Many big names can be found in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman: van Gogh, Monet, Piglet.
Wait ... Piglet? The Winnie the Pooh character and his popped balloon are the focus of just one animation cel among 83 that constitute the venue’s latest exhibition, A Century of Magic: The Animation of the Walt Disney Studios, on display for six months. From 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 1999’s Fantasia 2000, every one of the studio’s major animated films are represented, with the exception of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.
What business do frames from cartoon features have hanging on the walls of an art museum? A lot, according to Mark A. White, chief curator.
“Disney animation has had an interesting relationship to art, specifically modern contemporary, for much of the 20th century,” White said.
Added Ghislain d’Humières, museum director, “Disney has a huge influence on society: the behavior of children, the importance of music. When you look at the early [films], they were painted on glass, layer after layer. It’s a real work of art. It’s pure creativity.”
It hasn’t always been perceived that way. White said Snow White’s late-’30s premiere ushered interest among artists and critics in Disney animation as a potential medium for development of contemporary art, especially distinct from European work.
“The sort of promise Disney held for the future of American art — that idea dissipated in the 1940s and 1950s,” he said, noting a movement against popular culture that equated such works with kitsch.
Only in the 1960s when pop artists recognized their iconic value did the films’ “lowbrow” reputation reverse to its original prestige. In the 1980s, White said, Disney animation cels “became very collectible, at astronomical prices.”For 25 years, Janis Scaramucci of Norman has been one such collector; this exhibition comes culled from her private stock of hundreds. Narrowing them down to the fraction on display was, White said, “difficult.”
“If it was possible to capture one iconic scene, that was an easy choice,” he said. “In other instances, it came down to aesthetic criteria.”
During that process, “Certain cels created a nostalgia for me,” White said, singling out 1953’s Peter Pan and Pecos Bill from 1948’s Melody Time. “I think for some viewers, that will be the sum total of the exhibit. We’re also hoping people will get a sense in the artistry that was involved.”
For d’Humières, 1942’s Bambi is a personal favorite: “I think that was my first movie.”
A Century of Magic holds historic merit, partly because traditional hand-drawn animation is a vanishing art, usurped by the computer animation of Pixar and its peers.
And that bothers White. “It’s a shame,” he said. “For that kind of art form to disappear is equivalent to painting disappearing.”