Tim Burton — the Artist — is Now on Display

Not an average trip to the art museum

By Neil O’Brien
|  Sunday, Nov 22, 2009  |  Updated 7:15 PM PDT
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Tim Burton the Artist: On Display at MoMA

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Tim Burton's fantastical MoMA collection includes more than 700 pieces — paintings, sketches and sculptures ’ from director Tim Burton’s films and abandoned projects.

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NEW YORK - Director Tim Burton has become a household name thanks to his highly stylized and hugely popular movies such as “Batman” and “Beetlejuice.” While fans may say his films are works of art, few would expect to see Burton’s imagery displayed alongside Monet’s “Water Lilies” and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” However, from now until April, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is doing just that, with a major career retrospective of Burton’s art and movies.

On display are more than 700 pieces — paintings, sketches and sculptures, including rare concept art — from Burton’s films and abandoned projects. However, this is not an average trip to the museum. The first thing many visitors will see is a 21-foot inflatable statue called “Balloon Boy,” a blue Frankenstein-esque creature with multiple eyes and an oversized head. The entrance to the gallery has the feel of a mad funhouse, or a fun madhouse, as guests walk through the mouth of a demented monster into a hallway inspired by Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

In fact, it was seeing that 2005 film that convinced MoMA’s curators to create this retrospective. “It happened at the moment when Johnny Depp has walked right to the end of the long brick hall. Suddenly, he throws open a door into a psychedelic pop-inspired world of color,” said assistant curator Ron Magliozzi, who dreamed up the exhibit.

Magliozzi and his team conducted an exhaustive search to find the right pieces that best tell Burton’s story as an artist.

“I don’t even know where they found some of that real early stuff,” said Burton, who sat down with a small group of reporters to discuss the retrospective. “That was the first time I’d ever seen stuff since, you know, some stuff since I was a child. So it was, you know, amazing and disturbing.”

Found solace in film early on
Indeed, among the otherwise fantastical collection are some fairly mundane objects from his youth, including old homework assignments. Burton jokes that one paper entitled “Humor in America,” which earned a B-plus, “was a high point.” This early work is a section of the gallery called “Surviving Burbank,” Burton’s hometown.

Burton felt alienated from an early age but he found solace in film, specifically classic monster movies such as “Frankenstein” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

“Those movies kind of helped,” he said. “Feeling like, well you look strange, people think you’re strange, but you’re not.”

Burton said he was not a very verbal child, but he liked to draw. After high school, he enrolled at California Institute of the Arts and was eventually hired to be an animator at the Disney Studios. Though Burton said he grew up on Disney cartoons like everyone else, his real inspiration was stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who set a new standard for special effects with films like “Jason and the Argonauts.” Burton said Harryhausen “was the one that really, kinda sold the deal for me.”

‘The dark ages’ at Disney
Disney hired Burton in 1979, at a time when the animation department was trying to create a dark movie to win back the kinds of teenage audiences who had flocked to “Star Wars.” Burton’s gothic sensibility seemed a natural fit for Disney’s first PG-rated animated feature “The Black Cauldron.”

“Clearly, ‘Black Cauldron’ was a project that was a real Tim Burton project. It was about this cauldron that produces armies of evil,” Magliozzi said. “It really inspired Tim. I think he produced 350 pieces of concept [art], not a single one of which was used in the film. It was just too weird and too strange.”

Burton calls this period at Disney “the dark ages” and at the time, he was clearly frustrated by the fact that his work was not being used. However, it led to a creative explosion where he blossomed as an artist. This is evidenced by the second part of the exhibit called “Beautifying Burbank.” Here, museumgoers can see Burton’s macabre humor and expressionistic style take shape. 

From artist to director
It was also during this time when Burton the artist became Burton the director. While still at Disney, he made a few short films: “Vincent,” a stop-motion cartoon inspired by Vincent Price, a live-action movie Frankenweenie” and his rarely-seen version of “Hansel and Gretel,” which was banished from the Disney Channel after only one airing.

In the final third of the gallery titled “Beyond Burbank,” Burton’s film work takes center stage. Batman’s mask, Sweeney Todd’s razors and Ed Wood’s angora sweater are just some of the props on display — as well stop-motion figures from “Corpse Bride.” They are mixed in with some amazing art, such as a paintings titled “Blue Girl with Wine,” which looks like a Picasso portrait of Sally from “Nightmare Before Christmas.” A small concept sketch of Edward Scissorhands recalls the iconic painting “Scream” as created by a cartoonist.

Fans can look at doodles from Burton’s sketchbooks still attached to the original spiral pad; they can only try to imagine what else may lurk on the other pages. “When you see one drawing in a frame, you'll know there are probably 30 or 40 other drawings, ink, pencil, watercolor wash, whatever behind those other pages,” Magliozzi said.

His art seems to be influenced by everything from expressionistic painters like Edvard Munch and Otto Dix to popular illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. It’s the mix of high and low art that makes Burton’s work so distinctive — and so popular.

A dark spin on classic stories
This retrospective is expected to draw in many visitors who do not normally go to museums.

“It’s very accessible, very relatable, great sense of humor, great sense of fun and he draws a huge crowd,” said Dave Howe, president of Syfy, the cable network sponsoring the event. “He’s an amazing artist and amazing visionary and I think he embodies and epitomizes what we as a brand and a network want to do, which is to have people imagine greater.” (Syfy is owned by NBC Universal; msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

In fact, Burton’s approach to filmmaking has been about imagination, or more precisely re-imagination. He has spent his career taking popular tales from his youth and remaking them in his own vision. He has paid homage to B-movies he loved as a child with “Ed Wood” and “Mars Attacks!” and he put his own dark spin on classic stories like “Planet of the Apes” and “Sweeney Todd.”

His next movie “Alice in Wonderland,” due out in March, promises to be another signature Burton film. In addition to being a unique take on a well-known story, it also stars his frequent muses Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s longtime partner.

It will also be his first film shot in 3-D. “I just thought ‘Alice’ in 3-D was a good mixture of mediums,” Burton said. “With the right material, it draws you into the world more, a bit more.”

Burton is busy putting the final touches on “Alice in Wonderland.” He only has a brief opportunity to enjoy the MoMA retrospective before heading back to the work on the film.

When asked about the upcoming film, all he would say is “Still working on it! In fact, I shouldn’t be here right now.”

However, for those who can’t wait until March for ‘Alice,’ Burton’s own adventures in wonderland are on full display right now in New York.

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