Heinrich Kley: From Fantasy to Fantasia @ Walt Disney Museum, SF

May 09, 2012


The Walt Disney Family Museum present Heinrich Kley: From Fantasy to Fantasia featuring drawings by Heinrich Kley—Walt Disney’s most admired European illustrator—paired with art from Disney’s famed animated film Fantasia (1940). Opening this weekend from May 11 through September 17, 2012, the exhibition features 29 drawings by Kley and alongside more than 25 sketches, concept art, and maquettes from the Walt Disney classic film. Also on view are four of Kley’s sketchbooks which feature some 50 pages of intricate drawings. The Kley artworks are from Walt Disney’s collection and are on public view for the first time in the United States.


Walt Disney was known to seek great inspiration from European fairy tales for his films; not only was he inspired by them, he made them his own. Walt also looked to European art as a source of inspiration, especially book illustration. Heinrich Kley was one of Walt’s favorite illustrators and he collected Kley’s work in depth. During a trip to Europe in 1935, it is well documented that Walt returned with some 350 illustrated books and artworks that he acquired with the intention of using as a source of inspiration for future projects. He responded to the beauty, drama, and powerful visual narrative and irony of Kley’s work. In a 1964 television interview Walt said, “Without the wonderful drawings of Heinrich Kley, I could not conduct my art school classes for my animators.”


Disney’s work Ben Ali-Gator holding Hyacinth Hippo, (c. 1940), which depicts an alligator holding a hippo ballerina above his head is similar in ironic nature to Kley’s The Steeplechaser, (c. 1920), where the slowest animal, the tortoise, is portrayed jumping over a fence with a frog riding on his back. According to film historian John Culhane, “The tradition of caricaturing human aspirations with animal analogies stretches from Grandville and Tenniel to T.S. Sullivant and Heinrich Kley. It is a tradition that Disney artists had been consciously studying since the early thirties.”


In Kley’s work Kesselschmiede (Kettle Forge), (c. 1920), the kettle takes on a human face which was also a direct influence on the Disney drawing of Casey, Jr. where the train takes on a similar human face. Walt and Kley both had a love of machines.


Disney’s Chernabog Concept Drawing, (c. 1940), for Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” scene where the devil Chernabog summons evil spirits and restless souls from their graves is deeply influenced by Kley’s work Jugend Titelblatt (Title Page of Youth), (c. 1920), where two demons lord over a mechanical factory, turning it into their own industrial playground.


Kley’s artworks for example, showcase animals dancing, mice playing fiddles to an audience of snails, and rabbits boxing, in response, Fantasia’s “Dance of the Hours” features dancing crocodiles, elephants, alligators, and the aforementioned hippo ballerinas. As Walt said in a memorandum to Ted Sears, first head of the story department in 1935, “Some of these little books that I brought back with me from Europe have very fascinating illustrations of little peoples, bees, and small insects, who live in mushrooms, pumpkins, etc. This quaint atmosphere fascinates me and I was thinking how we could build some little story that would incorporate all of these cute little characters…..Mickey and Minnie might take a ride on a magic carpet and arrive in a weird land or forest, meet little elves of the forest, or be captured by an old witch or giant or ogres.”