Today saw the unveiling of the latest in the Melbourne Winter Masterpiece series: TIM BURTON THE EXHIBITION at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and I was lucky enough to be there. The exhibit is made up of over 700 pieces from throughout Burton’s lengthy career, sourced from various private galleries, studio archives and even Burton’s own home. It truly is an intimate look into the mind of a man with a very specific and recognisable artistic vision.
The Batmobile sits in the acmi foyer, guarding the entrance to Gallery 1 (where the exhibit is displayed). It’s appearance is shiny, sleek and polished; three words I wouldn’t use to describe any of the works of art deep within the gallery itself. After walking through the entrance, (a large ghoulish mouth,) a bright red glow lights the stairwell and gives the impression we’re descending into the depths of something sinister. At the bottom, a podium had been erected, presumably for the purposes of the unveiling. It was surrounded by items from one of Burton’s most popular films, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, including the character’s Gothic outfit, a topiary stag, and one of the actual ‘scissorhands’. It was here that the likes of ACMI Director Tony Sweeney and Museum of Modern Art’s Ron Magliozzi introduced the exhibit and highlighted some of the statistics behind both Burton’s films (ALICE IN WONDERLAND is now the fifth highest grossing film of all time!) and the exhibit’s original run at MoMA in New York (it’s the third most attended retrospective behind only Picasso and Matisse!).
We then got to hear from the man himself. As he approached the podium it became obvious he was in full ‘Tim Burton’ costume: frizzy hair, groomedgoatee, and shades that were dark, but not so dark that you couldn’t see his pupils. Exactly how you picture him. He explained how honoured he was to have been approached by MoMA and how pleased he was with the final exhibit. He joked about how the lighting at ACMI was a lot darker than MoMA and how he thought that was much more fitting. Reference was made to how he always carries around a notepad for sketches and he told us he’s much more comfortable letting his sketches do the talking for him, a point that seemed rather obvious as he stopped and started and stuttered his way through his speech. He gave the appearance of a truly humble man, still not used to so much attention.
When the speeches had all wrapped up and the news crews and photographers had a good enough head start, the rest of the press were admitted into the gallery to soak up the wonderful world of Burton. The exhibit is divided into three sections named after his home town of Burbank.
‘Surviving Burbank’ covers his early years and childhood and features many sketches and drawings that I doubt the youngster would have ever assumed would wind up in a museum. The people that star in his cartoons and drawings still genuinely look like people… this wouldn’t last as his style progressed. Highlights from this section include a handwritten story about a trip to the dentist and pages from his first attempt at a children’s book ‘The Giant Zlig’.
‘Beautifying Burbank‘ are his years of study at the California Institute of the Arts and his subsequent apprenticeship at Disney. Here’s were things get really exciting and really ugly. Maybe he was rebelling against the clean-cut nature of Disney animation he was forced to work within but his artwork from this period feature his most monstrous beings and grotesque creations (a sketch labelled ‘Mickey Mouse stretched out of proportion’ is probably the most telling). These creatures feature plenty of spots and stripes and eyes and teeth and eyes as spots and teeth as stripes. They’re ghoulish, creepy and tremendously fascinating. He also reveals a love for puns and wordplay amongst his drawings. “Man undressing woman with his eyes” illustrates a man whose eyeballs have left his skull and are physically removing a woman’s clothes with little hands. Another sketch labelled with the old Dorothy Parker quote, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”, shows a small man who appears to have both.
The centrepiece is a specially created sculpture called ‘Carousel’ which sits in a ‘black light room’ (so wear white when you attend!) with walls covered in glow-in-the-dark creatures. It doesn’t exactly *add* anything to our understanding of Burton or his films, but it looks awesome… so all is forgiven!
The final section is ‘Beyond Burbank’ where we find countless amounts of movie props, concept art and video of Burton’s entire film oeuvre, not just the films he directed, but one’s he produced that are clearly based on his artwork such as NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. There are plenty of original models from those two films including a collection of Jack Skellington heads with various facial expressions. There are BATMAN masks, SLEEPY HOLLOW costumes, and SWEENEY TODD’s razors. For those who were calling for the head of Sarah Jessica Parker after seeing SEX AND THE CITY 2 you’ll find it here, a prop from MARS ATTACKS!, it’s mouth agape like she just heard early reviews. I was also forced to confront one of my own childhood fears with the section on PEE-WEE HERMAN’S BIG ADVENTURE. I loved this film as a child and saw it multiple times but whenever Large Marge told the story of the road accident she once saw I had to look away until it was over. You might remember she ends the tale with “And when they pulled the driver’s body from the twisted, burning wreck. It looked like this…” before her face transformed into a terrifying image. Well, the concept sketches for that transformation were on display, along with a series of increasing-in-size eyeballs that were used to create the stop-motion. This exhibit might *actually* give me nightmares… I’ll find out tonight.
As I slowly rode the long escalator out of the gallery, I was struck with this feeling that I hadn’t spent enough time looking at everything on display, watching all the short films, interpreting all the sketches and was overcome with the urge to run back down and take more in. I needn’t worry though as the exhibit runs until the 10th of October, giving me plenty of time to go back. And believe me: I will.
I hope to see you all there.
Links-> ACMI’s account of the day on their blog
Buy tickets here