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Review: The Art and Flair of Mary Blair
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by Rhett Wickham (archives)
September 29, 2003
Rhett reviews the new John Canemaker book The Art and Flair of Mary Blair.

Oh Appreciation, Where Art Thou?
Rhett Wickham muses on THE ART AND FLAIR OF MARY BLAIR: AN APPRECIATION by John Canemaker

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. (Of promises that remain un-kept in the Land of Pedestrian Kings.)

In one hundred and one practically perfect pages of a slim but sumptuous volume, author and historian John Canemaker has managed to remind us of what it is that made Walt Disney great, and thus what makes the current administration of Feature Animation so sadly visionless: a keen eye and personal appreciation for true artistry. For it is that vision and the courage to pursue it that urges animation to be better and go farther than before.

The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, published last month by Disney Editions, is more a monograph than an in-depth biography on the troubled genius of its subject. Expanding only slightly on the twenty-five pages devoted to Blair in his 1996 book, Before the Animation Begins (Hyperion Press), Canemaker has appropriately subtitled this work “An Appreciation?; and appreciative he is, indeed, having gone to great lengths to display works not previously seen by the public. Don’t underestimate the book’s brevity of text, as the author is inviting us to sit for a while and take in the sights much like Walt may have done. This uncomplicated approach to a most complicated woman is first and last a chance to get lost in the color, texture and design of Ms. Blair’s extraordinary world. The text here serves more as a soft, un-intrusive underscore to the larger story of the artist; a story that can only be told in pictures. Each beautifully reproduced illustration adds another word to the expansive language that was the genius of Mary Blair - a language that flowed from her heart to her brush. Look. Sit for a while and just look. Take it in. The ability to tell a story, convey excitement and cast a spell is nowhere else as powerful as in the world of vivid, saturated colors and shapes that fill this book. Walt Disney recognized that and he showed his sincere appreciation by putting it to work in PETER PAN, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and CINDERELLA.

Blair’s brilliance is also at work in smaller, simpler works like SALUDOS AMIGOS and THE THREE CABALLEROS and MELODY TIME. To this end, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair is a wonderful reminder of how even the most casually dismissed “minor? works of the 40’s and 50’s experimented with what animation and only animation can do on screen - tell a story in pictures. Her bold approach to design had a lasting influence, and Canemaker is careful to organize his book so that we can see the artist develop and grow. There is an enviable objectivity to her portraits of every day life and the struggles of the working class found in her personal non-film work. Numerous small water colors punctuate the passages and stand in sharp contrast to the whimsical surrealism of the South American films and later work such as PAN. Very little has to be said, as seeing the work makes perfect sense out of why Blair’s seldom tapped un-romanticized but never-the-less charming simplicity was ideal for the real worlds of SONG OF THE SOUTH; just as her brighter but still culturally insightful imagery perfectly defined the moral fables of Uncle Remus. Seeing the work here only sharpens the sting of this film’s tragic invisibility.

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