Considered the Disney Studios’ most influential concept artist until she left in the early 1950s, animator/designer/colorist/illustrator Mary Blair worked on a host of the company’s early classics, including Peter Pan, Dumbo, Cinderella and Alice In Wonderland. Even more famously, she’s the person responsible for the exterior and interior designs of the ever-popular Disneyland park attraction It’s a Small World.
Under Mary Platt’s astute, empathetic curation, the Hilbert Museum’s “The Magic and Flair of Mary Blair” reveals the artist’s concept work as a kind of dark enchantment. Preliminary drawings and paintings created to give other artists an idea of what things should look like—inspiration, but not gospel for the final design—Blair’s innovative work is hallucinogenic, full of sharp, flat angles and filled to the brim with the savvy use of eye-candy color.
The artist’s work, even after more than 70 years, feels fresh, timeless. Early animated Disney features always had an undercurrent of terror and menace, something I had chalked up to the immutability of its fairytale source material. After spending an hour with Blair’s work, it’s clear that it’s not just the source that deserves the credit, but also Blair’s artistic advocacy. From Dumbo, a circus train on a bridge is something you’d expect to be light, even cheery, but her Casey Jr. is a jet-black silhouette on a bridge arched over a vast, dark expanse of water, the background a fiery, hellish, sunset. The shadows in The Circus continue the hell theme, with Blair giving the large advertising banners and the interior-lit tents a sinister, dangerous touch, their oppressive anonymity telling us that there are literally dark forces behind the otherwise-well-lit façade.
You Can Fly, from Peter Pan, features the titular lead with Mary, John and Michael standing on a cloud and looking down. It’s an enchanted moment, the characters easily recognizable, considering Blair’s tendency toward abstract representation. Hook’s shimmering red coat in Peter Pan Battles Captain Hook contrasts sharply with his ghastly gray pallor, as he hugs a ship’s mast up in the air while Peter threatens to shank him with a dagger. The sky surrounding them is in various dreamy shades of green, suggesting the sea, nausea, jealousy. There’s even more glowing green in the skies of The Mermaids of Neverland Cove, with the lost boy amid three multihued sirens. Blair paints them as sleeping cherubs instead of what would eventually be the curvy clamshell-brassiere sex bombs they are in the feature.
There are only two images from the concept paintings for Cinderella. In one, the heroine is dashing out of the palace (in shades of blue and pink), her glass slipper left on the steps behind her as she attempts to beat the clock before it turns midnight. In the other, the Fairy Godmother is dressed in a powerful monarchical purple, instead of the Virgin Mary pastel blue we know, the eddying glitter of her spells transforming a pumpkin into an orange carriage of undulating green vines, all under a full lavender moon.
The avant-garde psychedelia of Blair’s Alice In Wonderland fully captures Lewis Carroll’s anarchy while predating the ’60s drug culture. Closest in spirit to what eventually ended up onscreen, Blair’s work is never more obviously ahead of its time. In the six images exhibited, we revisit Alice in court, the aggressively buffoonish Queen of Hearts towering above, threatening her with decapitation, the picture painted in bright harlequinade colors; the caterpillar sits on his mushroom, wrapped in the smoke of his hookah, a semicircular wall of pink and blue flowers protecting him from the outside world; more circles, with teapot steam from the Mad Tea Party enfolding the Mad Hatter and March Hare on either side of Alice, as a bevy of flat, two-dimensional presents are scattered about, waiting to be opened. In another, Alice, arms akimbo, fiercely stares down a forest of goggle-eyed creatures in Tulgey Wood. Alice stumbles upon the White Rabbit’s cottage in a final piece, its thatch of bright-yellow roof echoing the gold of Alice’s hair.
With the four classics on display, it’s clear the darkness inherent in each of the stories was something embraced by Blair, who boldly brought it to the forefront. Though the studio was clearly inspired by her concepts, the exhibit is a valuable reminder it generally copped out, despite the visual power of her work. Not that this was unexpected: Rounding off her edges and dumbing down her distinctive style is also how the studio bastardized the fairy tales into audience-friendly pablum. Visionary talent often gets soft-peddled because people don’t want a challenge. (Alice, for example, one that most closely hews to Blair’s concepts, flopped at the box office on its first release.) As influential as she was, she wasn’t the final word; her work could still be sabotaged under the directorial control of men less gifted than she. Visit her work at the Hilbert and mourn what could have been.
“The Magic and Flair of Mary Blair” at the Hilbert Museum of California Art, 167 N. Atchison St., Orange, (714) 516-5880; www.hilbertmuseum.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Oct. 19. 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.