BMA takes lighthearted look at some old animated friends

May 30, 1991|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

If you thought you saw a "putty tat" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, you did, you did!

That's because a noisy bunch of cartoon critters -- among them Tweety, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and Road Runner -- have moved into the museum with a touring exhibit opening Sunday, "That's All Folks! Bugs Bunny and Friends Present the Art of Animation."

Even as light summer shows go, this one doesn't pretend to do much more than present us with some cartoonish Looney Tunes. So kids will be tickled by all the Warner Bros. animation illustrations displayed against walls painted a bright yellow -- needless to say not a paint color usually seen on museum walls. Even brighter are the large cartoon character cut-outs now clinging to those walls and hanging from the ceiling. Kids can also sit on carrot-shaped benches and watch the actual cartoons on video monitors. Of course, some of the kids we're talking about are the other side of 50.

If the idea of presenting cartoon art in an art museum seems odd, it shouldn't. The cartoons that once were enjoyed as part of a carefree matinee program in the neighborhood movie house have in recent years been given serious attention by film historians, art galleries and in general those who enshrine pop culture. Who knows, there may even be some scholarly person out there writing a doctoral dissertation on Elmer Fudd.

The Warner Bros. cartoon factory, which began cranking out animated shorts in the 1930s, never quite achieved the classic status of Walt Disney. While Mickey Mouse and his Disney cohorts were usually cuddly, adorable and life-affirming in stories that existed in a time out of time, Warner Bros. often brought the same topical references and hard-edged fervor to its cartoons as it did to its live action gangster pictures.

And while Disney had classy fairy tale packaging for its cultural kitsch, Warners knew no shame when it came to violent jokes or groan-inducing word play, as in the punning titles for a Bugs Bunny short, "Gorilla My Dreams," and a Pepe Le Pew short, "For Scent-imental Reasons."

In terms of illustrational style, Disney prided itself on beautiful, expensive-to-produce animated details that came as close to being realistic as the medium allowed. By contrast, Warner Bros. in effect said, heck, these are cartoons, and so the Warners animation gang let the illustrational lines be as exaggerated as the zany action.

You can trace the animation process and see how Warner Bros. came up with its distinctive animated menagerie by walking past the exhibited sketches, storyboard drawings, background layouts and drawings on the clear sheets known as "cels."

Seeing the process laid out step by step is a more reflective way of reconsidering cartoons that we all first saw in fast and furious fashion on the screen. For instance, I've always loved the Chuck Jones-directed spoof of Wagnerian opera, "What's Opera, Doc?" (1957), which goes by in a funny blur. You can see this cartoon on a video monitor here, but you can also pause before the illustrations of artists Maurice Noble and Philip DeGuard, who came up with the imposing castle that serves as backdrop for the operatic nonsense.

Or for a sense of how preliminary animation drawings eventually translated into movement, have a look at the sequence of five animation drawings of Wile E. Coyote drawn by artist Ken Harris for the Chuck Jones-directed "Gee Whiz-z-z-z" (1956). The coyote's limbs are already whirling motion in these drawings.

And when it comes to understanding the evolution of character, why just look at the 1935 model sheets on which the body of Porky Pig was first worked out in sketch form. Spherical shapes are arranged just so until he is the perfect pig, and then we see Porky in various poses: laughing, frowning, crying, in short showing more emotional range than most human actors. As for Porky's family, another sheet of drawings pertains to Petunia Pig, who entered Porky's life in 1937. Her figure studies include the artist's written instruction: "Note formula for drawing Petunia -- round head -- pear-shape body."

"That's All Folks! Bugs Bunny and Friends Present the Art of Animation" opens Sunday and remains through Aug. 25 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. For more information, call 396-6310.

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