Surreal. Larger than life. Hauntingly hysterical. It might be the black and white stripes, or maybe it’s that few of his protagonists look like they’ve had a decent night’s sleep in years, but you know Tim Burton’s work when you see it. (OK, Johnny Depp might be another clue.)
But you’ve never seen Tim Burton’s work like it’s presented at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
MOMA did a great job curating the exhibition. It is accessible for people with only a casual interest in Burton, but has plenty for hardcore fans. It covers his entire career as a writer and animator, featuring everything from adolescent drawings and stories, to his early short films, to recent character studies, paintings, and sculptures.
The early short films are a real treat—they display his familiar sense of dark humor, but Burton was still developing his visual language. And that’s what’s most fascinating about the exhibition: watching his universe unfold before your eyes, and experiencing the conceptual continuity in character design. What might be evident only after vigorously studying Burton’s films, the exhibition makes plain before your eyes. A case in point: new sculptures being shown look like they come straight from the hysterical “Day-O” scene from Beetlejuice. The open mouth you walk through to enter the main gallery would be at home in that movie, too, as well as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, never mind the excellent short film Vincent, which can be viewed in its entirety.
Very few artists have successfully created their own distinct, visual vocabulary, especially one that resonates with our fears, hopes, and fantasies. Burton can be alternately touching and terrifying—who else can make you feel frightened and fascinated, yet leave you feeling reassured that good will, eventually, triumph over evil? And he does all of this with one powerful image—think the blood running down Winona Ryder’s cheek in Edward Scissorhands, or Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin decaying before your eyes at the climax of Beetlejuice, or Johnny Depp sparing a child’s life in Sweeney Todd.
What stands out about Burton’s character design is how he uses surreal and often disturbing elements to enhance your investment in their fates. The exhibition makes clear that this isn’t by accident. Burton experiments with dolls and models in various poses and expressions until he finds those that reverberate in your brain, getting stuck there despite your best efforts to forget them. His “Blue Woman” series, on display here, is just such an exercise.
Whether you’re a Tim Burton devotee, or just a fan of a couple of his movies, head to MOMA before the exhibit closes on April 26.