Jan 12, 2008

The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco hosts Mary Blair(among others)



I'd heard about the Cartoon Art Museum for years but was only recently able to pay a quick visit. Located in the heart of downtown San Francisco, it's a relatively small space packed with rare and beautiful art for the eyes to feast upon. Two of its current shows feature Mary Blair and Edward Gorey-in the latter's case, all to do with his designs for the stage play "Dracula" in the late 70s.

First, the Blair show:

Ten years ago a now-defunct animation store/gallery hosted what I think was the first major show of Blair artwork, and to my knowlege this is only the second. It's not quite as vast an array as that earlier show but it's certainly a must-see. Everything is great, and offers an opportunity to learn something. All of us have seen Mary Blair's work reproduced and posted over and over again, but as with all art nothing beats seeing the originals. Most of what's on display appears courtesy of Mary's son Kevin, but Pete Docter loaned some beautiful pieces from his collection as well.

an early watercolor, an unusual Blair given what we're used to thinking of when we think of her paintings, possibly done while a student at Chouinard

Even better-and much larger-in person than the Golden Book we all know



Quite without planning to I took some pictures with my iphone. I post a selection here very aware that the image quality is poor, and that's intentional. I wouldn't want to reproduce things that are privately owned or that could possibly be used in any commercial way. This is just by way of seducing any and all of you to get up (or down or west) to San Francisco and visit the artwork yourselves if you possibly can.

a later, non-Disney advert for cigarettes; gouache



There's always a lot of talk about the obvious influence of Mary Blair on artists today--so much so, in fact, that it's led in some circles to a bit of a backlash towards her or towards the stylings of artists who've been inspired by her. But when you see these up close and without the filters of photography(either the still camera's or the animation stand's)or the limitations of the published page, even now they leap out at the viewer and are as new and fresh as they must have been half a century ago. To see her technique up close is to appreciate how incredibly skilled she was. Intuitive, surely; imaginative and whimsical, yes--but also plain, keen, brilliant, diamond-hard thinking going on. It's still a big wow.

As for her impact on the current generation of artists, well, everyone's influenced by something, and a good number are influenced by everything. Blair casts a huge and prodigious shadow, and just as the Brandywine school founded by Howard Pyle a hundred years ago resulted in men and women who absorbed and adapted his theories and style into their own eventual identities, so it is with giants such as Mary Blair. In short--there's much worse to be inspired by, and I can't think of anything but good coming from learning at the feet of a master. Individual style and approach always will out eventually, anyway--and the metamorphosis is fascinating to be able to see.

In the notes that accompany the paintings on the wall the admission is made that there was some difficulty, something of a tough fit for Mary's art in the medium of Disney's animated features and shorts. Most of us have read the quotes about that, and with our love and reverence for the more constructed, dimensional aspects of Disney's character animation we can try to understand, even empathize with the animators who'd be frustrated when told by Walt to "get this stuff up on the screen".

But just as with those visual development artists working today whose work is at first glance as far from the final effect of CG animation as is imaginable, it seems impossible to me that any artist, any filmmaker wouldn't be inspired simply by absorbing the spirit of images like these--not to mention the color, the mood, the storytelling that's there. I guess I can't really understand the resistance to any of Blair's work back then--it's so obviously grounded in solid, three-dimensional knowlege--and proves how far an expert can take representational design--of animals, of humans--and push it while keeping it coherent and visually appealing. Yet resistance did exist. John Canemaker offers some ideas about why this might have been so in his singular book, whose title is shared with this exhibit.

There's much more to see in the rest of the Museum's space, including these gems:

A story sketch from Dumbo

A beautiful watercolor spot cartoon by Eldon Dedini

A 1920s single-panel comic from a woman named Gladys Parker

Many of us own books containing fine examples of work by Schulz and Herriman, Gorey and Ketcham,et al but to see these originals so much larger than their reproduced size with their underdrawing apparent, or the marks of an ink nib on illustration board or paper...I said it before but it bears repeating: it's an education in itself. And a rare privilege to get the opportunity--for only six dollars, if you can get to San Francisco.

Even if you can't make the Blair show before it closes on March 18th you should make sure to pay a visit to 655 Mission Street anyway.

19 comments:

Dani said...

Great post Jenny!

You are absolutely right about the Blair exhibit (which I've seen three times already and plan to re-visit)!

From the books about her we have learned that she was a skilled painter and a woman of ideas, but seeing her work up close affirms how bold and innovative her visual storytelling truly was!

Backed up by such confidence and originality, her work remains untouchable, if much imitated!

Floyd Norman said...

Thanks, Jenny.

I'll be in San Francisco all week, so I'll be stopping in.

mark kennedy said...

Great post, Jenny! You're so fortunate to get to see that stuff in person...truly inspiring.

Vanwall said...

Way cool! I've been meaning to go there next time I'm up the coast, so this is one more incentive. Nice to see Gladys Parker's work - she drew the wonderful "Mopsy" strip, always a fave of mine, and the singleton "Flapper Fanny" was a hand-off, started by the talented Ethel Hays, of "Marianne" fame - those flapper strips that women drew were always more visually interesting than anything the men ever came up with.

mnmears said...

It's a great little museum ... but your post reminded me I need to visit a bit more frequently -- especially since I live less than 40 miles away.

Jenny, I hope you were able to connect with NorCal animators from Pixar and DreamWorks during your visit and had a great time in Baghdad by the Bay.

Matterhorn1959 said...

Jenny I absolutely agree with your assessment of Mary Blair. The exhibit is a cannot miss. I was also amazed at the Will Eisner Spirit page.

David said...

I saw the display back in November when in town on Disney Family Foundation business.

I absolutely loved the vibrancy of the colors she used. My favorite pieces were the Baby Ballet conceptual piece from Fantasia and the men on horseback with the red capes from Cinderella.

After seeing her art in person, I have a newfound appreciation for her style.

Jenny said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comments!

mnmears, my entire week was spent at Stanford on family business, so I wasn't able to call or see anyone, alas. The S.F. trip was a spur of the moment thing(which we were so glad we did).
I drove right through Redwood City at one point and although I've been at Dreamworks now for over 5 years I've never yet been inside the place(which looks great in pictures). One of these days!

Anonymous said...

You know what I found a bit surprising was the Mary Blair book that came out a few yeas ago..it was so...thin. I was expecting some nice, thick "Nine Old Men" size book packed with art. Did you feel the same way?

Cynthia

mnmears said...

I spent a day as a media guest at DreamWorks in Redwood City ... it's a very nice facility ... and the people I met all seemed to care deeply about the work they do ...

Hope to visit them again in the not too distant future ...

Lee-Roy said...

Hi Jenny! This looks like a great show. I had the opportunity to see a big Gorey exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum, oh, at least 10 years ago, I'd say. Some of his work from the Dracula production was there then, including a model of the set. The other show on display at that time was a retrospective of Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge McDuck.

The Mary Blair show looks terrific! I have to admit my ignorance and say that my knowledge of her is on a subconscious level at best, but these pictures are ringing a lot of bells.

roque said...

Thanks for posting these! I didn't know they allowed photos (and thank goodness they did!). I can't wait to see the exhibit in person...

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Nice, nice stuff! If only we could see these pieces in Los Angeles!

Matt J said...

Superb post-looks like a tuly marvellous show & I'm glad I could experience it a little through your pics.
Can't wait to see the Gorey shots-

Floyd Norman said...

New Mary Blair art books are on the way from Disney Publishing. Hopefully, you should see some this year.

opi said...

that s great ..thanks jenny...

Anonymous said...

Hello thanks alot for posting these! I'm a big fan of Mary Blair but I live in Asia 18hrs away from San Francisco so I couldn't afford an air ticket just for this wonderful exhibit. I really appreciate you putting up these wonderful art on your blog. keep up the good work!

Kimberly Robello said...

When I had a baby 2 years ago in the Providence St. Joseph hospital in Burbank, across from Disney, in the maternity ward there was nothing but Mary Blair artwork on the walls. That's when I fell in love with her work. I don't know if it's still up there now, but it's worth seeing. They may not allow people up there to just roam the halls, though.

Kristy said...

WOOOOWWWW!! I LOVEEE THE MARY BLAIR STUFF!!