Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Disney Demonology

A while ago Michael Sporn posted the awe-inspiring drawings by Vladimir 'Bill' Tytla for the giant Devil atop Bald Mountain in Disney's 'Fantasia', varyingly referred to as 'Satan himself', 'Tchernobog' and 'Chernobog', but, most frequently known as Chernabog. This may be my favourite sequence in any Disney film.

The monster was based on a number of sources, but perhaps most famously, the look of the whole Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria sequence was defined by the great illustrator Kay Nielsen.

Nielsen's work in illustration suited him well to scenes of supernatural elegance; an illustration from 'Felicia' shares some characteristics with the swirling spirits Chernabog calls forth from their graves...

while another illustration for 'John and the Ghosts' demonstrates an interest in distorted shadow.

Credited with coming up with the idea for the sequence in the first place is the great Albert Hurter, whose nervous scribblings and fantastical doodles have been paid tribute to in John Canemaker's 'Before the Animation Begins', and the 1942 book 'He Drew as He Pleased'.

Hurter himself was inspired by Heinrich Kley, who depicted devils and giants in grotesque, surreal and sometimes comical sequences. Kley's devils, delighting in causing chaos, are part Gargantua, part Gulliver. For a time Disney attempted to introduce thios comical aspect to the Bald Mountain sequence, but decided against it.

Robin Allan ('Walt Disney and Europe') has remarked on the influence of Gustave Dore on much of the early work at Disney. Dore not only inspired Disney artists like Hurter, Joe Grant and Ferdinand Hovarth. His influence can also be found in Kley's work, with a bit of Honore Daumier thrown in. Most famous of Dore's devils is probably his Satan in 'Dante's Inferno'. Like Disney's Chernabog, Dore's Satan is titanic in size, but rooted from the waist up in a single place, and completely impotent. It almost seems that Dore really wants to design his own Devil, but grudgingly sketches in the characteristics Dante describes. Though his Satan has three heads, two are more or less hidden in shadow, and the two extra pairs of wings, described by Dante to move like the blades of a windmill, are vague enough to be taken almost as a motion blur. The devil Dore seems eager to depict is not Dante's but the more traditional version, with the satyr-like features traditionally attributed to him up to that point. Dore's Satan is nevertheless quite chilling, combining the awesome size of the likes of Giotto's Satan in his Last Judgement fresco with the quiet, brooding menace of the demon of Fuseli's The Nightmare.

Also in Dore's Dante illustrations can be found swirling seas of spirits similar to those seen in Night on Bald Mountain, and a similarly jagged, rocky landscape.

There may also be something of the Lucifer of Dore's Paradise Lost, who spends a lot of time angsting about on moody mountaintops. The above engraving is a highlight in a set of illustrations that tends to be rather samey.

The comical aspect of Kley's devils may also be in reference to Dore, who seems to have enjoyed the comedic situations between giants and humans in Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. The situations are at times grotesque, at times frightening, most of the time comical.

I don't know if Kley or the Disney artist would have seen the spectacular 1875 engravings - in my opinion Dore's best illustrations - as they were only published once, in a very expensive edition that now sells for thousands - though they have thankfully become more readily available recently through a cheap Dover paperback featuring all of the full-page illustrations and many of the vignettes - but the earlier illustrations of Dore's were in wide circulation and published many times.

The most well-known inspiration for the Night on Bald Mountain sequence is the scene in Murnau's Faust in which Mephisto, portrayed by Emil Jannings, appears as a giant, bat-like shadow over Faust's village, releasing poisonous smoke that spreads the plague. So iconic is this sequence that it even found its way into an episode of The Powerpuff Girls.

Not only is the idea and staging similar, but the architecture of village beneath Bald Mountain bears more than a passing resemblance to the crooked houses of Faust's hometown. The influence here is most prominently Der Golem, which the Disney artists may also have seen.

Dan Malan has also cited, as an influence on Murnau's Nosferatu and Faust (you guessed it) Gustave Dore. In the case of Faust he's probably thinking of a few full-page illustrations in Contes Drolatiques, which share a similar passion for Gothic Medievalism, in part inspired in turn by Dore's schoolboy years in Strasbourg.