Sunday 27 June 2010

The Strange Odyssey of Gustav Tenggren

In 1935, Walt Disney with his brother Roy and their wives undertook a tour of Europe, the workaholic Disney had suffered  a nervous collapse and had finally acceded to something he'd long resisted, hence the holiday.

But it wasn't 100% a holiday as he was also keen to immerse himself in the world of European Folk Tales, as the projected feature that would ensure a lasting legacy, was already in production. Amongst the artists already working up concepts, character designs and scripting what would eventually become Disney's cinematic tour de force; "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", was a European emigre Albert Hurter. Hurter who was somewhat older than the youthful contingent of twenty somethings working out of the small Disney Studio in sunny Burbank California was an ideas man pre-eminent. Hurter it was whose assimilation of European culture and inventive ideas had proved such a dynamic springboard for many of the drawings that were already fleshing out the vision that Disney carried in his head.

But Disney wanted more and as he and his family meandered through Europe he bought books, picture books as in yesterday's posting with artwork by Arthur  Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielson, John Bauer to name but a few. Many of the artist's whose work graced the books that were to be added to the studio reference library excited Disney's attention to the extent that approaches were made. Arthur Rackham was definitely canvassed but sadly the artist was by then too sick and succumbing to the cancer that would eventually kill him, but his vision of darkly unsettling folk fantasy was just what Disney was seeking for his film. John Bauer too would have been a perfect choice but Bauer whose illustrations for the "Bland Tomtar och Troll" annual, had made him a household name in his native Sweden some twenty years earlier was also unavailable having died with his wife and child in a freak steamship disaster in 1918.

Whether or not Disney encountered any of the "Bland Tomtar och Troll" annuals illustrated by Bauer's successor is uncertain, but had he done so Gustav Tenggren would have been next on his list of star illustrators to approach. As it happened Disney didn't need to exert himself at all in this respect for at about the same time that Disney was soaking up the best of European illustration, Gustav Tenggren was presenting himself to Disney talent scouts at their newly launched New York offices.

By this stage of his career Tenggren had been living in the U.S. for 15 years, having moved there in 1920 with his first wife Anna. Tenggren who was as driven a self promoter as he was a talented artist had managed to pick up work to the extent that the success that he had enjoyed in his native Sweden was easily eclipsed by the commissions he rapidly secured on his arrival in New York.

But as the Great Depression really started to bite, so the work began to tail off and Tenggren whose weaknesses for both drink and women, had already injected some real domestic upset into his life, resulting in his divorce from Anna who was not about to play second fiddle to Tenggren's new squeeze Mollie Froberg (another Swedish emigre) began to struggle to find a style which satisfied him aesthetically whilst being contemporary enough to please the ever fickle world of commercial art.

Much to Tenggren's pleasure trendy illustration was the last thing that the youthful Disney studio sought. They just loved all of Tenggren's old fashioned illustrations which were a seductive mix of Rackham, Bauer, Harry Clarke and other greats from the "Golden Age" of picture books.

Tenggren and Mollie moved out of their New York apartment and set off for the land of sun and orange groves. The work that Tenggren subsequently created for both "Snow White" and it's lavish successor, "Pinocchio" was an inspirational tour de force. His artwork for "Snow White" was deemed so good that he was chosen by Disney as the poster artist for "Snow White", even though his dwarfs in particular show little resemblance to their celluloid incarnations.

There was however a degree of artistic hubris which was an essential part of what made Tenggren tick, and as his work on "Pinocchio" progressed this manifested itself in his signing much if not all of the work he did with a beautiful but somewhat ostentatious flourish. Which was in terms of the required anonymity of Disney studio work a definite no-no. Matters worsened when Tenggren's labor intensive concept paintings for Bambi were ditched in favor of the sublimely atmospheric paintings of Tyrus Wong.

The final cap on the Disney relationship was the apparently scandalous goings on that were rumored to have occurred on a picnic with Tenggren and the fifteen year old niece of animator Milt Kahl, whose irascible temperament was already the stuff of legend at the studio.

Tenggren left the studio shortly thereafter and in a bizarre footnote that speaks volumes about the vicissitudes of studio politics, Tenggren's name was left off the credits for "Pinocchio", the film which bore his imprint even more vividly than it's predecessor "Snow White" had done.

Tenggren's work in a weird way seemed to benefit from the experience and subsequent to his tenure with Disney he managed to re-launch himself as a very successful illustrator of children's books utilizing a much simpler and more contemporary style, the Disney connection having helped to highlight his artistry.

A strange odyssey indeed.

All images from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio  © The Walt Disney Company 2010


  1. A fabulous pair of posts this weekend. It's fascinating to see the continuity of this very European fantasy style. Going from Dulac's fully-evoked settings, where you always feel that the world goes on way beyond what's in the specific frame of each picture, to Tenggren creating the world of a Disney movie through concept art is a very logical line of inheritance, after all.

  2. Many thanks Dave for your kind words. I'm busily thinking of ways to extend the remit of this blog so I don't risk overdoing the comics and there is some really fascinating stuff that I'm currently mulling over.

    In other words more to come.

  3. Gustav Tenggren along with inspirational sketch artists Albert Hurter and Ferdinand Horvath were such a visionary team in the late 1930s like hadn't ever been seen before at the Disney Studios. Without them, Snow White would not have had that old European look and feel.

    Another interesting and enjoyable post. Nice work.