Monday, October 20, 2008

Peregoy and Léger

In honor of Walt Peregoy’s recent acknowledgment as a Disney Legend, I’d like to write about a subject that has been on my mind for some time now.

Two months ago, I attended an exhibition of Fernand Léger’s work that explored, among other things, his influence on American artists:

“Léger had a strong retroactive influence on American art. The exhibition investigates this interesting phenomenon for the first time, by including major works by American artists who were inspired by Léger – Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, and others. Léger can be rediscovered as a predecessor of Pop Art and a model for a range of contemporary artists.”

Information sheet FERNAND LEGER Paris – New York by Philippe Büttner, transl. by John Gabriel

But his influence can also be seen heavily in American animation of the 50s, particularly in some of Bob McIntosh’s Magoo backgrounds, for example:

Les disques (Léger, 1918)

Ever since I took an interest in Walt Peregoy’s works of the 50s and 60s, I wondered how much his style was still influenced by Léger at that time.

A short bit of history

Prior to being rehired at Disney in 1951, Walt Peregoy “spent three years in Paris studying painting. His sketchbooks at the time reflect the strong influence of Fernand Léger, and in fact, Léger offered to sign one of Peregoy’s sketchbooks because he was so impressed with the young artist’s work.” (Amid Amidi in Cartoon Modern). Unfortunately, I don’t know if any of these sketches are available anywhere.

There is not much known about Peregoy’s time studying under the great French Modernist except that he got to France aboard the “Queen Elizabeth” in 1948/49. He also met his future wife Madeleine Arneau shortly after he arrived in Paris. A few years before, (1940-45) Léger lived and worked in the United States, where he reportedly started painting free form color areas influenced by the light of neon signs around Times Square. Back in France he joined the French Communist Party and began to paint clearer silhouettes and heroic figures.

Contemporary influences?

Asked by Imagineer Julie Svendsen if he was influenced by artists like Mark Rothko and Nicolas de Stael, Peregoy replied:
“I’ve never been influenced at any time ever by anything that’s contemporary or otherwise. The one that I really admire and I’ll be presumptuous... I like to think my work looks like Goya. I think my work looks like his, not because I draw like him, but because he was politically aware and he drew from his soul. And I don’t mean it superficially like the ones that dribble paint or ones that paint the canvas one solid color. No. I was raised in the Depression and I mean I was aware of artists from the time that I was 9 years old, because I went to professional art school on Saturdays. I remember the artists at that time, the ones who painted murals in the Post Office. And then there were a couple... I think they were Jewish. I don’t remember their names. They were New Yorkers. They painted scenes on the beach, the boardwalk and the ghettoes. They were an influence on me in the sense that they painted what they saw, what they felt and the times. I don’t know what their education was but their work showed who they were more than what they were learning.”

Like Legér, Peregoy also limited himself to simple shapes, painted in strong colors. Moreover, technical objects and machines are featured prominently in the films he worked on. Although his personal style is clearly visible in all of his films, he always tried to find a completely different style for each new production. One can only speculate what The Jungle Book would have looked like, if Peregoy hadn’t been replaced by Al Dempster.

Look at some of his backgrounds from Windwagon Smith (he is said to have painted all of them himself, but I’m not sure about the clouds in the final shots) and you can see why the animators supposedly have been complaining about his “foregrounds”. Interestingly, in many of the earlier Léger paintings, the human body is just another technical object that doesn’t look more important than the tubes and discs around it.

I’m aware of the fact that at that time it was quite common in the field of animation to dissociate color areas from outlines (e.g. see Maurice Noble’s Warner designs) and many studios experimented with flatter styles and more contemporary stories and designs. I don’t want to overestimate Léger’s influence, but I still think it's interesting to compare the works of artists who at some time have been working together (I have also included paintings by Rothko and Stael).

The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1958)

Les constructeurs (Léger, 1950)

color key 101 Dalmatians

The City (Léger, 1919)

The Land mural (Peregoy, EPCOT)

color key 101 Dalmatians

Untitled (Mark Rothko, 1947)
[Update: for more on Mark Rothko, also see this excellent website]

The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1958)

Figure by the Sea (Nicolas de Stael, 1952)

color key 101 Dalmatians

Nicolas de Stael

Adieu New York (Léger, 1946)

Julie (Léger, 1945)

Trois femmes (Léger, 1927)

The Shooting of Dan McGrew (1965 all backgrounds by Peregoy; posted on Youtube by Jerry Beck)


Unknown said...

Very nice article!

Thanks for sharing it.

Florian Satzinger said...

Same here, thanks for that! Truly inspiring...

Michael Sporn said...

This is just a truly excellent post. Very informative. It's so rare that anyone talks about real art when discussing animation. Yet it's one of the true joys in doing 2D animation - bringing art to the medium. I've been a fan of Walt Peregoy's work since my earliest days, and I'm quite pleased to see that you've written about his work.

Anonymous said...

Nice job! It looks as if Peregoy synthesized a lot of modern ideas at once, not least of all the great American artist Charles Demuth. Look at the Windwagon quadrant and some of Demuth's buildings and landscapes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post and thanks to Cartoon Brew for bringing to my attention. Wow! I love all the artist you mention. It's so interesting to see these works side by side. Great work. This post really made my day.

Oswald Iten said...

Thanks for all your comments, it's always encouraging that there are people who care "about real art when discussing animation" as Michael Sporn put it.

- chuck: I wasn't aware of Charles Demuth, but you sure have a point there.