Sunday, August 17, 2014

Back to Blair

For my birthday a few months ago, my daughters gave me a certificate good for one free admission to the Mary Blair exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, because they're that cool. Since the show closes in just a few weeks, I cashed in my certificate yesterday. Karen and I and the girls had a great time.

Museum Pro Tip: If you're a member of any museum, check to see if that entitles you to free admission or discounts to other museums. Many have such arrangements, in particular through the North American Reciprocal Museum program, which networks almost 700 (!) of them. In our case, because I have a family membership to the Charles Schulz Museum, we got into the Disney Family Museum free and only had to pay an extra five bucks a head for the special Blair exhibit (which my girls didn't know on my birthday but didn't mind taking advantage of). My Schulz membership paid for itself in one visit. Deal!

Mary Blair was an artist who did much of her work for Walt Disney over several decades, but also did art for Little Golden Books, greeting cards, and non-Disney films. She was a concept artist for Disney movies such as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Cinderella, and designed tile murals for Tomorrowland and Disney World's Contemporary Resort. Her best-known project is probably Disneyland's "It's a Small World" attraction which, as I wrote in an appreciation of Blair in 2011, whether you love or hate it, you have to admit she designed the heck out of.

As I also wrote in that 2011 blog post, I didn't used to like her style. I thought it was simple and sentimental. It wasn't until later, when I began to think seriously about art and comics, and to do my own professional work, that I got what she was doing. Her geometrical, flat, almost cubist style was deceptively sophisticated, and her sense of color was masterful. Walt Disney said she understood color better than anyone who ever worked for him. She achieved my cartooning ideal: distilling a subject to its simplest essence, so that a single brushstroke could capture a character or tell an entire story. You have to work really hard to make it look easy, and Blair was one of the best.

A watercolor study for Dumbo. A lot of these photos show glass reflections in them, hard to avoid.

One of Blair's more iconic images. This work was pretty large but many of them are surprisingly small.

Another iconic Blair graphic, from Alice in Wonderland.

This was probably my favorite piece in the exhibition, so I'm posting it extra large; it really knocked my socks off. From Cinderella. There's light blue glow from the Moon on the treetops (funny how you know those looming blue blobs are a forest even though they look nothing like a forest) and the magical white pumpkin carriage whose coach lamp lights up the back of the horses' necks as well as the ground below and the tree trunks alongside. That swoop of white that goes from the tree trunks to the carriage to the ground pulls your eye right to the focal point of the composition. There's a lot of goodness going on here.

Three concept art pieces from Peter Pan.
A close-up of the top painting above, found online. These are examples of the smaller pieces I mentioned, maybe 5 x 7 or 6 x 8 inches or so. Many had four pinholes in the corners, from (I presume) when they were mounted on corkboards at the Disney studios during film production for the animators to study.
Another Peter Pan. Again, look at the light on the sails, illuminated from unseen lamps on the ship's deck. Makes you want to peek around the rock and see what's going on. Also the sparkling stars in the glowing water that don't reflect any stars we see in the sky, giving the scene a weird magical quality.
A cool Christmas card design.

The Disney Family Museum exhibition gives a good survey of her career, from early student work to her late efforts. It's interesting to see her style evolve from good but unexceptional watercolor illustrations to some point in her mid- to late-twenties when you say, "There she is!" Mary Blair wasn't born with her trademark style, she created it. I imagine her thinking "Wow, this really works!" and building it brick by brick.

A watercolor by young Mary as an art student.
An overview of the Blair exhibition space, which covers two floors. Color!

It's depressing and humbling to realize she was a better artist at 25 than I'll ever be. That's the risk you take going to museums.

I also came away with a feeling I remember having after seeing a show of director/animator Tim Burton's work at the New York Museum of Modern Art: awe for how prolific she was. Like Burton, Blair must've gotten up every morning and created three amazing things before breakfast. Paintings, sculptures, textiles, tiles. Both artists made me feel incredibly lazy.

In addition, the Blair exhibition inspired me to get back to color--real color, not Photoshop color. For years I've focused on black ink on white paper, and I love black ink on white paper, but seeing her pieces made me feel like a man in the desert who didn't realize he hadn't had a drop of water in a long time. No promises, but I'd like to take up watercolors again, or perhaps even give gouache--my least favorite medium and Blair's best--another try (shudder). I'm unlikely to share the results but I think it'd do me some good.

So I got a lot out of the Blair exhibition and, even if you're not a wannabe artist like me, I recommend it. It's only at the Disney Family Museum until Sept. 7. Go spend the day at the Presidio, enjoy some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge on Earth, hike down to Fort Point under the bridge, say "Hey, this is where Jimmy Stewart pulled Kim Novak out of the Bay in 'Vertigo'," have a good day.


Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

"It's depressing and humbling to realize she was a better artist at 25 than I'll ever be. That's the risk you take going to museums."

So true. It's funny how a good artist can leave you inspired and humbled at the same time.

Kelly Temple said...

I've been meaning to get to that museum for years. Seems every time I'm in the area we don't have time or it's closed.
Thankfully I'm not much of an artist so I'm not exposed to the "depressing and humbling" realizations. I can enjoy with the certainty that my depression and humblings will be inflicted by other venues.