Exhibition in Paris shows Disney's debt to European artists

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The Independent Online

Move over Picasso and Constable, Manet and Poussin. Here come Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Snow White and Bambi.

An ambitious exhibition starting in Paris today will introduce the world to the most neglected artistic genius that it already knows: Walter Elias Disney.

The four-month show will be in the Grand Palais, just off the Champs-Elysées, one of the most prestigious exhibition sites in the French capital. The choice of venue has sent shock waves of disapproval through parts of the artistic world. Walt Disney in the Grand Palais? What next? Peanuts in the Louvre? Tom and Jerry in the Prado?

If you are prepared to take a broad-minded view of art; or if you are a lover of early Disney movies; or if you are interested in the history of the cinema, the exhibition will be a delight. It includes the largest collection of original material allowed to leave the archives of the Disney studios in Burbank, California, including sketches for the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), preliminary paintings for Snow White (1937), and water-colours, models and puppets for Pinocchio (1940).

The exhibition - open to invited guests today and the public from tomorrow - explores the mostly European artistic influences on the early Walt Disney, from Mickey Mouse to The Jungle Book (1967). It pays tribute to the talent of the, again mostly European, artists used by Disney to develop the characters and settings of his feature-length films.

The show, called Il était une fois Walt Disney (Once upon a time, there was Walt Disney), also looks at the influence Disney had on modern art, from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol. It includes a daily showing of scraps of an unlikely Disney-Dali joint project from 1945, an unfinished film called Destino. Most provocatively, the exhibition tries to make the case that some of the stills or sketches for the early Disney films should themselves be regarded as great art. The chief curator of the show, Bruno Girveau, of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, admits that Walt Disney is seen by many as a "paragon of the insipid" and, at best, "a story-teller of genius".

It is time for a radical reassessment, says M. Girveau, at least of those Disney films made before the founder's death in 1966. "It is my conviction that Walt Disney should be considered among the most important figures in the cinema - and more broadly in the art - of the 20th century," he says in the catalogue.

That might seem an incendiary claim in a country some of whose intellectuals greeted the arrival of the Eurodisney theme park east of Paris in the 1990s as a "cultural Chernobyl".

Pierre Lambert, a French cinema historian and author of books on Walt Disney, is among four other curators who have prepared the exhibition over 10 years. "There will be many ways to enjoy this exhibition," he said. "If, like me, you were enthralled by a Disney film as a child - in my case it was The Jungle Book when I was seven - you will look at the extraordinarily beautiful original artwork for the early films and you will be plunged back into the raw emotions of your childhood.

"This is also the most comprehensive exhibition attempted on the history and artistic influences of Disney. There have been others, including in Paris, going back to 1959, but never as large as this, and never with so much material."

The former boss of Disney, Michael Eisner, himself an art lover, was delighted by the prospect of a Disney exhibition. He gave M. Lambert and M. Girveau the run of the studio archives. "He said we could take 250 items, whatever we wanted," M. Lambert said. "Many people will be bowled over by the beauty of some of this material.

"Disney never regarded himself as an artist but he was an artist, in the same way that an orchestra conductor is an artist. Whether he realised it or not, he created a new art form."