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French art pantheon salutes Walt Disney

Mickey Mouse belongs in hallowed hall of Matisse and Monet, says Grand Palais curator.

September 20, 2006|Angela Doland | Associated Press

PARIS — Le Grand Palais is where Parisians go to worship Les Grands Artistes -- Delacroix, for example, or Renoir or Manet. So the latest show there is practically a revolution.

Now the Grand Palais is paying homage to Walt Disney -- seriously, academically and without a trace of disdain for American pop culture.

Disney "was one of the great geniuses of the 20th century and the greatest storyteller of the 20th century," gushed curator Bruno Girveau, who tirelessly promoted his project to skeptics who couldn't understand why he wanted to put Mickey Mouse on walls usually graced by Matisse or Monet.

The show, "Once Upon a Time, Walt Disney," which opened Saturday, seems to be part of a shift in France's zeitgeist. Lately, the French seem intent on debunking the stereotype that they turn up their noses at Americana.

The Louvre Museum, for example, is wrapping up its first-ever exhibit on American artists. And pro-America presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy toured the United States this week, proclaiming that the French love movies like "Miami Vice" and music by Madonna, not to mention blue jeans and burgers.

One reason Disney was a genius, Girveau says, is because he was unafraid to mix up cultural references, from George Cukor films to German expressionist cinema to Beatrix Potter's bunny rabbits to illustrations of Dante's "Inferno." The evil queen in "Snow White" has the face of Joan Crawford and the body of a statue from a Gothic cathedral in Naumburg, Germany.

Disney's mixtures "are completely unscrupulous, something only an American could do, back then and still today," Girveau said.

In the Grand Palais show, Europe also gets its share of credit in Disney's art: The premise is that Disney took great influence from Old World artistic traditions. Many of his early animators were European emigres from continental art schools.

A turning point for Disney -- whom Girveau compares to an orchestra conductor, overseeing the work of other artists -- was a 1935 trip to Europe. Disney brought back more than 300 illustrated books for his animators.

Many are on display, along with original art and other treasures. Disney opened up its 70,000-piece archive for the curator -- not something it does often, said Nathalie Dray, spokeswoman for the Walt Disney Co. in France. More than 500 Disney pieces are on display.

The show also borrowed works from museums around the world, placing oil paintings in gilt frames alongside the Disney animations they helped inspire. A scene from the spooky forest in "Snow White," where trees come to life and grab at the heroine with spindly branches, is next to an eerie 1900 painting of anthropomorphic trees by William Degouve de Nuncques.

One gallery juxtaposes classic black-and-white movie clips alongside Disney films. On the left, Donald Duck gets stuck in a shoeshine machine and winds up with blackened feathers, while on the right, Charlie Chaplin gets force-fed by a similar many-armed contraption in "Modern Times."

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