Recently when I was in LA I had the chance to visit the Tim Burton Retrospective at LACMA. I grew up with Tim Burton movies, from Michael Keaton’s Batman to Disney’s Nightmare Before Christmas, so I was really excited for this exhibition.
The entrance to the exhibit is this awesome open mouth with the red carpet serving as a lolling tongue, turning the exhibition into a metaphor for the twisted wonderland inside Burton’s mind whilst also representing a tongue-in-cheek (no pun intended!) nod to his upbringing in celebrity-obsessed Los Angeles (the red carpet), where Burton always felt like an outsider.
With over 700 items on display ranging from doodles on hotel notepads to costumes and film props this exhibit has something for anyone who has engaged with Tim Burton in any way over his career. Since his career spans designing an advert for a recycling company at the tender age of 17 (he won a competition) to directing the film Mars Attacks, for ‘anyone’ you can probably read ‘everyone’. And yes, as well as alien heads, Burton’s winning recycling advert is on display too.
One of my favourite things about the exhibition was that it covered the very beginnings of Burton’s creative life, from his childhood sketches (the geometric Santa Clause he drew was clearly an inspiration for Sandy Claws), including a charming children’s book he wrote and illustrated and which he sent to Disney at the age of around 18. Jaw-droppingly, an executive from Disney wrote back to him, praising the book but, sadly, rejecting it.
In particular, Burton’s gothic re-imagining of the female form often presents women as blue and stitched (for example, Emily from The Corpse Bride and Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas, respectively).
Untitled (Sally Parts)
The stitching is evocative of Frankenstein’s monster but, far from suggesting violence against women, this stitching can be read as the damage inflicted on women by trapping them in the domestic realm where they cook and sew. As Sally and Emily (and Helena Bonham Carter) demonstrate, Burton loves rebellious women and his lovingly created photographs of women are romantic as opposed to morbid.
Girl with Many Eyes
Burton is also obsessed with eyes (see Balloon Boy, below), which is perhaps not unusual for a man who has dedicated his life to the visual arts.
Another Burton hallmark is creepy clowns, which show up throughout his work, as well as in the entrance to the exhibition and, famously, in his direction of The Joker from Batman (see the above sketch).
Untitled (Clown Series)
Like many of his characters, despite being at first horrifying there is something ultimately benign about these clowns. The same can be said of characters such as Edward Scissorhands and the Corpse Bride (who has worms coming out of her eyes). Perhaps, given Burton’s obsession with eyes and outsiders, he is trying to impart that beauty really is more than skin deep.
Untitled (Cartoon Series)
Despite all of these dark images, I left the exhibition most struck by Tim Burton’s sense of humour. Yes, his art may be gothic, but it is also engaging and charming. Burton often uses rhymes, puns and wordplay to caption his drawings or accompany them so even when they should leave you paralysed with horror you instead leave with a smile on your face. And I don’t mean a carved, Joker smile either.
To accompany the exhibition this large outdoor installation of Balloon Boy, an amalgamation of characters from his book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, was also erected on the campus.
Fittingly, the Tim Burton exhibition runs at LACMA until 31st October 2011
What’s the significance of 31st October?! The chorus to ‘This is Halloween’ from Nightmare Before Christmas should answer that:
“This is Halloween! This is Halloween! Halloween! Halloween! Halloween! Halloween!”