Magical Visions Inhabit a New Exhibit at Hilbert Museum of California Art

Courtesy of Hilbert Museum of California Art

Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was something of a boondoggle when it opened in 1959. Critics were unimpressed, many convinced that this particular goldmine had been dug one too many times before. Back at a time when reviews mattered, audiences stayed away in droves, and the film tanked at the box office. It was an expensive, time-consuming film because of the hand-drawn animation, and the poor reception poisoned the studio’s attitude toward cartoons enough that they didn’t make another animated fairy-tale feature for 30 years.

Whatever one may think about Disney’s bastardized fairy tales, all of these years later, Sleeping Beauty is now considered a neglected classic, something quite different than its predecessors. The film’s concepts, fantastic backgrounds and bright use of color were developed by late painter Eyvind Earle, informed by his study of medieval illuminated manuscripts. You can see a handful of those images at Hilbert Museum of California Art’s “Magical Visions: The Enchanted Worlds of Eyvind Earle,” but the exhibit isn’t about the work the artist did for Disney.

Courtesy of Hilbert Museum of California Art

Curated by Ioan Szasz, the emphasis is on Earle’s idyllic landscape oils, a heady, colorful blend of lush valleys and mountainsides, sometimes dotted by a trio of grazing bovine, peppered with trees sporting generous leafy canopies. Sunlight makes the trees sparkle as though they’re crusted with jewels. The greens are so green they’re almost fluorescent. The scenery and vegetation look like Mother Nature at a quilting bee. Not that these ideal vistas are realistic; they rest peacefully somewhere between the Neverland of Peter Pan (which Earle also worked on) and a pristine, imaginative vision of California’s Central Valley.

Tree trunks down the center segment some of the landscapes as if we’re in a forest peering between branches. In others, we’re standing at the top of one hill looking into the expansive valley below us. Ever aware of where the light is coming from, shadows stretch at dusk, the earth dusted with the last gold of the day. Sometimes the landscape is eclipsed by fog that hangs in the air, obscuring the scenery, leaving us with nature that’s at once ghostly and full of secrets.

Courtesy of Hilbert Museum of California Art

A number of Earle’s serigraphs are also included, and while they often feature the same worshipful fascination of nature, they’re simpler, the emotion more muted than in the oil paintings. Earle’s eye-boggling use of color comes into even sharper contrast when compared to the numerous black-and-white sketches filling one gallery. Desultory and uninteresting, they look like a minor step in a process that will only come to life when the artist infuses them with his brighter palette.

Of note is other non-Disney ephemera including several delightful Christmas cards, so simple but specific they deserve their own exhibition. Beginning as linocut prints made for friends, the resulting 800-plus designs Earle created over the years ended up selling more than 300 million copies. Tiny engaging masterpieces, Szasz links them with the larger, more opulent pieces, framing and mounting them with the same respect he gives the other work.

Courtesy of Hilbert Museum of California Art

Walk down the aisle of any comic convention and the visages of your favorite characters from inked page and silver screen can easily be purchased. Problem is, they’re essentially fan art, the wall-poster-sized equivalent of a bootleg. If it doesn’t matter to you that the original creators aren’t getting anything from these pieces, spend away. If you want the real deal, however, purchase the work of an artist such as Robert Bailey, whose Marvel, Star Wars and Disney characters are all licensed, original, one-of-a-kind pieces of art, instead of mass-produced prints.

You can see the quality in the work up close with a casual stroll from the Earle paintings in the front of the Hilbert to the modest “A New Hope: The Star Wars Art of Robert Bailey” in the gallery in back. Ignore the signage that says the Star Wars illustrations are production art from the film. They aren’t. LucasFilm commissioned the work from Bailey a decade ago, way after the films had come out. Initially reluctant because he wasn’t familiar with the movies—his previous work focused on war combat illustrations—George Lucas eventually talked him into it by describing the film series as a World War II film.

Courtesy of Hilbert Museum of California Art

Let me proffer that I’m not a fan of Lucas’ space operas, so I’m not approaching the work with the spirit of a fanboy, whom I assume would be even more enthusiastic. Curated by Hilbert director Mary Platt, it’s hard not to be impressed by Bailey’s deft capture of the resolve of white knight Luke Skywalker, the serene gray dignity of Obi-Wan Kenobi, or the ruthless Hitlerian Darth Vader. Bailey not only gets their likenesses right in his graphite pencil drawings, but he also gives the characters an ease and grace—especially Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher—a comfort in their bodies that all three took decades growing into.

Courtesy of Hilbert Museum of California Art

Magical Visions: The Enchanted Worlds of Eyvind Earle” and “A New Hope: The Star Wars Art of Robert Bailey” at Hilbert Museum of California Art, 167 Atchison St., Orange, (714) 516-5880; Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Oct. 13. Free.

Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.

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