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Under Walt's Spell: Disney Is No Mickey Mouse Figure in the World of Art

Why Walt Disney is no Mickey Mouse figure in the world of art.

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By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Something's been nagging me, art historically.

Spread in the high halls of Washington's art museums is a broad and permanent semiofficial survey of the 20th century, and it's got a hole in it. Someone who really ought to be there is missing. They've left Walt Disney out.

Now that it's over, and receding every day, and steadily becoming just another episode in art history, how can you look back at the century and pretend to see it whole, and then completely omit what Disney's drawing did to its visuals? Come on, that can't be right.

Though handmade, as drawings had always been, Disney's were made with a studio-factory of his own devising. Anyone raised in this country, or anywhere else for that matter, knows what they look like. They're active and rounded and juvenile, and they perform; they're wholesome and scary, fantastical, folklorical and eerily transmissible. They put into the century a new mode of depiction that wasn't there when it started but was everywhere when it closed.

Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) grew up in the middle of the country, on its farms and in its cities and little unpaved towns, a skinny, strangely gifted kid drawing flip-books for his pals. His art looks American, but not entirely, Disney having gotten a serious jolt of Europe when he drove ambulances in France in World War I. Once he'd seen "Paree," young Disney did not go back to the farm. Instead, he found his way to Hollywood, where, starting in 1928 with "Steamboat Willie," he made "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia" -- astonishing things.

Officialdom once cheered him, Harvard and Yale gave him honorary doctorates on two successive days in 1938, but today if you go into the art museums you won't find him, only his reflections.

There's a Mickey Mouse at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and another at the National Gallery of Art. The Hirshhorn's is a cartoony-constructivist, round-eared, square-eyed, steel-and-aluminum "Geometric Mouse" by Claes Oldenburg, 1971. The gallery's is an early Roy Lichtenstein oil, "Look Mickey," 1961, in which he's fishing with Donald Duck. These aren't Disneys; they're there only because pop is unthinkable without him. As the pop artists themselves cheerfully acknowledged: Lichtenstein donated "Look Mickey" to the nation. Andy Warhol multiplied the mouse and sprinkled diamond dust on his "Double Mickey" (1981), a silk screen that brought $113,525 at Sotheby's in 2002.

Disney's exclusion isn't a conspiracy. Too much of what he made, especially later, looks robotic, less the output of an artist than the merchandise of a brand. He wasn't Winslow Homer. His gag dependence, too, has worked against him. Organized in rows of metal filing cabinets in his studio in California were 1.5 million gags in 124 classifications, and traditional museums, being somber institutions, do not much like jokes. And not even his best work is comfortably collected. What would you buy -- his throwaway sketches, cels (individual frames) that other artists painted, reels of film, DVDs, a watch?

But, still.

He deserves more than the video store. He should be in the museums for a variety of reasons. Here are six.

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