Drawing a Warm Bath
[Mary Blair's work, as gentle and childlike as it is, arouses
strong passions in many of its admirers, two of whom have put their
praise into exceptionally interesting words. I encourage you to
read the favorable comments of Amid
Amidi, at his invariably enjoyable Animation Blast site, and
Wray, in a forum at Shane Glines's stimulating site.]
Mary Blair made many hundreds of small paintingssome no more
than rough sketches, others considerably more finishedas the
principal designer for the Walt Disney animated features in the
forties and early fifties. Her style, which I describe in Hollywood
Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, as "soften[ing]
and smooth[ing] away contemporary art's harsh edges," crystallized
during work on Disney's Latin American features, Saludos
Three Caballeros, and then dominated the postwar features.
Her last work as a feature designer was on Peter Pan, although
she worked for Disney occasionally after that. She made her major
contribution in later years through conceptual paintings for "It's
a Small World," the attraction conceived for the 1964 New York
World's Fair and subsequently transplanted to the Disney theme parks.
She died in 1978.
Canemaker wrote about Blair first in his 1996 book about the Disney
stylists and conceptual artists, Before
Begins (Hyperion). Now he has written a 110-page monograph,
Art and Flair of Mary Blair: An Appreciation (Disney Editions,
$40), that brings together nearly two hundred beautifully reproduced
examples of Blair's work, both Disney and non-Disney.
Canemaker is only one of a large number of discerning and intelligent
peopleRobin Allan, author of the splendid study Walt
Disney and Europe, is anotherwho admire Blair's work.
Canemaker writes of Blair: "At its core, her art represents
joyful creativity and communicates pure pleasure to the viewer.
Her exuberant fantasies brim with beauty, charm, and wit, melding
a child's fresh eye with adult experience."
If we take Canemaker's argument for Blair seriously, as I think
we should, it points toward the conclusion that Blair succeeded
as well at designing settings and color schemes for the Disney cartoons
as any number of earlier artists succeeded at their tasks. I've never
thought Blair's paintings were particularly good as film designs,
however, and they seem to me especially unsuited as designs for
Disney cartoons. The fundamental flaw in Blair's art is that it
is deeply unserious. It was, I suspect, that very quality that recommended
her work so strongly to Walt Disney himself in the postwar years.
Blair's undeniable skill with color is at the heart of Canemaker's
case for her work. He quotes the Disney director Mike Gabriel (Pocahontas)
on one way in which Blair exercised her skill: "Primary color,
secondary color with a complementary accent against a muted complement
in the background. When you do that, [the image] sings like a million
bucks." Such comments, measured against the book's reproductions,
ring true; but where Blair falls short is in the very prodigality
of her color. Too often, a painting draws freely on too wide a range
of colors, or the dominant colors are too bright and rich, "straight
from the tube," as one colleague quoted by Canemaker puts it.
The inevitable effect, because the paint is not allowed to be much
more than a vehicle for color, is to push the paintings toward mere
Frederic Remington and Mary Blair were artists who worked decades
apart, in very different circumstances, and who were, not insignificantly,
of different genders. But Remington's best paintings say something
about Blair's. He began as an illustrator of western incidents,
but he rose to a much more rarefied level, as demonstrated by the
paintings recently on display at the National Gallery of Art in
Washington, in an exhibition called "The Color of Night."
Remington was a far more daring painter than Blair, trusting a narrower
and subtler palettehere dominated by a twilight blue, there
by an ashy moonlit white or the shadowed gold of a disappearing
sunset. Because his surfaces are not busy, and his color draws the
eye into the paintings, his most intense focus is on the people
he has painted. Usually, they are taking part in a human drama that
is simultaneously ambiguous and intense.
There is no such human drama in Blair's paintings. What really
sinks her work is her indifference to the human figure. Typically,
the characters in her paintings are simply elements in a buzzing
color scheme. But when you put people into a painting of any kind,
you've got to do something with them; they resist being treated
simply as decoration. The painters of any number of elaborate Baroque
ceilings proved that such resistance can be overcome, but doing
so requires more effort than Blair put forth. Her human figures
are almost always conspicuously vacantin posture, in expression,
in everything that might suggest an individual existence. In her
freelance advertising work in the fifties, Blair stylized that emptiness,
but in her Disney work the characters seem like afterthoughts.
Blair's job was to design settings, and only secondarily to design
characters, but her flat, decorative designs were at odds with the
nature of Disney character animation as it had evolved through the
thirties and into the forties. Canemaker acknowledges "a design
disconnect between characters and settings.
rounded human and animal characters were incongruously placed against
flat color or stylized backgrounds." The suggestionamplified
in quotations from the animators Marc Davis and Ward Kimballis
that the films would have benefited if the characters had shared
more of the characteristics of Blair's paintings. But the "disconnect"
was not simply graphic, and ceding more ground to Blair did not
When Blair's styling dominated a Disney film's characters as well
as its backgrounds, the characters shriveled. In the "Once
Upon a Wintertime" and "Johnny Appleseed" segments
Timeprobably the film that most successfully translates
Blair's styling to the screenthe characters are not just simple
in design. Compared with the characters in earlier features, they
are remarkably bland and inexpressiveand that despite the
presence in both segments of some of the Disney studio's best animators.
Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, and Eric Larson animated most of "Appleseed,"
each of them turning out less than ten feet of animation a week.
But as "Appleseed's" director, Wilfred Jackson, realized,
more assertive animation would have called into question the shallowness
of Blair's designs.
Disney character animation was serious; Blair's designs were not.
Why then, was Walt Disney himself so enthusiastic an advocate for
Blair's work? (Jackson made a particular effort to incorporate Blair's
style into Melody Time after Disney expressed disappointment
that her style had been compromised in the animated portions of
Song of the South.)
It was not as if examples were lacking of the ways in which intelligently
conceived backgrounds could enhance character animation of the Disney
kind. Paul Julian's settings for Friz Freleng's cartoons at Warner
Bros. in the forties were solid and three-dimensional, filled with
light and air, but were never overly realistic. They had the same
qualities as good Disney animationthey were simultaneously
subtle and straightforward, complex in structure but simple in effect.
The contemporaneous Robert Gribbroek-Pete Alvarado backgrounds for
Chuck Jones's Warner cartoons were successful in much the same way.
(Julian was a better designer than Blair of "modern" backgrounds,
too, as he demonstrated in John Hubley's Rooty Toot Toot
and other UPA cartoons.)
Blair's paintings, in their decorative insubstantiality, must
have recommended themselves to Walt Disney as a sort of weapon he
could wieldno doubt unconsciouslyagainst the serious
character animation he had almost singlehandedly brought into being
as a new art form in the thirties. Partly through circumstance,
but thanks largely to Disney's own actions, such animation stalled
in its development in the early forties. By late in the decade it
had become a sort of ghost at the feast, a painful reminder of lofty
ambitions that Disney had no choice but to put aside. I believe
that at some level Disney, proud man that he was, wanted to punish
character animation for the pain he felt. One way he did that was
by trying to subordinate character animation to Mary Blair's attractive
but incompatible designs.
In the fifties, Disney submerged himself in projects that werecompared
with his great work of a decade and a half earlier, and regardless
of the new projects' scale and complexitytrivial pursuits.
It was then, thanks to the Disneyland theme park and the Disney
TV shows, that "Disney" became synonymous in the public's
mind with "warm bath." As Walt Disney devoted less and
less time to his films, he continued to turn design against the
art form he had nurtured, most notoriously through Eyvind Earle's
somber, emphatically vertical designs for Sleeping
Beauty. He even threatened in the late fifties to abandon
Walt Disney remained a fundamentally serious man, though, and
in the last years of his life that seriousness reasserted itselfnot
through character animation, but through ideas that were variously
questionable (the California Institute of the Arts) or simply terrible
(his plans for a ghastly "experimental prototype community
of tomorrow," or EPCOT). Those ideas were locked in time, as
the animated cartoons of the thirties were not. CalArts, which brought
art and music schools under the same roof, was born in the sixties
alongside such huge performing-arts venues as the Lincoln and Kennedy
Centers, and a monstrosity like EPCOT could have been conceived
only when arrogant bureaucrats all over the country were ripping
old cities apart in the name of "urban renewal." Snow
White and the Seven Dwarfs was, by contrast, the product less
of its times than of one man's glorious vision.
EPCOT survives as, fortunately, no more than another theme park,
part of the Walt Disney World complex in Florida. For all the lip
service paid to the serious Walt Disney, and to his great films
and bad ideas, it is the "warm bath" Disney, as exemplified
by the theme parks, that is everywhere triumphant. I recall a poll
of hardcore Disney fans, taken in 2001 around the time of the centennial
of Walt's birth, that overwhelmingly identified Disneyland as his
Disney's death in 1966 effectively ended Mary Blair's association
with the Disney studio. In one sense, her job was done: by then,
Disney animation had been thoroughly neutered. It never really recovered,
and now pencil-and-paper animation is to be banished from the Disney
studio in favor of computer animation. The latter medium so far
shows few signs that it will ever be capable of what I call, in
an addendum for the paperback edition of Hollywood Cartoons,
"the subtle, life-giving variations available only to a hand
holding a pencil."
This new environment would seem to be hospitable to Mary Blair's
influence, and as Canemaker notes at the very end of his book, it
is. He quotes Pete Docter, director of the Pixar studio's computer-animated
Monsters, Inc., on Blair's impact on conceptual
art for Pixar's films: "In every production, there's a phase
where we say, 'Let's look at Mary Blair's stuff!'"
John Canemaker's beautiful new book will certainly make it easier
for computer animators at Pixar and Disney and elsewhere to do that.
That better films will result seems to me most unlikely.
John Canemaker is a filmmaker as well as a writer (and a professor
at New York University), and an hour's worth of his short films,
made between 1978 and 1998, have been collected on a DVD, John
Canemaker: Marching to a Different Toon
(Image Entertainment, $26.99). The DVD includes Canemaker's
valuable documentary, Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat, as
well as such highly personal animated films as Bottom's Dream
and Confessions of a Stardreamer. Canemaker's influencesFantasia,
the Hubleys' collaborationsare sometimes unmistakable, but
it is always clear that he is speaking in the language of films
he loves, and that makes all the difference. How much more rewarding
it is to spend an hour in the company of these lovely, gentle films
than to watch almost any recent animated feature.
[Posted August 2003]