As a teenager, Timothy Walter “Tim” Burton (*1958 in Burbank, California) developed a great enthusiasm for horror and science fiction movies, and made his first Super-8 movies with a group of other teenaged cinephiles. He began studying animation in 1977 at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, and was later hired by Disney to work on animated films such as The Fox and the Hound (1981). At the same time he made his own short films there, Vincent (1982), Hansel and Gretel (1983), and Frankenweenie (1984). Burton left the studio in 1984 to devote himself to his own career as a filmmaker. In the ensuing years he made such films as Edward Scissorhands (1990), Mars Attacks! (1996), Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Burton has been nominated for Oscars many times, and in 2007 he was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s Gold Lion for his life’s work.
Master of the Grotesque
“Drawing allowed me to vent whatever I felt, in order to get out of the soul-killing uniformity of the suburbs.” (Tim Burton)
He is considered a “gifted filmmaker” (Die Welt), a “master of the fantastical horror trip, the surreal screen spectacle” (Der Spiegel). The films by the American director Tim Burton—whether Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare before Christmas, or Alice in Wonderland—cast a spell over the audience, luring them into garish, grotesque worlds on the threshold between reality and dream. Yet, while his films often attain cult status, most of his work in the fine arts has yet to be discovered.
Burton’s first tentative attempts at drawing were made in his hometown of Burbank, near Los Angeles—the “abyss of hell,” as he once stated, “everything looked exactly the same.” He escaped the dreariness of the suburbs and the “sea of monotony” by watching horror movies, drawing, and playing in the city cemetery, as he has said.
Today, Burton’s private archives contain more than ten thousand drawings, paintings, film puppets, models, and storyboards. They provide fascinating insight into the director’s/multimedia artist’s world of bizarre ideas, constituting a kind of weird, visual journal overflowing with humor: here is a man whose own shadow rises up like a monster behind him (Untitled / Vincent, 1982); a woman is literally pulled out of the eyes that have fallen out of a man’s head (Untitled / Cartoons, around 1979–1984); and monsters with wide-open maws snapping at our blue planet (Surrounded, 1996). Burton’s creatures are often wounded, even obviously sewn together, as in The Green Man (1999) or Sally Parts (1993)—outsiders, one and all, even freaks, who play the main roles in his films. In Tim Burton’s bizarre visual universe, deviation is the norm—it is a panopticon of fantasies, both scary and beautiful, gruesome and comical—a wonderful, twisted mixture of poetry, humor, and horror.
Thematically, his body of work spans a broad arc: through his drawings, especially, which are the artist’s most essential means of expression, Burton muses about life in American suburbs, about being different, about carnivalesque and pop-culture themes such as Halloween, combining elements of pop culture and B movies, cartoons and comics. His inventive images and bizarre worlds—the antitheses of the one in which he spent a sheltered childhood—also provide a sense of how his films develop over the years, from the concept to the storyboard, for these drawings are often characters or settings for his movies. Many of them are quickly jotted down on napkins, newspaper, or notepaper. For instance, the viewer will see Edward Scissorhands looking out of his deep-set eyes from a nervously scrawled ink and pencil drawing from 1990. The choleric Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, with her exaggeratedly heart-shaped mouth, looks at us from an ink and colored pencil drawing from 2009. In their carefree creativity, the compositions show the artist’s sense of being free of norms and academic rules. “There was this almost like drug-induced sense of freedom. And I fight that every day, someone saying, ‘You can’t do that. This doesn’t make any sense.’”
His spontaneous way of working, in which he deliberately does not turn on the corrective intellect, recalls the kind of automatism employed by the Surrealists in their écriture automatique. “I definitely don’t like to overanalyze,” Burton once said, “I just go with a feeling, wherever, whenever, which is why I try to always have a notebook with me.” Critics have therefore often compared Burton’s style with pop-Surrealism, as well as with German Expressionism and Gothic culture.
Since these works often spring from emotions and are frequently subjective and personal, it is no wonder that they were originally not intended for public viewing. But the MoMA in New York offered to produce a large traveling exhibition for the artist/director in 2009, and honored his body of work at stations in New York, Melbourne, and Toronto. Now, the survey at the Max Ernst Museum in Brühl provides a kind of journey through the brilliant mind of the eccentric Burton—“a pleasure trip through a world of horror,” as Der Spiegel wrote. “I hope you like it,” wrote Tim Burton in the accompanying catalogue. Yes, we do. But have a look for yourself . . .
20.10.2015 Stefanie Gommel