Disney Magic with Blair Flair

S.F. exhibit focuses on designer Mary Blair—her art gave Disney films a modern look
Mary Blair
Disney designer Mary Blair in 1941.
(photo: courtesy and copyright Walt Disney Family Foundation)

Walt Disney knew how to pull America's heartstrings. He'd tell hilarious stories, bowdlerize a few fairytales, and create lovable characters, who, as the 1930s merged with the 1940s, began looking more and more like real people and less and less like cartoons.

But for a decade starting in 1943, Disney's preference for an "illusion of life," in the words of animator and historian John Canemaker, was tempered by the stylized, abstracted, wildly colored designs of Mary Blair.

From March 13 through September 7, the exhibit 'Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair' will be shown at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco's Presidio.

The show will contain 200 pieces from all phases of her career, concept and background drawings for Disney, California School watercolors from the 1930s, commercial work from the 1950s and '60s, and designs for the 'It's a Small World' attraction at the 1964 World's Fair.

"There's an amazing inherent appeal to the eye, with her work," says Canemaker, exhibit curator. "You just can't help but be pulled into it. And when you're drawn in, you're captured by the emotional impact, too. [Her art] works on people psychologically."

Blair (1911-1978), who grew up in Morgan Hill, was a committed modernist, living in a Los Angeles home designed by the modern architect Harwell Harris, and later in another modern home on Long Island.

Although, as Canemaker has written, "the stylishness and vibrant color of Disney films in the early 1940s and mid-1950s came primarily from Mary Blair," much of her work proved too stylized for the Disney organization.

"It was tragic," one Disney art director has recalled, "because she did things that were so marvelous and never got on the screen."

For more on Disney's Mary Blair exhibition, click here.