Monday, September 06, 2010

The Provenance of a Painting

(Updated at the bottom.)

(Click to enlarge)

Leon Schlesinger was the producer and owner of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies that were released through Warner Bros. While his studio had cartoon stars like Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny surpassed both of them to become a major hit with audiences. As a result, Schlesinger had this painting made and hung in his office.

The artist is unknown, though it is likely John Didrik Johnsen, the background painter who worked in the Tex Avery unit.

Schlesinger sold out to Warner Bros. in the mid 1940s and his office contents were put out with the trash. Story man Michael Maltese was driving home and saw this painting in the garbage and took it. He kept it for the rest of his life.

Greg Duffell started at the Richard Williams studio when he was 17 years old. He was intensely interested in animation and just as intensely interested in its history. Duffell was lucky to be at the Williams studio when Williams hired veteran animators Ken Harris, Grim Natwick and Art Babbitt to work and to educate the staff.

When Duffell visited Maltese in California in the 1970s, he saw the painting in his home. Maltese passed away several years later, and his family put the painting up for auction. Duffell won the bid.

Last Saturday, I visited Greg with Thad Komorowski and Bob Jaques. We spent a pleasant afternoon talking about animation and towards the end, Greg hauled out some of the vintage animation art he's acquired over the years. When I was about to leave, Greg asked me to stay for just another few minutes while he showed one more item. He brought out the painting pictured above.

I've seen a lot of animation art but this piece had a different effect on me. Maybe because it was painted, maybe because of its size, but I think it goes deeper. I've been to museums and seen paintings by masters and while I can admire their beauty and craft, I don't have the same emotional connection to the work. Maybe it's nostalgia for my childhood or a wish to have been part of the business during the time the painting was created, but the painting was akin to a religious relic. It is an artifact from a vanished golden age, evidence of what animation once was and no longer is.

Update: Michael Barrier has printed a photo of Michael Maltese with the painting and supplied more information about the creation of the painting and how it came into Maltese's possession.


Anonymous said...

What an amazing animation artifact. It's so remarkable to marvel at and look at in awe, but at the same time, it's saddening to see the state in which animation in general has evolved and devolved into since its glory days of yesteryear. Sometimes, I still worry that my dreams of working in the industry and making fun cartoons are not going to go as planned and that I may never be able to realize my dream, especially how animation is right now. Great post, Mark.

Eric Noble said...

Beautiful. I completely understand your sentiment. I think Greg should hang that painting in his house. I know I would.

Steven Hartley said...

That there is a good painting - whoever painted it. Thank you.

J Lee said...

Looking at the beautiful development of Bugs' facial features, especially the cheeks per the McKimson model sheet, I'd say the painting had to have been done sometime between mid 1942 and mid 1943, when the Bugs as we recognize him today had become familiar in the Clampett unit, but before Leon sold the studio.

The other units were either using a model with slightly smaller cheeks (Jones) or an articulated muzzle (Freleng) through the time Leon sold out to Warners. Not sure if Johnny Johnsen was still at Warners by the time the 'modern' Bugs crystallized -- his background work is apparent in the first couple of Clampett cartoons after he took over from Avery, but the oil-based painting Johnsen favored at the time disappeared from Bob's shorts around mid-42 (or just about the same time as the McKimson 'look' was making its first appearances).

warren said...

I knew I forgot SOMETHING last weekend. Colour me stupid - and jealous!

Thad said...

Warren, I'm sure Greg'll be more than happy to haul out this relic again to show you. I actually got to hold/catch the thing when it almost fell out of the crate. Touching something that's encased in Leon's cigarette smoke is really magical.

murrayb said...

wow, Greg described it when he gave lecture about his career, but man to see it ...It's the animation Mona Lisa!
I'm glad HE has this painting, and not some stuffy collector, it's very fitting.
Did he tell you about the time he met Tex Avery? that story took my breath away, he told it so vividly.

Amir Avni said...

Thanks for posting! this is fascinating

IMO, The painting celebrates the 1940s bugs bunny as a subject worthy to be portrayed in the Louvre or Getty museums. The greek column usually follows subjects of beauty and elegance, bugs' posing with it takes art seriously, but still maintains a sense of humor, which makes it more relate-able.

Jenny Lerew said...

What a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Honestly, it's a miracle it survived to the present day and that it has such a good home. Just terrifically cool.