What explains the lasting wonderment of French rococo, the theatrically frivolous, flauntingly costly mode in art, ceramics, furniture, décor, and fashion that flourished in mid-eighteenth-century aristocratic circles before, having gradually given way to sober neoclassicism, being squelched utterly by the Revolution of 1789? And why did that bedazzling visual repertoire recur in twentieth-century America as a species of imitation art—kitsch, in a word, although managed with undoubtable genius—in animated films branded by Walt Disney? “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts,” a fun show at the Metropolitan Museum, answers the question by conjoining the pleasures of authentically froufrou historical objects, mostly from the museum’s collection, with their style’s application in production drawings and video clips from Disney movies. The films include an early short, from 1934, called “The China Shop,” in which porcelain figurines have come to life and are prettily dancing minuets; two classics of the nineteen-fifties, “Cinderella,” released at the beginning of the decade, and “Sleeping Beauty,” which came out at the end of it; and, forming the pièce de résistance, an extravaganza in which atavistic pottery and candlesticks and clocks athletically celebrate a romance for their owner in “Beauty and the Beast,” from 1991.
Walt Disney himself had admired the look from early on—as witness amateur footage in the show of him with his family prowling Versailles in 1935—and he came, shrewdly, to grasp its viability for his coming revolution in popular culture. At the age of twenty, in 1922, Disney had founded a studio called Laugh-O-Gram Films, in Kansas City, with aid from the artist Ub Iwerks. It soon went bankrupt. Within a year, he started up again in Los Angeles. Brief comic animations that came to star Mickey Mouse, who first appeared in 1928, and the growing cast of the amiable rodent’s animal pals delighted moviegoers worldwide. But Disney aspired beyond that rudimentary success and began to produce feature-length narratives of folklore provenance, often with grippingly sinister elements. I believe that his breakthrough in this regard, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), was the first movie I ever saw. I was told that I screamed at the first appearance of the witch-queen and kept it up until my removal from the theatre. (And don’t get me started on the trauma, shared with other former tykes of my generation, of the killed-off mother in “Bambi,” from my birth year of 1942.) The Germanic source and pictured artifacts of “Snow White” would eventually be displaced by more reassuring enchantments of French origin, with an instinct that was sagely politic.
A Sèvres elephant-head vase by Jean-Claude Duplessis, circa 1758.Art work courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Disney steered his studio to exploit rococo’s gratuitous swank, emulating the feckless hedonism of the court of Louis XV while chastely suppressing its frequent eroticism. The language of antic curlicues, increasingly abstracted from film to film, blended smoothly into the insouciance of Disney’s fairyland fantasies: escapist worlds, complete in themselves. Though thoroughly secular, like his nostalgic evocations of circa-1900 America, the pastiche has something churchy about it. Under the pretense of entertaining children (if childless, borrow one), I have enjoyed visits to the consummately engineered Disneyland and Walt Disney World while noting a peculiar solemnity in their transports of innocence. The impunity of a justly doomed French regime (not our problem!) translated perfectly to fabricated realms that are carefully alien to anyone’s troubling reality. Cinderella’s castle, at Disney World, is modelled on Versailles, among other French châteaux. Centering Disneyland is a materialization of a related, crowning folly, the mad German king Ludwig II’s fantastical Neuschwanstein Castle (1868-92), which Disney adopted as the template for his studio’s logo. Nightly, Tinker Bell descends on a wire from its peak.
The Met show is replete with demonstrations of wizardly animation techniques, pre-digitally antique now, that take a viewer from sketch to cel to excerpted film. Notably transfixing is a pencilled sequence of the Beast’s physical transformation—airborne, cyclonic, a claw becoming a hand—into a dashing prince in the 1991 movie. But the keynote is industrial. A few eccentricities briefly beguiled Disney, such as gloomily stylized settings for “Sleeping Beauty,” by one Eyvind Earle, which distressed some fellow-animators with backgrounds that distracted from their characters. More typically, Disney subsumed the talents of his crews within uniformly anodyne schemas, where they register, if at all, like bumps under a blanket.
A covered vase in the form of a tower, from the Sèvres Manufactory, circa 1762.Art work courtesy the Huntington Art Museum
The sameness of calculation wearies after a while. This redounds to the comparative advantage of such juxtaposed French authenticities as a Sèvres vase, made in 1758, with handles in the shape of elephant heads. Sconces make a very big deal of hoisting candles aloft, and furniture hardware ennobles the act of opening drawers. In no milieu before or since have accoutrements of daily life, for those who could glory in affording them, been so systemically saturated with beauty. Rococo design complemented figurative, architectural, and vegetal allusions with gorgeously lapidary patterning, slipping between representation and abstraction in ways that, as we experience them, are a joy forever.
Stylistic excess, wretched or otherwise, comes and goes in art history, almost always in periods of complacent political stability. This is no paradox. Worldly crisis tends to foster disciplined expression. Relative tranquillity tasks artists with reminding people, for their amusement, if not as a moral caution, of the ineluctable chaos of human nature. The show, as organized by Wolf Burchard, who oversees British decorative art at the museum, adduces prior examples of determinedly over-the-top seductiveness as old as an early-sixteenth-century, amorous tapestry, “Shepherd and Shepherdess Making Music,” that was probably designed in France and woven in the southern Netherlands. Disney and his staff funnelled centuries of serious artistic precedent into their rote stylings. Flowing out, the results were—and remain—fleetingly delectable mush.
“A Subway Poster Pulls,” by E. McKnight Kauffer, from 1947.Art work © Smithsonian Institution
Before seeing the show, I’d had misgivings about the august Met’s hosting of what boded to be cynically corny corporate artifice. These faded, so engaging is the installation—and far be it from me to snoot a dreamy concept rendering, by the designer Mary Blair, of Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage—but the qualms reinfected me in the end. While we have grown used to crossovers of “high” and “low” in contemporary taste, the difference isn’t meaningless when any use of the past not only sterilizes its original import but makes a fetish of doing so. The payoff is diverting and may seem funny. But it lacks fundamental humor, which can’t do without at least a whisper of irony. We aren’t party to the Disney creative sorcery but only passive consumers of it. More humanly complex long-form animation arrived with the ongoing triumphs of Pixar, which the Walt Disney Company had the timely wit, in 2006, to acquire from Steve Jobs as a subsidiary.
How come I had never before now heard of the commercial poster designer E. McKnight Kauffer, the subject of a startlingly spectacular show, “Underground Modernist,” at the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum? I guess it’s because I’m used to tracking raids by art on popular culture but less so the other way around. Kauffer, who died in 1954, was a magus of boundless resourcefulness in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. With assistance from his second wife, Marion V. Dorn, a master of fabric design who survived him by ten years, he mined—and evangelized for—adventurous aesthetics to change the street-level look of cities, invigorate book-cover design, and inflect theatre sets and interior decoration. He insisted on working directly with clients, intent on persuading them to take risks in far-out geometric and surreally contorted imagery. His influence proved so infectious that it was swallowed up by successive generations in a profession whose manufacture is inherently ephemeral.
Starting as a restless lad from Montana, where he was born, in 1890, the then named Edward Kauffer spent his childhood in Evansville, Indiana. He dropped out of school at twelve or thirteen with aspirations to paint and, while still a teen-ager, went West, working odd jobs—bouncing from a travelling theatre company to a fruit ranch. Then, in San Francisco, he began an education in advanced art while working at a bookstore. His work caught the attention of a regular customer, Joseph E. McKnight, who so believed in Kauffer’s abilities that he offered to sponsor the young artist’s studies in Paris. Kauffer altered his name in homage to his benefactor. He furthered his schooling in Chicago (where he was exposed to the avant-garde marvels of the 1913 Armory Show, after its New York unveiling), and then Munich, before arriving in Paris. Based in England from 1915 to 1940, he became a live-wire cosmopolitan. A vast chart spanning a wall of the Cooper Hewitt show amounts to a name-drop constellation, with lines of association that radiate from a portrayal of his handsome face to the likes of, among other starry personages, Alfred Hitchcock, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Langston Hughes, Man Ray, and Sir Kenneth Clark.
Another factor obscuring Kauffer’s reputation is his practically exotic integrity, public-spirited in service to civic and political causes and holding that a proper designer “must remain an artist.” Working mainly with small agencies, though winning commissions including the creation of some hundred and twenty-five posters for the London Underground, he denounced, in a lecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1948, the recourse of the dominant firms to the “usual methods of appeal through sex, snobbism, fear and corruptive sentimentality.” Never settling on a signature style, he said that his criteria for posters were “attraction, interest, and stimulation,” deeming “no means too arbitrary or too classical”—Apollonian values.
Moving with Dorn to New York in 1940, he had intermittent success with campaigns for such businesses as American Airlines and with distinctive cover designs for modern classics published by Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, and Pantheon, including James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (the fat white “U” and the skinny blue “l,” both radically elongated, seize attention) and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (a shadowed face crossed by white lines and granted one staring eye). But he suffered declines in both his health and his productiveness. He never felt at home in his native land, he said. Sorely missing his overseas friends, estranged from Dorn, and alcoholic, he came to a sad end. Even then, his prestige among colleagues who had known his work lived on long afterward. You will see why if you attend this show. ♦