Hey Mickey, you're so fine - Disney and his draughtsmen

The iconic images of Snow White, Bambi et al are no mere cartoons - they're High Art, according to a controversial new exhibition in Paris. What's more, Charles Darwent discovers, Walt Disney and his draughtsmen knew it
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The Independent Culture

Free-wheeling relativists that you are, you will probably have no trouble in accepting Mickey Mouse as a work of art. But what about as a work of Art? An icon not of mass culture but of High Culture, to be spoken of in the same breath as a painting by Mark Rothko? What then?

Now imagine you are French. It is 1989 and DisneyCo's CEO, Michael Eisner, is standing on the steps of the Paris stock exchange, there to launch shares in EuroDisney. Eisner, on a high, walks up to the podium without noticing a group in the crowd wearing Mickey Mouse masks. As he opens his mouth to speak, an egg hits him in the face. Dozens more follow: Eisner and the DisneyCo suits have to hide in the Bourse's Doric portico to avoid them.

Three years later and the super-branchée Parisian theatre director, Ariane Mnouchkine, is asked her opinion of the newly-opened Disneyland Paris. Pulling on a Gitane, Mnouchkine calls the park "a cultural Chernobyl". The phrase instantly catches on, spreading through the cafés of St Germain like wildfire. Three more years and The Simpsons hits back for American cartoondom when one of its characters dubs the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." Figaro, appalled at the inference of national cowardice, translates the term as singes mangeurs de fromage. This is allegedly on the grounds that "surrender" makes it too unwieldy, though American newspapers jeer.

All of which makes Bruno Girveau smile a tight little smile. Girveau, forty-something, looks like Vincent van Gogh: you wonder if he doesn't share his instinct for survival. For Girveau is about to do something that will almost certainly bring the wrath of the French cultural Establishment - maybe of all France - down on his head. He is opening an exhibition, a decade in the making, called Il était une fois Walt Disney (Once Upon A Time There Was Walt Disney), and he is doing it at the Grand Palais.

Unimaginably, there is worse. The subtitle of Girveau's show is aux sources de l'art des studios Disney, plainly inferring that Mickey and his attendant mice are to be viewed as Art with a capital "A". Here, where Pierre Rosenberg, the demigod of French curating, has spent 30 years putting on exhibitions of Oudry and Poussin and Chardin, Girveau will show stills from Steamboat Willy and clips from Bambi. Worse still, he will show them next to paintings by Richard Dadd and Claes Oldenburg. "I've had to fight hard for this show," he says. "The idea of Walt Disney in French culture... pfffffft. I think a lot of people are not going to like it, no?"

Now a question that occurs is why Girveau is doing this apparently suicidal thing when a simple revolver to the head might achieve the same end. There are several answers to this, the first being that he, like all of us, was traumatised by Disney as a child.

For most, the moment of crisis came with the death of Bambi's mother. Girveau, more rigorous, was thrown into existential turmoil by the apparent demise of Balou the Bear in The Jungle Book although, he says, "the trauma was the same". "I took my own children to see it and it had a similar effect on them," says Girveau. "I found I was looking at Disney through three sets of eyes: as a father, as a child and as an art historian".

The last viewpoint is easily the most contentious. What Girveau began to see as he watched and re-watched The Jungle Book and Sleeping Beauty were peaks of High Art dotted among Disney's Low Art landscapes. Some deft research showed why: the people who had drawn those landscapes came from a classical background, having trained as fine artists rather than as graphicists.

What is more, and although "Mickey Mouse" has become a sneery metonym of American culture, those artists were almost to a man not American. Although Disney credited himself with creating the infamous rodent (a claim that has been vigorously denied since his death), the people who drew Snow White and the rest were European émigrés such as the Swiss Albert Hurter, the Swede Gustaf Tenggren and the Dane Kay Nielsen.

Nielsen is typical of the Disney designers. Son of the director of Copenhagen's Dagmartheater, he studied art at the Juian Academy in Paris before shipping out to Hollywood; his work was influenced by the Symbolists and German High Romanticism. Look at the images he drew to accompany Schubert's Ave Maria in Fantasia (1940) and you will see straight liftings from Caspar David Friedrich. The film's Nutcracker sequence, meanwhile, was drawn by an Englishwoman called Sylvia Moberly-Holland with a taste for Dadd's fairy paintings, while Albert Hurter, Fantasia's artistic director, threw in Arnold Böcklin and Gustave Moreau as an accompaniment to Beethoven's Sixth.

Even Disney's Americans were more than met the eye. Eyvind Earle, doyen of the studio's designers and the man who styled Sleeping Beauty (1959), was taught by an artist father who had been taught by Whistler. There is one degree of separation between Earle's wicked fairy and Whistler's Mother.

One of the studio's more direct (and odder) flirtations with High Art came in the form of a film called Destino (1946). Knowing that Salvador Dali was in Hollywood working on the dream sequence in Hitchcock's Spellbound, Disney suggested to the Spaniard that they collaborate on a film of their own. Dali, always a tease, had claimed to be a Disney fan: in a letter to André Breton in 1937, he called the cartoon king "one of the few real American Surrealists".

In the end, Destino was never made, although enough drawings and paintings remained to allow Disney's nephew, Roy, to fudge a six-minute version of the film in 2003. This will also put in a rare appearance in Bruno Girveau's show.

As Fantasia's score suggests, Disney's High Culture liftings weren't just restricted to the visual arts. Although Walt himself grew up in Marceline, Missouri and was, as Girveau tactfully remarks, "not cultivé", he had an eye for cultivation's value at the box office.

Returning from a trip to Europe in 1935, Disney packed his trunks with illustrated books, the editions of Grimm and Perrault and J M Barrie that would become the mainstay of his studio's production. (These have also been lent to the Grand Palais, displayed in vitrines shaped like Snow White's glass coffin: "I wanted to show Disney's dark side," says Girveau.) Walt's nose for a story cut through time, language and literary style. In 1943, he drew up a list of Great Works to be turned into animated cartoons, beginning with The Bible and ending with The Arabian Nights. The world may only have been spared The Gospel According to Mickey by the lung cancer that killed Disney in 1966.

Perhaps the most unexpected of Walt's cultural borrowings are those from his own medium, and particularly from German Expressionist cinema. Two clips shown side-by-side in Il était une fois Walt Disney are the scene from Fantasia in which the sorcerer turns his rodentine apprentice into a butterfly, and a bizarrely similar one from F W Murnau's Faust. The episode in The Sorcerer's Apprentice where Mickey's labour-saving spell runs out of control sits compellingly alongside the factory scene from Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

At times, the echoes are so close as to seem like parody: the crayonned storyboard for the balcony scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) is a straight lift from George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet, made the year before. This is fascinating stuff, as is Girveau's insistence that some of the drawings from Disney's mid-century films, never before seen in public, should be seen as straightforward works of art.

More interesting still, though, is the sense that there is more to Il était une fois Walt Disney than meets the eye. Making a case for viewing Mickey and his pards as works of High Art is a brave thing to do; making it in Paris is nothing short of heroic. Memories of the Iraq War rankle here, as does a horror of what the French see as the Coca-Colonization of their culture. Mickey in the Grand Palais has all the revolutionary symbolism of Liberty on the barricades, with none of her charm.

In part, the politics of Girveau's show are shaped by in-fighting. The Grand Palais has always been in the fiefdom of national museums like the Louvre, used for staging High Art blockbusters tied to their own collections. A freeing-up of its governance means that the gallery can now put on any show it damn well likes, and Girveau's is a statement of this fact.

But there is also a sense that Girveau is setting up his very own Eurodisney, which is to say a Disney that is at heart European. To re-invent Cinderella and the rest as works of European art - which, on various levels, they clearly are - is one in the eye for American cultural hegemony. I rather doubt that Il était une fois Walt Disney would play well in Odessa, Texas, and not just because its title is in a funny language.

Oddly, if one country does well out of Girveau's rehabilitated Disney, it is Germany. This can't just be explained by the preeminence of the Brothers Grimm in fairyland. Even non-German tales were Germanicised by Disney's studio, the plot of the Italian Pinocchio being quietly moved to Bavaria, the French Cendrillon (Cinderella) and La Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty) being made to live in generic versions of Neuschwanstein.

This is historically disturbing. Although Girveau claims a fondness for Disney's dark side, his exhibition tactfully skates over the allegations made in Marc Eliot's 1994 notorious biography, Hollywood's Dark Prince. Among the more plausible of these was that Walt was a lifelong anti-semite: one drawing not included in Il était une fois Walt Disney is that for a scene in The Three Little Pigs, later edited out, in which the Big Bad Wolf is played as a Jewish peddlar. Given that the film was made in 1933 - the year that Hitler came to power, German Jews were banned from the professions and Jewish books were burned in the streets - this seems something more than an unhappy coincidence.

There is another irony in Girveau's show, too. Its final section is given over to works of modern art inspired by Disney. For the most part, the inspiration is de bas en haut, High Art toying with Low to make a point about the spread of mass culture. When Andy Warhol turned out a series of Mickey Mouse paintings and prints in the early 1980s, he wasn't flattering by imitation. He was asking Benjaminian questions about where cultural lines could be drawn in an age of mechanical reproduction.

But Warhol's assumption, like those of mouse-mocking artists from Eduardo Paolozzi to Jean-Michel Basquiat, may have been wrong. Disney's art may not have been Low at all: in fact, Disney may have beaten them all to post modernism by marrying Richard Dadd to Jean Harlow in Pinocchio's Blue Fairy, or in magicking Snow White's Wicked Queen out of a Gothic statue in Naumburg Cathedral and the cheekbones of Joan Crawford. The boy from Marceline may have invented that most art-schooly of things, appropriation.

If Girveau is right, then Warhol and the rest were unwittingly appropriating what had already been appropriated, trading in third-hand goods. It was Disney who was the artist.

Il était une fois Walt Disney will run at the Grand Palais, 75008 Paris (00331 44 13 17 17; www.rmn.fr/galeriesnationalesdugrandpalais), 16 Sept to 15 Jan

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