Tim Burton brings horror to MoMA
Ascend to the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art, past the topiary carved in the shape of a buck and enter through a doorway in the disguise of a monster’s gaping jaws. Screams, horrific laughs and cries can be heard from the monster’s throat, a hallway lined with screens showing the heroics of “Stainboy.” Just beyond the viewing gallery is a backlight room with a trippy rotating carousel composed of various monster parts.
Tim Burton has taken over the MoMA.
At a press conference Nov. 17, MoMA director Glenn Lowry said, “It’s very rare that an artist let’s you inside their mind like Tim.”
Burton, known best for his work on films such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman,” “Beetlejuice” and “Sweeney Todd,” has let his mind run rampant throughout the building. The special exhibit, curated by Ron Magliozzi and Jenny He, spans the third floor and will include film screenings in both of the museum’s theaters.
“Thank you for trying to make sense of my life so far,” Burton said at the conference, wearing purple oversized sunglasses and his signature disheveled hairstyle. The artist said that the museum “raided my closets,” gathering over 700 sketches, paintings, photographs, and sculptures from his 27-year career.
The exhibit is broken up into three parts that explore Burton’s connection to his hometown of Burbank, Calif. The first, “Surviving Burbank,” includes character sketches and concept designs as well as early works from Burton’s youth. This collection includes a portrait of Vincent Price that Burton completed in 1970 when he was just 12. Price was Burton’s childhood hero. He later narrated the artist’s short film “Vincent” and appeared in “Edward Scissorhands.”
The short films “The Island,” “Houdini: The Untold Story,” and “Untitled (Tim’s Dreams),” created in 1971 and 1972 and shot on 8mm film, are the very beginnings of Burton’s directing career. Filmed in neighborhood backyards using childhood friends, the shorts show Burton’s early fascination with horror films and unreality.
Also in this section of the exhibit is a list of favorite movies written on notebook paper by a 19 year-old Burton. Films on the list include “Jason and the Argonauts,” “The Raven,” and “Nosferatu,” all being featured in the MoMA film series “Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters.” The series runs from Dec. 2 to April 26 and includes films handpicked by Burton because he considers them influential to his career.
“I loved the lurid beauty of these monster movies,” Burton said. “They spoke to me. I didn’t understand the world, and these films were somehow symbolic of the way I felt.”
The second and third parts of the exhibit “Beautifying Burbank” and “Beyond Burbank” moves from the suburbs to Hollywood, from a child-like desperation, producing art to cope with fears and insecurity, to an embracing of oddities and a celebration of the strange.
“You have a way of exploring some of the deepest dark fears but in a way that brings out the humanity and humor in all of us,” Lowry said to Burton. Nowhere is this clearer than in the works that led to films like “Nighmare Before Christmas” and “Edward Scissorhands,” celebrations of tragic underdogs who only find acceptance once they accept their own quirks.
Jack Skellington and Edward are just a couple of the familiar faces encountered in the final part of the exhibit. In addition to a life-size model of Edward decked out in the original costume, the exhibit also features Michael Keaton’s Batman masks, the severed heads from “Mars Attacks” and the animatronics figures from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Costume designers Bob Kingwood and Colleen Atwood have collaborated with Burton to display these works.
Up close, Jack Skellington’s grin is just as menacing and endearing as are the other three dozen or so Jack heads that were interchanged throughout the filming of “Nightmare Before Christmas.” The scarecrow from “Sleepy Hollow” is just as ramshackle and foreboding, and Victor from “The Corpse Bride” looks just as emaciated and forlorn as in the film.
However, Jack, Victor and even Beetlejuice are old friends to any fan of popular culture from the 90s to today. Burton transforms darkness into whimsical child’s play. The viewer realizes that even though Edward Scissorhands’ appendages look sharp, the monsters are truly the good guys and we aren’t as strange or alone as we once thought.
Meghan Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.