Walt Disney was heavily influenced by many groundbreaking artists, including a little-known German artist by the name of Heinrich Kley.
The world of movies, and the world of animation in particular, would not be the same without Walt Disney. Ever since the first scene of Snow White (1937) appeared on the silver screen, the world of moving pictures would never be the same. But no great work of art exists in a void: Disney was heavily influenced by many groundbreaking artists of the time, and one of the most influential figures for his most iconic early movies was a little-known German artist by the name of Heinrich Kley.
Many aspects about Kley’s life have faded into obscurity. This is due, in part, to his own reticence to become a public figure. While he did acquire certain fame when he was alive, he always shied away from the public eye, and whenever he was asked about his personal life, he would answer: “I’ve already shared where I was born and in what year. I don’t think you need to know much more about me."
His career as a professional illustrator began in 1908, when Simplicissimus, a well-regarded German magazine specializing in graphic art, published his first known drawings: a set of freely-drawn images, with a unique personality, where the subjects expressed everything from satire to hopelessness and obscenity.
His shy personality, paired with the raunchy themes of his art, did not sit well with the Nazi regime, who destroyed the printing plates for his earlier drawings and put his work on their “List of Harmful and Unwanted Writings”. He died shortly before the end of World War II, just a few months before the Nazi regime fell.
Of his doubtless influence on Walt Disney's style of animation, the creative filmmaker himself would say: “Without the wonderful drawings of Heinrich Kley, I could not conduct my art school classes for my animators.” One of the clearer influences can be seen in the way both artists gave animals human characteristics, from bouncing elephants and hippos to graceful crocodiles, fast snails, and smart turtles.
Kley’s art was considerably darker than Walt Disney’s, and definitely less family-oriented, but the influence of his freestyle lines is undeniable in movies like Fantasia (1940), which won two honorary Academy Awards: one for Walt Disney, William Garity, John N. A. Hawkins, and the RCA Manufacturing Company for its "outstanding contribution to the advancement of the use of sound in motion pictures", and the other one for Leopold Stokowski "and his associates for their unique achievement in the creation of a new form of visualized music in Walt Disney's production Fantasia, thereby widening the scope of the motion picture as entertainment and as an art form."
Kley never did get the recognition his genius deserved, but recently, several publishing houses have tried to revive his unique works and acknowledge the influence his drawings had on Disney's work, and by extension, the history of animation.
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