As you likely know because you love horror so of course you love Tim Burton, the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently opened a career-retrospective exhibit of the great man’s work. Curated by Ron Magliozzi, Assistant Curator, Department Of Film, MoMA, the exhibit contains costumes, sketches, report cards, film and all manner of artistic ephemera from every era of Burton’s career. It’s a truly magnificent display of creativity which acts like a roadmap through the man’s brain.
Mr. Magliozzi was kind enough to field a few questions about the exhibit and its inspiration – photographer, artist, poet, provocateur, trickster and filmmaker Tim Burton.
Where did the idea for this exhibit originate?
It has always been our mission to honour the work of the cinema’s most important and influential artists. The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film has staged approximately 80 gallery exhibitions on the cinema (in addition to its film screening programs) beginning with Georges Melies: Film Pioneer in 1939, including gallery installations on D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Rossellini, Ernie Gehr, Ray Harryhausen, the UPA, Disney and Warner Bros. animation studios, British, French, German and Italian cinema, Yiddish and Black cinema, and in 2005 the Pixar Animation Studio. Tim Burton follows in this tradition. This exhibition provided us with the rare, virtually unique, opportunity to focus attention on a filmmaker who has created so much remarkable work that is appropriate for display in a gallery setting as well as on the screen.
The idea came to mind in 2005 while we were in the process of organizing the Museum’s Pixar exhibition (which is still touring the world by the way). We had already begun considering how we might follow this ambitious studio exhibition. The precise moment of inspiration came at a screening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Early in the film when the Wonka character throws open the door on a Pop Art candy-coloured world, I made a sudden comparison in my mind to the Gothic world of Corpse Bride released a few months before and the looks of all the other Burton worlds, including that of his book of verse The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (1997), and thought in that instant “We should approach Tim Burton for an exhibition at MoMA.”
What was your opinion of Tim Burton as an artist prior to taking on this project?
Like many admirers of Burton’s work, we had the impression that Burton had an essentially dark, gothic sensibility as an artist, but quickly realized that this was an inadequate assumption. We knew that Tim had expressed his admiration for the technique and expressive qualities of Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh. He has also voiced his admiration for artists such as Francis Bacon, James Ensor and others, as well as for popular illustrators such as Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss). The influence of popular culture on his work is generally known, in particular silent film Expressionism and the American and Japanese horror and science fiction films of the 1950, ‘60s and ‘70s. Fans (us included) of films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd for instance delight in aspects of the Gothic and Grand Guignol that characterizes much of what he does.
As significant as all these associations are to an understanding of his work, none seemed to provide a perspective that encompassed the full range of his artistic endeavour and accomplishment. It wasn’t until we began to consider him within the context of the Southern California artists known as the “Pop Surrealists” that we found a frame of reference that seemed appropriate. In the late 1960s a disorganized movement of artists working outside mainstream museum culture began creating art inspired by the “lowbrow” and what were thought to be disreputable forms of pop culture. Although Tim has never consciously identified himself with the so-called Pop Surrealists, he is of their generation and shares many of their thematic, narrative and visual interests and motifs.
What – if any – narrative thread regarding Tim Burton’s artistry were you able to tease out from putting this collection together?
Because the premise of our exhibition was “to trace the current of Tim Burton’s creative imagination from childhood through his work as a mature artist,” and because we are presenting so much work that has never before been seen by the public, we have chosen to present the work in a roughly chronological order. In addition, since Tim himself has so often pointed to his upbringing in Burbank, CA as a shaping influence on his views of art and the world, we took on the idea of “Burbank” as an organizing principle for our exhibition: “Surviving Burbank” for childhood and juvenilia; “Beautifying Burbank” for the period of education and self-discovery during which he begins to realize his talent through practice and experimentation; and “Beyond Burbank” for his years of success and collaboration as a feature filmmaker.
The entrance to the MoMA's Tim Burton exhibit
What is your favourite Tim Burton film and why?
My current favourite is the “lost” Burton film we are featuring in the exhibition; it is Tim’s adaptation of Hansel and Gretel made for the Disney cable channel in 1983. Featuring an all Asian-American cast, with a drag performance by actor Michael Yama as the stepmother/witch and ending in a martial arts fight and paint-splatter battle between the witch and the children, Disney executives reportedly found the film too unusual and disturbing for young audiences and broadcast it only once late Halloween night before it was put away and largely forgotten – except by loyal Burton fans for whom it became a “holy grail.”
How important do you feel was his experience of loneliness to the development of Burton’s artistry?
Burton has certainly described feelings of alienation from the middle-class environment and attitudes he was raised with, but I don’t know that “loneliness” is precisely the right word for this. Although he may have experienced feelings that he was out of place, misunderstood and estranged from his parents, if his amateur films and early drawings are any indication, he found relief in creative activity, in studies of humour and horror, and in a community of young friends with whom he collaborated.
How do you explain the magic of Tim Burton’s art?
In our view the central motifs in his art include: creature-based notions of character, body modification, masks and armour and the Carnivalesque (clowns, stripes, question marks, pumpkins and the like). The combination of Tim’s signature visual style and narrative imagination, his handling of the grotesque, empathy for the dynamic of childhood/adulthood relations, links to pop culture and optimistic celebration of creative activity speaks on some personal level to a generation of young fans, designers, illustrators, filmmakers and artists.
Untitled (Blue Girl With A Skull), 1992-1999
For more information on the Tim Burton exhibit go to http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2009/timburton/.