‘Walt and Dali: Architects of the Imagination’ at the Disney Museum

Salvador Dali and Walt Disney

Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney in Spain, 1957. (Gift of Diane Disney Miller, collection Walt Disney Foundation; © Disney.)

by Karl Cohen

“Walt and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination” at The Walt Disney Family Museum is an amazing experience full of original paintings, drawings, animation art, photographs, video clips, archival documents and an excellent audio tour narrated by Sigourney Weaver. This large, temporary exhibit shows that the two geniuses had some things in common besides the fact that Dalí worked at the Disney Studio in 1945-46 on a short film. Both were fascinated with surrealism; both reached prominence in the 1930s; and among their honors both had cover stories written about them for Time magazine (Dali in 1936 and 2011, Walt in 1937 and 1954).

Dali 1936Dali in 1936. Photo by Man Ray. Walt 1937Disney in 1937.
Dali2011Dali in 2011. Walt in 1954.Disney in 1954.

The theme of the show is how their lives developed in a more or less parallel way. The exhibit contains images from each period of their lives including baby pictures and family photos, as well as early drawings by both men. One big surprise is a landscape painting by Dalí from when he was a student. It’s in a soft-focus Impressionist style.


Salvador Dalí, Tieta, Portrait of My Aunt, Cadaqués (1923-24). (© Salvador Dalí, [Artists Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection of The Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL, 2015.) (click to enlarge)

The men were born just three years apart and both decided to become artists about the same time. Disney began to make animated cartoons in the early ’20s. Dalí, an up and coming painter in Paris at the time, began working with his friend Luis Buñuel. Together in 1929 they produced the surreal classic Un Chien Andalou (Andalusian Dog). Their next project was L’Age d’Or (The Age of Gold), a feature with a script by Dalí, directed by Buñuel. When it premiered in Paris in 1930 it created a scandal that forced the film to be banned from further screenings in France.

Tumblr_ncantwRq2P1tvs289o1_500Both Dalí and Disney began to achieve fame by the late 1920s, Dalí for his amazing surrealist paintings and Disney for producing films starring his friend Mickey. Steamboat Willie premiered in 1928, and the Mickey Mouse shorts and the Silly Symphony series that followed had surreal plots and sometimes brilliant surreal sequences.

Film clips from gems like The Mad Doctor, Three Little Pigs, The Band Concert, Thru the Mirror (inspired by Lewis Carroll), and dozens of other shorts are shown on video displays in almost every room of the show. All were picked to show the studio’s ability to create mind-bending work.


Walt Disney, ca. 1930s. (Courtesy of the Walt Disney Company, © Disney.)

Their paths officially converged in 1936 when Dali visited New York for the “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. In addition to work by the artist there were two Disney animation cels that fascinated him.

To give visitors a better understanding of the current exhibit, an excellent audio tour narrated by actress Sigourney Weaver is available through headphones at no additional cost. It is well-written and quite informative, and Weaver has a lovely speaking voice. The essential background information is on printed cards throughout the galleries but the audio tour has the bonus of Walt and Dali speaking, insight from the curator and others plus interactive video and art puzzles options. The use of headphones means the galleries are not noisy so my experience at the museum was a very relaxed two hour visit to absorb it all.

While the Disney material from the 1930s in the exhibit is wonderful, Dalí’s art from the decade is amazing. Early in the exhibit, Dalí talks about obtaining his surreal images from his dreams and paranoia. Some of his paintings from the era are masterpieces.

Salvador Dalí, The Broken Bridge and the Dream (1945). (© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, [Artists Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection of The Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL, 2015.)

Salvador Dalí, The Broken Bridge and the Dream (1945). (© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, [Artists Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection of The Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL, 2015.) (click to enlarge)

Even if you may not want to imagine yourself wandering through Dalí’s landscapes, they are so fanciful and so amazing you might stop and ponder them for several minutes. I was told there are almost 50 original paintings and drawings by Dalí in the show, plus large full-color reproductions of other works. It may take a while to study and enjoy the show. Trying to comprehend what you are looking at is part of the fun. Can you understand Dalí’s images from his subconscious mind? They are unworldly.

Disney often brought international fine artists to the studio to teach his animators life drawing, motion, acting, and caricature. Some collaborated on the films. While Disney’s films are not complex works of storytelling, Dalí uses enigmatic images that are hard to understand, much less explain. Just enjoy his art and don’t worry if you leave the pavilion still wondering what his strange world is all about. That is part of our fascination with him.

Dalí made several trips to the US beginning in 1934. Dali felt the wondrous Disney art made them kindred spirits. In 1937, following a trip to California the artist wrote to the founder of Surrealism, André Breton: “I am in Hollywood where I have made contact with the three American Surrealists—Harpo Marx, Disney, and Cecil B. DeMille.”

He loved the Marx Brothers, and even met Harpo in Paris in 1936. In 1937, he spent time in Los Angeles working on a film script for them, Giraffes on Horseback Salad. While it never went into production (can you imagine that title selling many tickets?), there is a painting of a giraffe with flames coming off its back in the show.

Salvador Dalí, photographed for Paris Match by Wally Rizzo. (Courtesy: Collection Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.)

Salvador Dalí, photographed for Paris Match by Wally Rizzo. (Collection Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation.) (click to enlarge)

If you are a Marx Brothers fan, you will love the photos of them, including one of Harpo playing a large harp with barbed wire strings. Dalí created the harp and sent it to Harpo as a gift. Harpo’s thank you note to Dalí included a photo of his fingers covered with Band-Aids.


As for Disney’s work from the late 1930s, the exhibit includes original artwork, photos, plus one video monitor showing spooky scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Another monitor shows a booze-induced hallucination from Dumbo known as “Pink Elephants on Parade.”


Salvador Dalí, Study for Sentimental Colloquy (1946). (© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, [Artists Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection of The Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL, 2015.) (click to enlarge)

The show’s curator Ted Nicolaou was present at the press preview and opening reception. He told me that Disney’s fascination with the art of Dalí developed when he saw one of his artists, Marc Davis, reading a book about the artist. When Disney asked if he could borrow it, Davis replied, “It’s your book.” He had borrowed it from the studio’s research library.

In 1940, Dalí and his wife Gala moved to the US to escape the war raging in Europe. He spent time living in New York City and in California. One of Dalí’s accomplishments was to design a dream sequence in Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound (1945). Some of the images were more sophisticated versions of the things that shocked people when Dalí and Buñuel made Un Chien Andalou.

Patrons of the art world were fascinated with Dalí and he became a celebrity. One of the things he and Gala loved to do was shock people. Sometimes they even went too far with their outlandish behavior. They attended one masquerade party in New York dressed as Lindbergh’s baby and his kidnapper. People were so offended that the press covered the story. Dalí had to issue an apology.

dali bulldaliNude fishDalí loved to get publicity by doing things that were outrageous. He once delivered a lecture in Paris dressed in a diver’s underwater suit and helmet. When I was a kid my father told me about a society party Dalí was asked to decorate. He had shocked people by placing toilets around the host’s swimming pool. At the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, the artist had a pavilion with almost-nude models wearing costumes made of dead fish.

“Night in a Surrealist Forest,” was a party at the Del Monte Hotel that  Dali organized to raise funds for European artists displaced by the war.  It was held in 1941 in Monterey, California. Gala is seen in a newsreel dressed as a unicorn and feeding milk from a baby bottle to a lion cub borrowed from the San Francisco zoo.

Bob Hope is served something special on a covered platter — when the lid is removed, a large bullfrog jumps off a dinner plate. Hope’s expression is priceless and you wonder why he was even there.

Clearly Dali had promoted an event celebrities wanted to attend. Newsreel footage, photographs and other behind-the-scenes materials will bring smiles and laughs. Curator Nicolaou said Dali lost money hosting the party, but he got lots of publicity from it.

In 1945, Dalí and Disney met for the first time at a party in the home of movie mogul Jack Warner. Disney suggested they collaborate on a film. They began to exchange ideas, but the war kept Disney from giving Dalí a commitment. Late in 1945, Dalí got a contract.

Dalí worked at the studio designing Destino. The exhibit has a room that looks like part of Dalí’s work space. There are lots of storyboard images on the walls and other papers on a table suggesting work on the film in progress.


Concept Art for Destino by Salvador Dalí, Untitled, ca. 1946. (© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, [Artists Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection Animation Research Library, © Disney.) (click to enlarge)

[Place UntitledbyDali.jpg here. Caption: Concept Art for Destino by Salvador Dalí, Untitled, ca. 1946. (© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, [Artists Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection Animation Research Library, © Disney.)

Unfortunately, the Destino project became too costly. Also, Disney and Dalí had differences of opinion about the script and storyboard. In 1946, having spent $70,000 on Destino, Disney pulled the plug on the project. In an interview Walt told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that Destino was going to be “a simple love story, boy meets girl.” That sounds like a nice sweet film that families might enjoy. In the same article, Dalí calls the proposed film “a magical exposition of life in the labyrinth of time.”





Concept art for dal by Salvador Dalí, Untitled, ca. 1947. (© Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, [Artists Rights Society (ARS)], 2015. Collection Animation Research Library, © Disney.) (click to enlarge.)

The exhibit shows one short animated sequence from the project that is fascinating. Two statuesque forms are seen in a landscape. They slowly move towards each other until their combined image forms the face of somebody you probably wouldn’t want to know. Then, in a negative space between the two structures, an image of a woman appears. It is quite clever and has nothing to do with boy-meets-girl friendship.


The Dalí and Disney families around the dinner table in Spain, 1957. (Courtesy of the Walt Disney Company, © Disney.)

Despite Dalí’s project being terminated, the two strong personalities remained friends. During one vacation in Europe, Disney visited Dalí in Spain. The men corresponded, and Dalí visited Walt in LA.

The show concludes with a few more paintings by Dalí. It turns out that part of his income came from painting portraits of Hollywood celebrities. There is a fascinating portrait of John Wayne in which the right side of his face is somewhat different from the left. The result is odd-looking, but perhaps reveals two sides of the actor’s personality.

If you love art, leave your laptop and cell phone at home and go see this major exhibit while it is here. The show closes January 3, 2016, moving on to the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. It is a wonderful tribute to Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, who passed away last year. She had the initial idea to organize and present this show to the public. Thank you, Diane.

[Editor’s note: In 2003 Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney resurrected Destino and a new short was created inspired by sketches of Dali and a Disney artist he had worked closely with, John Hench. It was nominated for an Academy Award.

Destino will have several showings at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

disney_dali_catalogueThe Walt Disney Family Museum is located in The Presidio of San Francisco at

104 Montgomery Street
San Francisco, CA 94129

Click here full information about this exhibit.

An excellent Disney & Dali: Architects of the Imagination Exhibition Catalogue is available at the Museum’s gift store. It contains dozens of examples of both Dali and Disney artwork, animation cels, correspondence, photographs and rare examples of The Dali News, an irregular but fascinating newspaper the artist published.Horizontal RuleKarlCohenKarl Cohen has been teaching animation history at San Francisco State University since 1993, and has been writing about it since the late 1970s. A notable collector of animated films, he is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America. As the president of ASIFA/San Francisco, he edits and writes for the ASIFA/San Francisco newsletter, read by animation fans around the world. He is currently writing a book on animated propaganda and has written for EatDrinkFilms.com about Pixar, classic Disney animators Marc Davis and Charley Bowers.

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