Going All In on the Magic Kingdom

“The first exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Hollywood dream maker Walt Disney is a milestone”, writes the director of the museum, Max Hollein, in the preface of the catalog “Inspire Walt Disney: the animation of the French decorative arts” . It is – and not in a good way. The show, which combines 18th century European decorative arts objects with Disney-related materials in an attempt to show the influence of one on the other, breaks with the museum’s historical past and puts it on the way of an unworthy future.

‘Inspiring Walt Disney: French Decorative Arts Animation’

The Met Fifth Avenue, until March 6, 2022

Curated by the museum’s Wolf Burchard, the exhibition features 60 objects such as Meissen and Sevres porcelain figurines, Boulle clocks, and furniture that will never be mistaken for anything from Restoration Hardware along with 150 works by production art, film clips and other material related to the creations of Disney Studios such as “Beauty and the Beast”.

There’s something else on display, too. Mr. Burchard does more than just trace the artistic influence. He wants us to see the two bodies of labor as essentially the same. He writes in the catalog “the many areas of overlap in their sources of inspiration, artistic intuition, rhetoric, humor, craftsmanship, workshop practices and advances, each pushed into design and technology. “. Not only that, he says, but the rococo craftsmen and animation artists of Disney shared an ambition, that of generating “feelings of excitement and wonder and wonder.” . . among their respective audiences.

After drawings by Juste Aurèle Meissonnier (French, 1695-1750), one of a pair of candlesticks (1735-50).


Photo:

Metropolitan Art Museum

Concept art by Kevin Lima for the character of Lumière in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991).


Photo:

Disney

It’s like claiming that a Renaissance painting of the Crucifixion and the treatment of it by modern British artist Francis Bacon inhabit the same universe. This is another example of the great project of leveling postmodernism to eradicate all hierarchies, distinctions and norms by establishing a false equivalence between opposites.

Yet the show presents visitors with truly exquisite objects that they might otherwise have overlooked. There’s the gilded bronze candle holder whose swirling shapes and sinuous lines anticipate two centuries of the Art Nouveau movement, and the richly upholstered, carved and gilded sofa that is far too beautiful to even think of sitting on.

Then there are the porcelains. European artisans had just cracked the code that had previously thwarted their efforts to make porcelain as fine as that imported from China. The result has been an outpouring of works, such as the Meissen character groups and the Sevres elephant vases on display here, of such imaginative richness, aesthetic sophistication, and technical refinement that they have never lost their ability to amaze.

There are ways to put together a show about sources and influences like this, but “Inspiring Walt Disney” isn’t it. Because these masterpieces don’t stand a chance in this exhibition. They are completely eclipsed by the Disney machine, by the soundtrack booming in the galleries, for example, and the continuous looping clip of “Beauty and the Beast” playing on a 4 by 8 foot screen – the size of one of the Met’s own paintings.

Most blatant of all, to tie in with Disney’s dancing teapots, candelabras and the like, Mr. Burchard placed things like the gilded bronze candlestick and two porcelain figurines on rotating bases. This turns them into the equivalent of a young girl’s ballerina box where a little tutuated plastic figure appears and begins to twirl when the lid is opened. I have never seen a museum abuse and diminish so much the works of art entrusted to it.

The most disheartening aspect of this episode is the loss of institutional self-confidence it suggests. There was a time when the Met saw itself as an intellectual leader, unafraid to put on shows on unfamiliar or even obscure topics just because they mattered, and confident that audiences would respond. It made. To take an example, the museum’s “Painting in Renaissance Siena” exhibition from 1988 could not be conceived as a “blockbuster” exhibition because it was installed in the Lehman wing, whose galleries are not available. sized to accommodate crowds. Yet word of mouth has made it one. Every day I was there, large numbers of visitors – more than I have ever seen in this space before or since – read the long wall texts, then eagerly scrutinized the religious narratives hung beside them.

This is why Mr. Hollein’s opening sentence is so sinister. Met exhibitions in the past have occasionally engaged in popular culture. But this one does it on a whole different order of magnitude – in the choice of subject matter, the way it’s organized and weighted (Disney objects outnumber others by more than 2 to 1), and the ideas behind it. ‘he advances. With “Animating Walt Disney”, the Met has bet everything on the Magic Kingdom.

As a result, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, either because of the financial havoc wreaked by the pandemic, or for some other reason, the management of the Met has decided that they can no longer rely on this earlier ambitious prospect to generate the number of visitors the museum needs. . It will therefore rely henceforth on the practice of the sugar spoon, so familiar in other museums, to harness the fine arts to popular culture. What’s next for the Met, “Ancient Roman Art and ‘Animal House’ Costumes”? I can not wait.

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