When Disney‘s Mary Blair was working to design ”Its a Small World” for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York, she was up to date and well aware with the art and design trends of the era, and was able to appropriate and synthesize the cutting edge into Disney designs for a mass market. Blair is likely to have been influenced by the work of designers Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, Stig Lindberg and fine artist Louise Nevelson, all of whom were working with the urban concept of stacked shapes.
Blair was an illustrator and conceptual artist responsible for much of the visual sense of whimsey that became increasingly uniform after her breakthrough with Peter Pan in 1953, which had been postponed due to WWII. Her strength of transforming the literary wit and skills of the writers, into a commercially viable concept that could integrate darker and scarier elements into appealing imagery.Blair understood how to incorporate daring asymmetrical shapes into her design without getting too wonky with the individual shapes or losing sight of the overall composition. The flip side of the coin was a suffocating conformity that was unappealing to superior artists like Paul Julians, Robert Gribbroeck and Pete Alvarado.
Her style was a softening and smoothing away of contemporary arts harsh edges, and fulfilling the Disney concept of communicating ”pure pleasure”.Michael Barrier has said,” The fundamental flaw in Blair’s art is that it is deeply unserious. It was, I suspect, that very quality that recommended her work so strongly to Walt Disney himself in the postwar years….where Blair falls short is in the very prodigality of her color. Too often, a painting draws freely on too wide a range of colors, or the dominant colors are too bright and rich, “straight from the tube,” as one colleague quoted by Canemaker puts it. The inevitable effect, because the paint is not allowed to be much more than a vehicle for color, is to push the paintings toward mere decoration.”
Frederic Remington and Mary Blair were artists who worked decades apart, in very different circumstances, and who were, not insignificantly, of different genders. But the formers best work exposes the weakness of Blair’s. He began as an illustrator of western incidents, but he rose to a much more rarefied level, as demonstrated by the paintings recently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in an exhibition called “The Color of Night.”
”Remington was a far more daring painter than Blair, trusting a narrower and subtler palette—here dominated by a twilight blue, there by an ashy moonlit white or the shadowed gold of a disappearing sunset. Because his surfaces are not busy, and his color draws the eye into the paintings, his most intense focus is on the people he has painted. Usually, they are taking part in a human drama that is simultaneously ambiguous and intense…..There is no such human drama in Blair’s paintings. What really sinks her work is her indifference to the human figure. Typically, the characters in her paintings are simply elements in a buzzing color scheme. But when you put people into a painting of any kind, you’ve got to do something with them; …Her human figures are almost always conspicuously vacant—in posture, in expression, in everything that might suggest an individual existence. In her freelance advertising work in the fifties, Blair stylized that emptiness, but in her Disney work the characters seem like afterthoughts.” ( Michael Barrier)
This was likely the Disney motto, to seek an ever expanding market by turning characters into the most generic, bland and inexpressive forms possible; turning design against the art form Disney had nurtured. It all became a shallow commercial pursuit despite the increasing budget size and complexity of each production.Fortunately, Disneyland theme parks and television saved their corporate fortunes. The ”warm bath” Disney that had been thoroughly neutered, and has seen the banishment of pencil and paper animation in favor of Computer Generated Images ( CGI); what Barrier calls, ”the subtle life giving variations available only to a hand holding a pencil”.
”Blair’s paintings, in their decorative insubstantiality, must have recommended themselves to Walt Disney as a sort of weapon he could wield—no doubt unconsciously—against the serious character animation he had almost singlehandedly brought into being as a new art form in the thirties. Partly through circumstance, but thanks largely to Disney’s own actions, such animation stalled in its development in the early forties. By late in the decade it had become a sort of ghost at the feast, a painful reminder of lofty ambitions that Disney had no choice but to put aside. I believe that at some level Disney, proud man that he was, wanted to punish character animation for the pain he felt. One way he did that was by trying to subordinate character animation to Mary Blair’s attractive but incompatible designs.” ( Michael Barrier )