Through his films, Tim Burtonhas become known as a master of the macabre, concocting sumptuous feasts of grotesque, distorted imagery that make even his children’s stories unsettling to the palate. But when the Museum of Modern Art introduces the public to the auteur’s private paintings, sketches, photographs, and sculptures in a major retrospective, viewers may be surprised to discover a more lighthearted Burton—the class-clown doodler within filmdom’s brooding goth.
Much of the director’s noncinematic art is “humorous and high spirited,” says Ron Magliozzi, MoMA’s assistant film curator, who organized the show with curatorial assistant Jenny He and chief film curator Rajendra Roy. When Magliozzi visited Burton’s personal archive in London last year, he “went in thinking Tim was this gothic artist, and that he was heavily influenced by Expressionism.” But searching through the voluminous collection of private artwork—Burton has kept nearly everything he’s produced, even from his earliest youth—Magliozzi was reminded more of newspaper comics, sci-fi movies, and bubble-gum cards than of Otto Dix or Hans Bellmer.
There were childlike sketches with captions like “Why you shouldn’t shoot a constipated poodle,” buffoonish portraits of amorous couples, cartoons of doctors and disaffected teens, whimsical storybook illustrations, a caricature of President Reagan, and even a ceramic totem pole of clown heads.
“I started to think that pop surrealism was a much more appropriate and more rewarding way of framing the work” in the exhibition, says Magliozzi, referring to the genre that took root in California during the ’60s, when painters like Robert Williams began to base their work on “lowbrow” consumer culture—tattoos, cartoons, pinups, and toys—rather than on fine-art traditions. Pop surrealists share a “hip outsider perspective,” writes Magliozzi in the show’s catalogue, and promote “an alternative to the usual museum fare.”
Burton, who was raised in Burbank and studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts in the late ’70s, says it’s “a surreal thing” to be at MoMA. “I didn’t grow up in a culture of museums. I got most of my art from TV and movies.” While attracted to the “energy” of Matisse and van Gogh paintings, he says, “I never concerned myself with great art.” He names Dr. Seuss as “the first artist I recognized who had a particular style,” and calls the Louvre “an energy vampire—it just sort of drains the life out of you.”
The 700-piece retrospective, up from the 22nd of this month through April 26, will place Burton’s playful artwork alongside storyboards, props, and costumes from grim fantasies such as Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Sweeney Todd—which, Magliozzi hopes, will give viewers a more nuanced perception of the director’s filmic vision.
“His films are funny. People often forget this,” says Magliozzi. “When I told Tim, ‘You seem to spend more time studying humor than tragedy,’ he said, ‘Well, there is humor in tragedy. All great tragedy has a comic aspect.’ I came to think our exhibition should reflect that.”