When you think about Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” what comes to mind isn’t a mysterious German illustrator named Heinrich Kley.
Kley isn’t a household name — but he probably should be. He was one of Disney’s favorite European illustrators, and his influence on the 1940 animated film is unmistakable.
“Heinrich Kley: From Fantasy to Fantasia” is on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum through Sept. 17. Assembled from Disney’s personal collection, it is the first exhibition of Kley’s work in the United States. On view are 29 drawings by Kley and more than 35 sketches; concept art; and maquettes, or scale models, from “Fantasia.”
“Artists are constantly taking ideas from the past, changing them and creating something new,” says art conservator Martin Salazar, the exhibition’s curator. “The real genius of Walt was to change the tone of this very dark material of Kley’s into something joyful.”
Kley’s detailed drawings — especially those in pen and ink — are worth a close study. His animals are human in every way, from a mouse playing the fiddle, to a pair of snails, to frogs riding tortoises as if they are in an English fox hunt. Kley’s inspiration can be seen in the “Dance of the Hours” segment of “Fantasia,” which features hippo
Salazar says little is known about Kley, who was famous briefly in the U.S. in the 1930s when drawings he made of dancing alligators and elephants appeared in a magazine. It’s believed he died in 1945, Salazar says, but no one is entirely sure.
Salazar says Disney discovered Kley’s work during a trip to Europe in 1935. He brought home some 350 illustrated books and artworks for inspiration, including Kley’s work.
Highlights of the exhibition include three large sketchbooks. The originals are displayed under glass, but the museum has made full-size copies for viewers to examine up close. There’s something magical about turning the oversized pages to see the inner workings of Kley’s mind. There are hardly any children, but lots of demonic creatures, mythical beasts and humanlike animals.
In one sketchbook, a pair of hippos and a monkey gaze upon a group of humans in a cage. The animals’ stance and expression mimic those of tourists at any zoo. As with all of his drawings, Kley shows creatures in motion so effortlessly they seem ready to jump off the page.
“He was an amazing draftsman,” Salazar says. “To be able to tell a story with such few lines — that probably affected Walt.”
IF YOU GO: Heinrich Kley: From Fantasy to Fantasia