FRANCE - Move over Picasso and Constable, Manet and Poussin. Here come Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Snow White and Bambi.
An ambitious exhibition in Paris is introducing the world to the most neglected artistic genius that it already knows: Walter Elias Disney.
The show is on for four months at the Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysees, one of the most prestigious exhibition sites in the French capital. The choice of venue is sending shock waves of disapproval through parts of the artistic world.
Walt Disney in the Grand Palais? What next? Peanuts in the Louvre? Tom and Jerry in the Prado?
If you are prepared to take a broad-minded view of art; or if you are a lover of early Disney movies; or if you are interested in the history of the cinema, the exhibition will be a delight. It includes the largest collection of original material allowed to leave the archives of the Disney studios in Burbank, California: including sketches for the first Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928), preliminary paintings for Snow White (1937) and watercolours, models and puppets for Pinocchio (1940).
The exhibition explores the mostly European artistic influences on the early Walt Disney, from Mickey Mouse to the Jungle Book (1967). It pays tribute to the talent of the, again mostly European, artists used by Disney to develop the characters and settings of his feature-length films.
The show, Il etait une fois Walt Disney (once upon a time, there was Walt Disney), also looks at the influence that Disney has had on modern art, from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol. It includes a daily showing of scraps of an unlikely Disney-Dali joint project from 1945, an unfinished film called Destino.
Most provocatively, the exhibition tries to make the case that some of the stills or sketches for the early Disney films should be regarded as great art.
The show's chief curator, Bruno Girveau, of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, admits that Walt Disney is seen by many as a "paragon of the insipid" and, at best, "a story-teller of genius".
It is time for a radical reassessment, says |M. Girveau, at least of those Disney films made before the founder's death in 1966.
"It is my conviction that Walt Disney should be considered amongst the most important figures in the cinema - and more broadly in the art - of the 20th century," he says in the exhibition catalogue.
That might seem like an incendiary claim in a country whose intellectual classes - or some of them - greeted the arrival of the Eurodisney theme park east of Paris in the 1990s as a "cultural Chernobyl".
Pierre Lambert, a French cinema historian and author of several books on Walt Disney, is one of four other curators who have prepared the exhibition over 10 years.
"There will be many ways to enjoy this exhibition," he says. "If, like me, you were enthralled by a Disney film as a child - in my case it was the Jungle Book when I was 7 - you will look at the extraordinarily beautiful original art-work for the early films and you will be plunged back into the raw emotions of your childhood.
"But this is also the most comprehensive exhibition ever attempted on the history and artistic influences of Disney. There have been others, including in Paris, going back to 1959, but never as large as this before and never with so much original material."
The former boss of Disney, Michael Eisner, is an art lover. He was delighted by the prospect of a Disney exhibition in the Grand Palais. He gave Lambert and Girveau the run of the studio archives.
"He said that we could take 250 items, and whatever we wanted with no restrictions," Lambert said. "I think many people will be bowled over by the beauty of some of this material. Amongst other things, it shows that Snow White, as originally conceived, was prettier than the character who appeared in the film."
The exhibition traces the origins of some of the best-known settings and characters in the early Disney movies. Pinocchio's village was, it turns out, not Italian but a copy of the town of Rothenberg in Bavaria. Snow White's wicked step-mum is a mixture of the actress Joan Crawford and the statue of a medieval queen in the cathedral of Naumberg in Germany.
"Disney never regarded himself as an artist but he was an artist, in the same way that an orchestra conductor is an artist," said Lambert. "He had the confidence and the vision to bring together all the different talents and disciplines that it needs to make an animated film and - whether he realised it or not - he created a new art form."