The Wonderful World Before Disney
Weisman exhibit displays fairy tale-inspired postcards
By: Michael McGough
Fairy tales are part of a tradition that extends far beyond Disney films and bedtime stories, and this tradition is beautifully portrayed in “The Wonderful World Before Disney,” a collection of fairy tale-inspired postcards currently on display at the Weisman Art Museum. Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, collected the postcards throughout his life. They were made between the 1890s and 1930s before Walt Disney’s first film was released. “Wonderful World” showcases the bleak, unsettling imagery of folk and fairy tales from before Disney mass marketed them.
“Cinderella” is perhaps the most ubiquitous story represented in the exhibit, and the postcards inspired by it are far less whimsical than the Disney film. Many are vibrant and depict ornate interiors that draw attention to Cinderella’s gray clothing and grave demeanor. She is often the only subject, sitting alone with pensive expressions, seeming to contemplate her misery. The images focus on Cinderella’s pain rather than her eventual prosperity. The “Little Red Riding Hood” postcards have muted colors, showing an infantile Red surrounded by an endless wilderness. “Hansel and Gretel” similarly deals with loss of innocence, and, in both stories, children are left to their own devices. Washed in bright pastel colors, Hansel and Gretel push the witch into an oven. Images with more muted colors show the witch luring the children into her home while tucked behind skeletal trees.
There is no veneer of optimism. The images focus on isolation and characters that must navigate indifferent worlds. Although the stories told in “Wonderful World” are recognizable as those that we heard as children, the postcards give voices to the chasms within them.