Tim Burton Gets a MoMA ‘Retrospooktive’

Late last month, a major retrospective of works by filmmaker and artist Tim Burton opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. American master of the macabre, Burton is best known in popular culture for films like “Batman,” “Beetlejuice,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and more recently, “Sweeney Todd” and “Corpse Bride.”

To shed light on the often dark output of the prolific Burton, MoMA curators scavenged through the artist’s own archives in London to create an exhibit that surveys the huge scope of Burton’s 40-year career in multiple forms and mediums, showing more than 700 works from his childhood to the present, from films, sculpture, photos, costumes, storyboards, even drawings on cocktail napkins.

Burton’s artistry frequently explores the humor in the darker, gloomier and peculiar aspects of human reality, citing Van Gogh and Francis Bacon as influences. In even Burton’s earliest works, there is an overt gothic outlook and stylistic approach that characterizes his later work. That style — in full effect in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ — can be seen in his earliest 8mm and 16mm films, which he shot as a kid growing up in Burbank, Calif., and as a student at CalArts.

But, says curator Ron Magliozzi, Burton spent as much time as an adolescent studying humor as he did horror, producing images and films that are both spooky and satirical.

One special exhibition feature is a film that was previously believed lost — Burton’s “Hansel and Gretel,” which aired on the Disney Channel on Halloween in 1983 and was never seen or heard from again — until now. The network had deemed it too strange, says Magliozzi. Burton used only Japanese actors for the film, and the final scene contains a paintball battle between the witch and the children.

The MoMA exhibition places Burton in a new context, comparing his work to those a generation of other artists who took inspiration from “low culture,” a sensibility called pop surrealism.

“I was in that generation where I got more out of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ than Monet,” Burton explained to a crowd of reporters at a press preview this summer. He didn’t grow up in a culture where you went to museums as a kid, Burton said, mentioning the Hollywood Wax Museum as a childhood destination, not the current museum where his work is now being shown.

“I thought I left certain images a long time ago, but you realize you’re still obsessed by certain things,” he said, adding that he’s been energized by having his work up at the MoMA.

Art Beat talked to Ron Magliozzi, MoMA’s Assistant Curator of Film, about seeing the world through Burton’s looking glass.

The exhibition, which also features an ongoing Burton film series, runs through April 26, 2010.

Editor’s Note: Charlie Rose talked to Tim Burton last month.