In January 2013 while still living in South Korea we were lucky enough to see the Tim Burton exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art. We tried a couple of times to get in – on the Saturday afternoon there was a two hour wait to even enter the museum, so we came back on a weekday. Even then it was crowded with tour groups and school students, and we were stuck for a while in slow moving lines, filing past artwork like we were on a conveyor belt. The crowds thinned out as we passed through the first few rooms, and from then on the exhibition was very enjoyable.
The first part of the exhibition (“Surviving Burbank”) began with Burton’s childhood. Burton lived a nice, middle-class suburban life in Burbank California, but felt at odds with it. His bleaker, weirder view of the world didn’t fit. So he turned to art to understand life, and started drawing. Even his early artwork demonstrates his trademark dark-with-a-playful-twist style. Some of his paintings of clowns, for example, are bright and colourful but also unsettling – the clowns have evil grins, too many eyes, and long tails. They represent (according to my 3000 won audio guide) the hypocritical nature of adults and the danger of too much power.
Every creature Burton creates seems to highlight the ugly or imperfect bits of human life, like Stain Boy: a superhero that creates stains wherever he goes. A lot of Burton’s drawings exaggerate physical characteristics – his characters are too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, have breasts that are too crooked, or noses that are too long. In one memorable sketch a lumpy couple are drinking together, then are drunk, and then are meshed together in a puddle on the floor. Burton’s cartoons, like all of his work, are also darkly funny: a woman wearing a fur coat full of animals, an elephant sitting on a person and crying out “Tada!”
The second part of the exhibition (“Beautifying Burbank”) showcased work Burton did while at Disney, including an entire cartoon designed but never used where weird creatures join together when scared to form larger animals. There was also a special dark room filled with glow-in-the-dark designs; its centrepiece a glowing carousel hung with spooky coloured fish. One of the highlights for me was Vincent – a short film voiced by Vincent Price, a hero of Burton’s. A boy (Vincent) lives a seemingly normal life but has dark thoughts about turning his dog into a zombie and reads Edgar Allen Poe instead of “Go Jane Go”. It is easy to see Dr. Seuss’s influence on Burton in these rhymes. The other film on display was Hansel and Gretel – a live action film short Burton made in 1982 that features Japanese actors (although my guide claimed they were of “Korean descent”).
The final section of the exhibition (“Beyond Burbank”) focused on Burton’s film career. Movie posters for Frankenweenie, Sweeney Todd, Mars Attacks!, A Nightmare Before Christmas and many others lined the outer walls. Inside was an astounding amount of film memorabilia, including real figurines and costumes. Some highlights were the cape from Sleepy Hollow, Catwoman’s suit and the Penguin’s pram from Batman Returns, figures from Corpse Bride, and animatronics from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
We exited through the gift shop and picked up our favourite postcards, some of which are now decorating the walls of our Phnom Penh apartment. Burton’s style can sometimes be a little over the top, but in small postcard-sized doses it is strangely comforting. Just dark enough to remind us that the world is not perfect, and just light enough to help us realise that sometimes that’s okay.
Tim Burton is a director, writer, artist, and animator. His latest films are Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows, both released in 2012.