Spotlight: Disney Artist Mary Blair

by Sura Wood

Disney Family Museums mounts exhibition on the work of animation artist Mary Blair.

A lone farmhouse sits in an open field as menacing storm clouds loom overhead, darkening the sky and turning day into night. A solitary figure stands in the illuminated doorway, looking out. This is the foreboding scene captured in “End of the Day,” an expressionistic watercolor painted in 1938 by Mary Blair, a versatile, strikingly original and prolific artist who is the subject of “Magic, Color, Flair: the World of Mary Blair,” a comprehensive new exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Blair was a spectacular colorist who was relatively unknown during her lifetime, in spite of her evocative modernist animation for Disney films from the 1950s, including “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella” and “Peter Pan.” The show, which features over 200 artworks, photographs, artifacts and videos, includes Blair’s classic early watercolors and the innovative concept art she produced at Disney Studios, set and costume designs for Radio City Music Hall, collages for Disney theme park attractions such as “It’s a Small World” and enchanting illustrations for the Golden Books series for children.

“I’m fascinated by the quality of [Mary Blair’s work], the absolute charm of it and the pleasure one derives from looking at her art,” says exhibition organizer John Canemaker, who is an animator, historian and author. “Her work is quite different from what we think of as ‘Disney style,’ which was rounded and lifelike. Mary’s [artwork]…is abstract, sometimes primitive or futuristic with a… modernist twist.”

In the early 1930s, when Blair was studying at Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, she fell under the spell of Pruett Carter, one of the country’s premier illustrators, who became her mentor. His influence is evident in her 1932 watercolor “The Expectation,” a romantic, snowy scene in which a young woman wearing a big hat and a flowing skirt is turned toward a man who’s approaching her. “It’s a Pruett Carter kind of picture in that it tells a story,” observes Canemaker. “There’s a downward camera angle, the trees silhouette the woman’s white dress, the man is dressed in dark clothes that contrast with the snow. We can see that Blair has already learned how to attract the eye and engage our emotions.” That flair for dramatic visual narrative would come to fruition later in creations such as her terrifying depiction of the Headless Horseman in Disney’s animated musical “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (1949), in which the red-caped specter, brandishing a sword in one hand and a jack-o-lantern in the other, sits atop a steed rearing back on his hind legs.

Though Blair initially appeared headed for a career as a fine art watercolorist, monetary considerations led her to channel her talents into animation. Shortly after she joined Disney Studios, she came to Walt Disney’s attention, and he quickly recognized her talent, according to Rolly Crump, who worked with Blair in the 1960s. “She had a naïve, childlike quality, which they shared,” remarks Crump; Disney was also intrigued by Blair’s bold use of eye-popping color. She became indispensible to Disney, who favored her over the men in his male-dominated studio. He recruited her for a variety of projects, including a commission to paint a pair of Brazilian wall murals for Carmen Miranda’s Beverly Hills home, which are on view in the show.

The year Blair was hired by Disney she joined a cadre of Disney artists dubbed El Grupo for a three-month trip to Mexico and South America. A section of the exhibition devoted to this period includes a grainy black and white photo of Blair working on the balcony of her hotel in Rio, spontaneous line sketches she drew of the local people, breakthrough pictures saturated with color, and fantasy paintings inspired by
the native culture and the rhythms of Latin American music that would eventually find their way into her work on the films “Saludos Amigos” (1942) and “The Three Caballeros” (1945).

The dazzling, high-contrast colors, organic shapes, flat planes and abstract, sometimes expressionistic imagery associated with Blair’s signature style coalesced during her trip to South America. In her concept art for “Cinderella,” “Alice” and “Peter Pan,” Blair made strategic use of these elements to grab audiences and evoke empathy. She gears her work toward “giving you a strong emotional experience of where the characters are and how they think and feel, from the way the image is staged and the characters are positioned in the frame to the trees bending in a certain way,” explains Canemaker. “If she’s doing a king’s palace, it’s the grandest palace in the world. If it’s a garret where Cinderella lives, it’s the coldest, most cramped, pathetic environment you could imagine.” In a concept gouache where Cinderella’s coach is pulled by four horses galloping on a moonlit evening, Blair achieves a sense of urgency through a limited color palette and voluminous, electric-blue trees that roil like ocean waves threatening to engulf the travelers. To the pitch-black foreground she adds serpentine speed lines ahead of the horses, heightening the sensation of a race against time.

Those who knew Blair and her work are at a loss to explain why her talent wasn’t more widely recognized during her lifetime (she died in 1978), though there has been a resurgence of interest in her work among collectors, with concept paintings selling for significant sums. A younger generation of animators, especially women who have entered the field, cite Blair as an inspiration. Of Blair’s legacy, Canemaker says, “She has given a lot of joy to people who see her work, the same joy she took in creating it.”

Mar. 13 → Sept. 7

Walt Disney Family Museum

104 Montgomery St., The Presidio

(415) 345-6800