Walt Disney was the greatest creative mind since Leonardo Da Vinci. Here’s a closer look at why.
TEXT: Stephen Short
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
Few graphic images are as memorable as the red, white, black, four-fingered, yellow-booted, white-gloved rodent created by Walt Disney. Icon, logo, corporate identity symbol, and more, Mickey Mouse is arguably the most iconic symbol of all-time Continually fresh, unblemished by age and time, unburdened—mostly—by the baggage of Western history, Mickey’s shape is the visual semantic of 20th century existence and beyond.
Yet his creator, Walt Disney, has been a victim of the art world, in the way Leonardo da Vinci might have become, had the latter lived in the 20th century. Walt Disney gave us Pop Art (the maxim being that artists are always at least a decade ahead of the hoi polloi) generations before we slurped on Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Cans. Disney’s crime, or at least, one at odds with classical notions of aesthetics, was to achieve astonishing commercial success with his art in his own lifetime using technology’s new tools, much as Da Vinci had rendered new dimensions in paint. Disney’s popularity and Mickey’s worldwide recognition as but a mere cartoon character outweighed any sense of his higher-brow cultural significance and influence. For in the pantheon of high and fine art, classical art and whatnotart, Disney’s mass-market “laugh-o-grams” surely belonged firmly at the depths of art’s “lowerarchy.”
But other artists saw through the mass media for his true influence. “He’s such an American symbol,” American pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein said of Mickey Mouse, “and such an anti-art symbol.” Which was, and still is, Disney’s silver bullet. Between Kazimir Malevich’s infamous Black Square, and Walt Disney’s circular rodent, the shape, commerce and cultural iconography of celebrity of the following century was pre-set before any of us could know it; individual, logo and myth, collapsed into one. “Mickey Mouse is my favourite actor! Minnie Mouse is my favourite actress! My own favourite personal hero is Walt Disney,” said Andy Warhol. Consider these other details about Walt Disney and his highly artistic, fine art credentials.
Walt Disney learned from Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century photographs of animals and people in motion. Disney made Photostats from the pages of two of Muybridge’s books from the Kansas City Library in his bid to get phases of action for his early cartoon characters. Walt Disney wanted more natural-looking movement and, as Muybridge said, “worked out tricks that they hadn’t done” in the 1920s.
Author John Updike wrote of Mickey’s first animated short Steamboat Willie, that he “entered history as the most persistent and pervasive figment of American popular culture in this century.” He arrived at a time the country needed him most—the beginning of the Great Depression. Updike later wrote of the lovable rodent, “Mickey’s life as an icon, like that of Marilyn Monroe, actually got stronger over time.”
Intellectual circles hailed Walt Disney as an artistic genius in the 1930s. Philadelphia Record art critic Dorothy Grafly said Walt Disney was the creator of “a pure art form” that unified sound and colour. The filmmaker had embraced Modernism and that “quite as much as Picasso, he distorts and renders the unreal.”
When Charlie Chaplin released City Lights in 1931, he requested that it be accompanied, wherever possible, with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. A cartoon by George Corley, in 1931, shows Chaplin as the Little Tramp presenting a flower to Mickey Mouse.
For its exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” in 1936, the Museum of Modern Art in New York invited Walt Disney to show production art from The Three Little Wolves, a sequel to the Three Little Pigs.
The marketing of original Disney art dates back to 1938, when San Francisco’s Courvoisier Galleries signed a contract to become Disney’s sole art representative. The gallery’s statement at the time stated, “There is a better opportunity to sell these celluloids through the channels provided by the fine art market… and that Mr. Disney’s reputation as an artist of great importance will at the same time be maintained. This is official recognition that Mr. Disney has actually created a new and distinct artistic expression which will rank his name with the great artists of this age.”
For an exhibition of new acquisitions in 1939, New York’s Metropolitan Museum showed two evil vultures from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Curator Harry Wehle credited Disney with creating “something that is incontestably art and probably the greatest popular art of this generation.”
When artist and ladies’ man Piet Mondrian lived in London for two years (1938–40), and wasn’t dancing in jazz clubs with the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, he sent his brother a series of playful postcards of Snow White (he and his brother saw it in Paris in 1938), written in the spirited persona of the dwarves. In one he wrote: “the landlord has had my room cleaned by Snow White and her little helpers.” Mondrian signed the card, “Sleepy” and called his brother “Sneezy.” He also had a record of the soundtrack. Although in later times Mickey has been superimposed onto Mondrian’s famous Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red (1937–42), which was appropriated by Yves Saint Laurent, one could argue that Mondrian’s famous geometric composition is like the first abstract portrait of Mickey Mouse.
Meanwhile, Salvador Dali thought Walt Disney was the great American surrealist. (Walt Disney had been impressed by Dali’s collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound). As a result, Dali collaborated with Walt Disney on a short called Destino, based on a Mexican ballad in 1946. He created 22 paintings and 135 storyboards and sketches, from which Walt Disney generated 20 seconds of original animation. Dali worked from nine to five for three months. The two exchanged letters, sketches and paintings in what turns out to be have been an impactful and meaningful relationship for both. A longer full-feature film was finally released in 2003, receiving a nomination for Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards. It contained Dali’s trademark melting clocks and nightmarish statues. Ninety-five-year-old veteran, John Hench, who worked with Dali on the original project, had been called in to oversee the creative for the film’s release.
Disney’s Fantasia watched like a primer for American audiences on European abstraction and Symbolist modes. 20th century painter Diego Rivera theorised that future historians would discover that “Mickey Mouse was one of the genuine heroes of American art in the first half of the 20th century.” German refugee painter George Grosz declared Mickey Mouse cartoons to be “art in every sense.”
When Mickey Mouse started talking to Leopold Stokowski in Fantasia, he went beyond being a cartoon character to something more dignified. But practically, he had also been upstaged by Donald, the obstreperous duck, who won an Academy Award in 1943.
In 1942, British political cartoonist David Low, in an article entitled “Leonardo da Disney,” characterised Walt Disney “not as a draftsman but as an artist who uses his brains, the most significant figure in graphic art since Leonardo.” That same year, Harvard art historian Robert Field published the monograph The Art of Walt Disney, calling his animation “perhaps the most potent form of artistic expression ever devised.” Field compared Disney to the Old Masters of Western tradition—da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Degas being most frequently evoked.
American Pop artists including Lichtenstein, Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Saul Steinberg, and Ray Johnson, loved Mickey Mouse. One of the first bona fide Pop Art pictures is Lichtenstein’s 1961 oil on canvas Look Mickey, a joyous pastiche of a Disney comic from the period.
“Walt Disney was a great American artist,” David Hockney writes. “He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 40s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck,” he says. “Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.”
Da Vinci may have become a code in Dan Brown’s novels, but Mickey Mouse was a password for the Allies D-Day landings in World War II. Notably, the fictional protagonist of Brown’s novels, Robert Langdon, wears a Mickey Mouse watch as a reminder “to stay young at heart.”
The contemporary influence of Disney and Mickey Mouse may have much to do with Asia’s Takashi Murakami effect. The Japanese Superflat artist acknowledged his debt to characters like Mickey Mouse in creating his Mr. DOB hybrid cartoon character in 1996. Mr. DOB subsequently made his mark on Louis Vuitton accessories, Kanye West’s Good-Morning video, and in Murakami’s collaboration with Virgil Abloh in 2018’s “Future History” exhibition. It’s hard to see Mr. DOB without subliminally channeling the shadow of the mouse. The mouse is also a favourite subject of Korean artist Lee Dongi, who in 1993 created the “pop-art” character Atomaus, a combination of Japanese character Atom and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. “When I was growing up,” says Lee, “Atom and Mickey Mouse were always near me. They were ubiquitous and part of my life.”
Since the 2010s, the iconic and lasting influence of Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney have been recognised by the global public as valid and worthy works of art within the art market. “Mickey Mouse is such a universal and powerful icon,” says Damien Hirst of the rodent, having sold his work Mickey in 2014 for US$1.5 million. Hirst followed that with Beautiful Mickey in 2015, reimagining Mickey with one of his iconic spin screen prints, and again follows that with silk-screened prints of Mickey (in blue) and Minnie (in pink) 2016, encrusted with sparkling glitter; like Mondrian’s geometry in the round almost 80 years later.
Andy Warhol’s highest Mickey sale, Mickey Mouse (myth series), saw his acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, signed and dated 1981, sell for US$3.4 million in 2011. Joyce Pensato’s Mickey The Doudz (2017) will sell at Christie’s Hong Kong’s Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on July 10, 2020 (est: HK$700,000- HK$1.2 million). At Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s recent digital Manga sale in May 2020, an original paper collage and pen-on-paper Mickey Mouse by Walt Disney sketch, rendered in the 1960s, realized HK$68,750.
And beyond the sales of art from renowned artists, notable brands have decided they want a cut of the ever-profitable Disney pie. Watch brands from Rolex to Gerald Genta and Swatch have been making Mickey Mouse stainless steel automatic chronographs for decades—Swatch collaborated with Damien Hirst on a pair of spotted Mickey and Minnie wristwatches in 2018. Meanwhile, Gucci celebrated 2020, the Year of the Rat with a collection bearing everything from Mickey adorned bags and hats to bold, repeating Mickey prints on t-shirts and sneakers. A Leonardo Da Vinci moment at a Walt Disney price.