If you have ever seen one of Tim Burton’s movies, you have probably found yourself wondering: how in the world does he come up with this stuff? The current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York takes a few steps towards answering that question. The exhibit progresses chronologically from Burton’s early years as an alienated teenager in Burbank, CA to his current identity as a successful filmmaker of world renown. In addition to his movies, the curators focus on the little known paintings, sculptures, short films and illustrations that Burton has been making since childhood.
To enter the exhibit, you first walk through an enormous black and white cartoon hell-mouth. The creature is a 3-Dimensional rendering of a drawing from Burton’s unrealized project Trick or Treat (1980). Once inside the monster’s gullet, you progress down a long red-carpeted hallway, the walls of which are painted in thick black and white stripes. The passage is lined with small flat screen TVs showing short episodes of Burton’s The World of Stainboy. The series chronicles an endearing young mutant who spreads a nasty stain and somehow always ends up accidentally killing his companion and being brought before the court. While the shorts are amusing, the exhibit arrangement makes it nearly impossible to actually watch them in their entirety. Predictably, Tim Burton is already a wildly popular show. As throngs of families, film buffs and multi-pierced hipsters make their way through the narrow hallway, you are forced along at a fairly rapid pace. In the background, a museum employee occasionally shouts that this part of the exhibit is available online to remind you that lingering is not an option.
After leaving the entranceway, you are brought into a small black-lit room. Inside, several mediocre, Halloween-ish paintings are entirely overshadowed by Carousel (2009) a small 3-Dimensional merry-go-round that rotates slowly to a soundtrack by Danny Elfman. The ridiculous contraption is composed of several levels of monsters, eyeballs, one-eyed fish and horse-octopus hybrids, some of which rotate in circles above an enormous glowing plasma ball. The slow pace and strange music give the piece an absurd dignity, and you can’t help but chuckle to yourself as you watch it turn.
Upon leaving the small, darkened room, the exhibit opens up to a series of galleries displaying a collection of Burton’s drawing and sculptures. The handful of three-dimensional pieces are extremely attention grabbing. Your eye is immediately drawn to Robot Boy (2009), an odd sculpture of a metallic, round-headed child-robot. “What do you think, do you think he’s a happy creature?” one mother asked her son. At that moment, Robot Boy’s head snapped open, and his round eyes flashed wildly.
Compared to his sculptures and kinetic pieces, the throng of Burton’s original drawings and paintings are a bit of a let down. Burton is not much of a draftsman. He has little interest in experimenting with composition and does not seem to think much about background or line quality. Similarly, his paintings show an amateurish lack of awareness of basic paint-handling skills. Burton’s two-dimensional pieces are populated by various monsters, freaks and weirdoes. These characters vary tremendously in style, quality and technique, and reflect Burton’s penchant for experimentation. Many of them possess a strange wit and liveliness. One cheeky illustration of a tortured soul reads “a full bottle in front of me or a frontal lobotomy.” An untitled drawing bears the caption “tongue twister,” under an image of an adorably evil insect creature mischievously wrenching some pour man’s tongue partly out of his mouth. Although undeniably charming, these pieces are essentially adolescent and the dark humor that they explore is still too inchoate to demand more than a smirk. While amusing at first, Burton’s illustrated creatures begin to grow repetitive as the exhibition progresses.
After showcasing a few of his drawing series, the curators turn their attention to Burton’s youth and college years. This part of the exhibition is a bit disappointing. We learn that Burton was an alienated teenager with an interest in cartoons, comedy and horror movies. Given that many of Burton’s films, from Beetlejuice to Edward Scissorhands deal with the theme of suburban alienation, touching on this theme is crucial. At the same time, the exhibit does not attempt to explore Burton’s other early influences. The names of a few of his childhood favorite illustrators are proffered, and we see a few movie posters from Horror movies, but Burton’s inspirations are not explored in any depth. We then progress to the artist’s college years at CalArts, where a flat-screen television displays a slide-show of mediocre figure drawings and hybrid humanoid creatures. While his two-dimensional work is not great in and of itself, it shows a tremendous amount of experimenting and likely tells us which artists Burton has been looking at. Saucers and Aliens (1970 – 78) seems to pay homage to the torturous world of Hieronymus Bosch. Burton’s skillful watercolors and ink drawings, which are by far the best of his two-dimensional pieces, are alternately reminiscent of Daumier and Ralph Steadman. Other works appear to have been inspired by Edward Gorey’s macabre masterpieces.
This lack of attention to Burton’s influences shows a fundamental flaw in the show’s conception. According to MoMA’s website, the exhibit “explores the full range of (Burton’s) creative work, tracing the current of his visual imagination from early childhood drawing through his mature work in film.” While the show charts the progress of Burton’s style, one is left with the impression that his zany world spontaneously grew out of his imagination, and little attempt is made to place it within a cultural context. Additionally, Burton is not equally gifted in every medium. His two dimensional work is interesting primarily because it helps to trace his development as an artist and show how his unique aesthetic came to be. Burton created a cinematic style that is in many ways built on a rich illustrative tradition. Rather than display the artist’s drawings and paintings as finished works, the curators could have presented them to us as windows into his thought process and displayed them alongside illustrations and film stills by other artists who may have influenced him.
After exploring Burton’s college years, we move on to a viewing area where Burton’s sick, twisted and tremendously entertaining television adaptation of Hansel and Gretel (1982) is being screened. Burton decided to give his version a Japanese theme. The film features kung-fu fight scenes, Japanese toys, numchucks and ninja stars. Jim Ishida plays the children’s unbelievably handsome toy-maker father and Michael Yama dresses up in drag to portray one of the most hilarious and terrifying evil stepmothers of all time. None other than Vincent Price, the horror-movie master and Burton’s childhood idol, narrates. The sick and slightly perverse tone of the film reminds us that Burton is not interested in making syrupy-sweet, sentimental movies for kids. This is a film for creepy children and alienated young adults: people like Burton. In one scene, an evil gingerbread man badgers, taunts and humiliates a distraught Hansel into eating him. The wicked witch’s home is not a traditional gingerbread house. Although it is edible, the cottage is vaguely anthropomorphic. When the children poke it, it oozes rainbow colored candy/paint/blood, on which the hungry children eagerly gorge themselves. This camp masterpiece was broadcast only once, on Halloween night in 1983 and was shown along with Vincent, another of Burton’s short films. In Vincent, a seven-year-old boy and possibly Burton’s alter-ego imagines that he is Vincent Price, who narrates the piece as well.
Hansel and Gretel is interesting because it gives a sense of Burton’s development as a filmmaker. While less visually sophisticated than his later works, it is clear that a tremendous amount of work went into the production. The film relies on countless creatures and inventions designed by Burton, including a sinister puppet, an evil toy duck and a clock with eyes. The latter of these is displayed on a nearby wall along with drawings and studies that Burton made in advance of the production. While the film sheds some light on how Burton developed his craft, there is again no exploration of his influences. The artificial forest and constructed cottage seems reminiscent of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and other German expressionist cinema. In the next few months, MoMA will be showing a series of classic horror films that were particularly influential to Burton. While these screenings will undoubtedly shed some light on his development, not every visitor will be able to attend one, let alone many, and it is a shame that the curators do not explore this theme in greater depth within the exhibit itself.
After showcasing a few of his early films, the show moves on to explore Burton’s career as a successful commercial filmmaker. Visitors are treated to a display of props, maquettes and models from Burton’s films. Some of these items, such as a framed copy of the The Afterlife, a fake newspaper for the dead, from Beetlejuice, contribute little more to the exhibit than entertainment value. Other exhibits transcend the role of memorabilia and give us valuable incites into Burton’s work. The puppets from The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, show us the astonishing amount of detail and work that goes into making one of Burton’s animated films. Examining these maquettes, you realize that Sally, Jack Skellington’s girlfriend from The Nightmare Before Christmas had eye wrinkles and that several different types of strings were used to stitch up her face and body. We are also presented with the model of Jack, the skeleton king, and the many versions of his head used to give him expression. While this section of the exhibit is enormously entertaining, it leaves one wondering how these films connect to American culture. The exhibit ends without exploring how Burton’s signature style might have affected other filmmakers. MoMA’s website tells us that Burton’s work influenced “a generation of young artists working in film, video and graphics.” It would have been illuminating to see a few examples.
Overall, Tim Burton is not a great exhibit and lacks the level of in-depth scholarship that the museum routinely brings to its discussions of artists working in other media. At the same time, the show is a lot of fun. You learn a bit about how Burton progressed from an awkward, alienated youth to an awkward alienated film director. Film buffs will enjoy seeing rare, esoteric footage from Burton’s earlier days. Children will love indulging in their creepy side, and everyone will come out in the happy, over-stimulated daze we experience after watching one of Burton’s productions. Tim Burton is on view at MoMA through April 26, 2010.