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.