambi’, from my birth year 1942.) The Germanic source and the illustrated artifacts from ‘Snow White Would end up being replaced by more reassuring enchantments of French origin, with a cleverly political instinct.

A vase with the head of an elephant from Sèvres by Jean-Claude Duplessis, circa 1758.Artwork courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Disney ran his studio to harness the gratuitous madness of Rococo, mimicking the reckless hedonism of Louis XV’s court while chastely suppressing its frequent eroticism. The language of ancient flourishes, more and more abstract from film to film, smoothly merged into the recklessness of Disney’s fairy-tale fantasies: worlds of escape, complete in themselves. Although deeply secular, like its nostalgic evocations of America around 1900, there is something church about the pastiche. Under the pretext of entertaining the children (if without a child, borrow one), I enjoyed the visits to Disneyland and Walt Disney World, while noting a special solemnity in their transports of innocence. The impunity of a rightly condemned French regime (not our problem!) Has translated perfectly into fabricated kingdoms that are carefully alien to anyone’s troubling reality. Cinderella’s Castle, at Disney World, is modeled on Versailles, among other French châteaux. Centering Disneyland is a materialization of a related madness, crowning glory, the fantastic Neuschwanstein Castle of mad German King Ludwig II (1868-1892), which Disney adopted as the template for his studio logo. At night, Tinker Bell descends on a wire from its summit.

The Met show is full of demonstrations of magical animation techniques, pre-digital at the present time, that take the viewer from sketch to film to film clip. Notably, the transfixation is a pencil sequence of the Beast’s physical transformation – airborne, cyclonic, a claw becoming a hand – into a dashing prince in the 1991 film. But the keynote is industrial. A few eccentricities briefly wowed Disney, such as dark stylized sets for “Sleeping Beauty,” by one Eyvind Earle, which plagued some fellow animators with backgrounds that distracted their characters’ attention. More generally, Disney has encompassed the talents of its teams in uniformly innocuous patterns, where they register, if at all, like bumps under a blanket.

Covered tower-shaped vase, Sèvres manufactory, circa 1762.Artwork courtesy of the Huntington Art Museum

The similarity of the calculus tires out after a while. This joins the comparative advantage of French authenticity juxtaposed like a Sèvres vase, made in 1758, with handles in the shape of elephant heads. Sconces do a lot to hoist candles, and furniture hardware ennobles the act of opening drawers. In no environment, before or since, the accessories of daily life, for those who could boast of offering them, have been so systematically saturated with beauty. The rococo design complemented figurative, architectural and vegetal allusions with beautifully pithy patterns, sliding between representation and abstraction in a way that, as we experience them, is a joy forever.

Stylistic excess, miserable or not, comes and goes in art history, almost always in times of complacent political stability. It is not a paradox. Worldly crisis tends to favor disciplined expression. A relative tranquility charges artists to recall, for their amusement, if not out of moral prudence, the ineluctable chaos of human nature. The show, curated by Wolf Burchard, who oversees British decorative art at the museum, features earlier examples of decidedly exaggerated seduction as old as an early 16th-century love tapestry, “The Shepherd and the Shepherdess Making Music.” which was probably designed in France and woven in the south of the Netherlands. Disney and his team have funneled centuries of serious artistic precedent into their styles by heart. Flowing in, the results were – and remain – a fleeting and delicious mush.

“A Subway Poster Sweaters,” by E. McKnight Kauffer, 1947.Artwork © Smithsonian Institution

Before seeing the show, I had had doubts about the reception by the August Met of what foreshadowed a cynically old-fashioned corporate artifice. These have faded, so engaging is the installation – and far from me the idea of ​​snubbing a dreamy concept rendering, by designer Mary Blair, of Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage – but the scruples eventually re-infected me. . Although we have become accustomed to the crosses of ‘high’ and ‘low’ in contemporary taste, the difference is not insignificant when any use of the past not only sterilizes its original import but makes it a fetish. The reward is entertaining and may seem funny. But there is a lack of basic humor, which cannot be without at least a hint of irony. We are not part of the creative witchcraft of Disney, but only passive consumers. Long-lasting animation that is more complex on a human level came with the continuing triumphs of Pixar, which the Walt Disney Company had the opportune moment in 2006 to acquire from Steve Jobs as a subsidiary.

How come I had never heard of commercial poster designer E. McKnight Kauffer, the subject of a surprisingly spectacular exhibition, “Underground Modernist,” at the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum? Guess that’s because I’m used to stalking art raids on popular culture but less the other way around. Kauffer, who died in 1954, was a magus of boundless ingenuity in the twenties and thirties. With the help of his second wife, Marion V. Dorn, a master of fabric design who survived him for ten years, he exploited and evangelized for the adventurous aesthetic to change the appearance of cities at the level of the street, reinvigorate the design of book covers and influence theatrical sets and interior design. He insisted on working directly with clients, intending to persuade them to take risks in distant and surreal geometric images. Its influence has proven to be so contagious that it has been swallowed up by successive generations in a craft whose manufacture is inherently ephemeral.

Beginning as a restless boy from Montana, where he was born, in 1890, then named Edward Kauffer spent his childhood in Evansville, Indiana. He dropped out of school at age twelve or thirteen with aspirations to paint and, as a teenager, went west, working odd jobs, growing from a traveling theater company to a ranch in fruits. Then, in San Francisco, he began training in advanced art while working in a bookstore. His work caught the attention of a regular client, Joseph E. McKnight, who believed so much in Kauffer’s abilities that he offered to sponsor the young artist’s studies in Paris. Kauffer changed his name in homage to his benefactor. He continued his studies in Chicago (where he was exposed to the avant-garde wonders of the Armory Show of 1913, after its inauguration in New York), then in Munich, before arriving in Paris. Settled in England from 1915 to 1940, he became a cosmopolitan of the wire under tension. A large painting covering a wall from the Cooper Hewitt show equates to a constellation of names, with lines of association that radiate from a depiction of her beautiful face to figures like, among other starry figures, Alfred Hitchcock, TS Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Langston Hughes, Man Ray and Sir Kenneth Clark.

Another factor clouding Kauffer’s reputation is his almost exotic integrity, his civic-mindedness in the service of civic and political causes, and his belief that a good designer “must remain an artist.” Working mainly with small agencies, while winning commissions including the creation of some one hundred and twenty-five posters for the London Underground, he denounced, in a conference at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1948, the use of dominant firms to “Usual methods of appealing through sex, snobbery, fear and corrupting sentimentality.” Never stopping on one signature style, he said his criteria for the posters were “attraction, interest and stimulation”, deeming “no way too arbitrary or too classic” – the Apollonian values.

Moving with Dorn to New York in 1940, he enjoyed intermittent success with campaigns for companies such as American Airlines and with distinctive covers for modern classics published by Alfred A. Knopf, Random House and Pantheon, including “Ulysses “by James Joyce (the bold white” U “and skinny blue” L “both drastically elongated draw attention) and Ralph Ellison’s” Invisible Man “(a shaded face crossed by white lines and endowed with a fixed eye). But he suffered a decline in his health and productivity. He never felt at home in his native country, he said. He sorely missed his friends overseas, distant from Dorn and alcoholics, he had a sad end. Even then, his prestige among colleagues who had known his work survived long afterward. You will see why if you attend this show. ??

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