You might be surprised to learn that Tim Burton did not direct the beloved 1993 movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. He only produced it. It was. in fact. directed by his collaborator Henry Selick, who like Burton cut his teeth at Disney (DIS) and went on to direct other popular animated films like James and The Giant Peach (also produced by Burton) and Coraline. Strange to think that one of the movies people associate with Burton was not in fact directed by the man, who is best known for his directing.
But Nightmare was infused with the signature gothic style that the august Urban Dictionary calls ‘Burtonesque.’ An exploration of that aesthetic is the subject of Dreamland | Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, which just opened at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio ahead of the film’s 30th anniversary.
The institution has a good collection of sculptures and maquettes from the film, courtesy of collector Robert Tobin, all attributed to Burton. It pairs these with other trippy and atmospheric works from its collection by the likes of José Clemente Orozco Farías, Julie Heffernan, Eugene Berman, Marilyn Lanfear, Willem de Kooning, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Julie Speed, Paul Maxwell, Claudia Rogge, Robin Utterback and Sandy Skoglund to situate Burton’s look in a broader art historical context.
This is more effective than you might think. Mostafa Heddaya wrote in Artforum last year on the power of comparative curation, but the goal of this show seems to be more about expanding the visual universe rather than asking questions about the gaps between Burton and those working in similar spaces. Do you like the textures and comic avoidance of sexuality in this Burton sculpture of a bed? If so, might we perhaps interest you in this groovy brain by Katharina Fritsch from the late 80s?
That bed was only used in one shot, by the way, so it is fair to place it in the same league with Lanfear’s Marilyn with no middle name, She’ll have one when she marries (1989), an impressive work of lead dresses, projected into the past or future by way of a giant wooden stool. This exhibition was made for Burton heads so it’s not trying to show him up, but in a non-algorithmic way, show you some other stuff you might like. Here are some twisted sketches by Desmond Heeley and Peter Rice. Here is some bad trip Pop by Jim Dine.
Lines stretched around the block when the Museum of Modern Art did its Burton retrospective way back in 2009. A lot has happened since then, which is to say Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the live-action Dumbo. But this show isn’t exactly a hagiography. It brings Burton down to Earth and attempts to give that great early work its proper context and in so doing, see it with clearer eyes.
Dreamland | Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is on view at the McNay Art Museum through January 14, 2024.