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Tim Burton @ MoMA

Tim Burton @ MoMA

(Pretty tight early sketch of the Queen of Hearts, from the upcoming Alice in Wonderland.)

On Wednesday night, I made my way over to MoMA for one of the sneak previews for their massive Tim Burton exhibit (which officially opens on November 22 and closes on April 26). A tribute to the iconic and popular and divisive film director/animator, this exhibit is probably one of the best ideas that a museum has ever had (and, yes, I understand museums have been around for a long time). What, at first, you assume might just be props and costumes from Burton’s dream-like films (Beetlejuice, Sweeney Todd), turns into much more as you realize how passionately imaginative Burton has been about his process. Adorning the walls of the exhibit are countless sketches and drafts of his characters, whether it be a wholly original creation like Edward Scissorhands or his own interpretation on the Mad Hatter (for his upcoming Alice In Wonderland adaptation). There are so many reasons why this show is a great idea. Perhaps at the forefront is the fact that when Burton wasn’t creating new characters, he was reinventing cultural landmarks like comic book heroes or childrens’ book stories. So, even when he’s remaking Planet of the Apes, it’s an offbeat kind of pop art.

(A napkin sketch of the title character from Burton’s Sweeney Todd.)

(An early watercolor painting of The Joker from Batman. Slightly different than what Jack Nicholson ended up doing with the character.)

Plus, there are examples of other characters and creations that never made it into one of his films, a glimpse into brainstorming that could maybe one day be a new animated or live-action feature work. Or, maybe these sketches will just live forever as self-contain scraps of paper, like a musician’s lost tapes or an author’s unfinished chapter. Regardless of the art’s place in Tim Burton’s day job as a film director, these pieces exist as a separate body of work. The MoMA exhibit runs in chronological order, depicting childhood dreams while he grew up in Burbank through his topsy-turvy career from commercial success (Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas) to undeserved commercial failure (Mars Attacks). The inspiration seems to come from Mexican Day of the Dead artwork, blended with B-movie special effects. And, being that this is coming from someone with such an absurd sense of humor as Burton, it’s probably important not to dissect the work too seriously. As he has claimed, very little of this collection was created with an eye towards exhibition. It’s just art he made, some of it in his spare time while stumbling onto visionary ideas. But that’s also what makes this show such a treat, and a rare event.

(A behind-the-scenes video where Tim Burton discusses the MoMA exhibit)

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