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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Tyrus Wong

Tyrus, he didn't invent the animated star of Disney's Bambi. Actually, he seldom even drew the little guy. And despite having contributed significantly to making the film one of the studio's outstanding critical achievements, he never actually met his boss. In fact, Disney later fired him.
It seems like every few day I come upon artists who should be, if not household names, then at least far more well-known then they are. There are many artists who have been an integral part of our childhoods, yet whose names we have never known. Among those are exceptional artists who worked on our favorite cartoons, uncredited book writers, comic book illustrators, and any number of little geniuses who have long been mostly, if not entirely anonymous. Take the Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong, for instance. Walt Disney may have produced the film, Bambi, but Tyrus Wong, a minor artist in the Disney stable of cheap, but exceptional talent during the early 1940s...Tyrus Wong made Bambi great.

One of the early, pre-production Bambi sketches which so impressed Walt Disney he made Wong lead artist for the film.
To Walt Disney's credit, he had a knack for recognizing great talent when he saw it. In need of a job, Wong joined Walt Disney Studios in 1938. He was hired as an "inbetweener," one who drew countless sketches of Disney's favorite mouse in between key points in the animations. Though not backbreaking labor, the tedious sixteen-dollar-a-week job left Wong exhausted at the end of each day, his eyes, as he put it, “...ready to jump out of their sockets." When Wong heard about the upcoming Project Bambi, he read the Felix Salten book upon which the movie would be based. Since he was primarily a landscape painter at the time, he was thrilled to stumble upon a story that took place entirely outside. On his own, Wong created several pastel sketches which he showed to art director, Tom Codrick. The small, but evocative sketches captured the imagination of Walt Disney, and became the basis for the film’s visual style. Walt Disney saw that Tyrus Wong was able to produce exquisite artwork that did not necessarily look like the forest, but rather, felt like the forest. Wong's initial concept sketches became Walt’s vision for Bambi. Even today, Tyrus Wong’s work continues to influence film makers.
Following his retirement in 1968, Wong spent his time designing, building, and flying Chinese kites.
How did a young artist born in Canton, China, in 1910 come to end up guiding one of Disney's best cinematic efforts to a successful release in 1942? At an early age, the young man traveled with his father to America, to never seeing his mother or sister again. He developed a knack for calligraphy, dipping his brushes in water and painting on whatever he could find, including newspaper (his father could not afford ink). That talent is what got him into the Otis Art Institute. Talent, that is, and the ninety-five dollars for the first semester’s tuition, which his father somehow managed to save up. The fifteen-year-old Wong dropped out of junior high school and began studying art at Otis. While still at Otis, Wong received his first commission. He was paid twenty-five dollars to paint an ad for a new brassiere on Hollywood Boulevard. Wong said he had to lie to get the job by pretending to know what a brassiere was.
Sailboat in Rainstorm, 1189-94, Xia Gui
So where did the inspiration for the woodland artwork originate that so impressed Walt Disney? Wong brought it with him from China, from landscapes painted during the Song Dynasty (above) from around 1190. What makes Wong’s work so compelling is the way he brought two cultures together in his art. He relied on memory and imagination in much of his work, as opposed to working strictly from observation. This has roots in classical Chinese landscape painting where artists would memorize their subjects then interpret scenes back in the studio. This almost abstract style, was a philosophical reaction against the tradition of realism. (A sort of 12th-century avant-garde, you might say.) Artists in this mode argued that purely representational work was “seductive”--dangerously sensual. By comparison, Song dynasty painting idealized the expression of the artist, and the painting as a direct connection with the heart and soul of its creator. To this, Wong added an innovative use of vivid colors, rarely seen in traditional Chinese painting (which is probably what caught Disney's eye).

The climax of the movie as seen by Wong in this Bambi pre-production painting--almost abstract.

Tyrus Wong was fired from Disney in the aftermath of a labor dispute before the release of Bambi in 1942. However, he soon found work elsewhere in the film industry, illustrating scripts, drawing storyboards, and painting production images for Warner Bros., where he spent the final two decades of his career. He developed storyboards and concept sketches for Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, Around the World in Eighty Days the following year, Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949, and many other live-action films. Though he had no experience working on such productions, Wong was hired by Warner Bros. at four times his previous Disney salary. Also, at various times throughout his film career, Wong worked for Columbia, RKO Pictures, and Twentieth-Century Fox.

A pre-production illustration by Wong for The Wild Bunch, a 1969 Warner Bros. western starring William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, directed by Sam Peckenpah.


Tyrus Wong Porcelain
In retirement, Wong also paint-ed Christmas cards (below) and magazine covers (bottom), as well as designs for dinnerware sometimes featuring Chinese calligraphy (left). And, he spent many years building elaborate kites, which he often flew on the beach near his home in Santa Monica, Calif. But his signature style seems to have crystallized around the time of the Bambi drawings in the 1930s--clearly rendered figures that are ram-pant, or dreamy, amid land-scapes evoked by absence. Ty-rus Wong died in 2016 at the age of 106, leaving behind im-portant advice for artists to-day: "If you can do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing."
Since it's "that time of the year" again, I couldn't leave
Tyrus Wong without showcasing some of his highly simplified Christmas cards.

Many of Tyrus Wong's "retirement" paintings ended up as cover art for Reader's Digest.


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