Severed heads, bondage-inspired costumes, sinister creatures doing terribly evil things: there’s no better way to get in the holiday spirit than to spend an afternoon wandering through the twisted psyche of the master of the macabre, Tim Burton.

Whether or not it’s possible to actually get into the mind of a man fixated on eccentric social outcasts; confused man-children; torture and torment, scarecrows; skeletons and striped clothing is debatable. But one thing is certain: this exhibit will get you closer than you’ve ever been and possibly closer than you’ve ever wanted to be.

Organized by MOMA and currently playing at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, Tim Burton: The Exhibition, is a staggering collection of over 700 pieces – letters, sketches, puppets and more from Burton’s personal vault, studio archives and private collections – designed to appeal to art lovers, movie lovers and Burton fans, both casual and dedicated alike.

The exhibit has been revamped since it first opened at the Museum of Modern Art, apparently due to the smaller gallery space at TIFF. In NY it was organized thematically whereas in Toronto it unfolds in a more or less chronological order. Despite the smaller space, and without having seen the NY exhibit, I can only assume this order makes more sense as it allows visitors to watch Burton’s development and see how certain elements of his early work played a part in later pieces. (Although it saddens me that you don’t get to enter via a giant monster face as with the MOMA exhibit).

Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958) Untitled (Black Cauldron). 1983. Pen and ink, marker, and watercolor wash on paper, 11 x 15" (27.9 x 38.1 cm). Private Collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

Editor’s Note: Click on any image to make it much, much, much larger.

Upon entry visitors are greeted by the distinctive (and to some of us, comforting) voice of Burton’s hero, Vincent Price, as the 1982 short film, Vincent, plays on a continuous loop. Menacing sketches from the film, drawn by Burton, surround the screen. Across from it puppets and maquettes (small scale models) for Frankenweenie, one of Burton’s earliest short films from the 1980s, and one that’s soon to be made into a full-length feature, are on display.

Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958) Untitled (Frankenweenie). 1982. Pen and ink, marker, and charcoal on paper, 11 x 13" (27.9 x 33 cm). Private Collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

From there visitors pass by a small black lit area that includes a sinister carousel designed by Burton specifically for the exhibit, and move on to items that are more recognizable to casual movie fans. All of his popular films are represented in one way or another. “Large Marge” eyeballs from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure sit across from a Beetlejuice sandworm model and other props.

Memorabilia from the Batman films – including 3 Batman cowls, the ever-popular Catwoman suit worn by Michelle Pfeifer, and the penguin’s carriage (which I found to be one of the creepiest props for some reason) sit across from the Edward Scissorhands display, which includes the leather and steel costume worn by Johnny Depp, and the infamous blade hand. Surrounding all these movie props are hand-drawn sketches, notes and letters – all related to the making of the films.

Tim Burton Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958) Untitled (Edward Scissorhands). 1990. Pen and ink, and pencil on paper, 14 1/4 x 9" (36.2 x 22.9 cm). Private Collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

The rest of the exhibit continues in much the same way with a small section (some significantly smaller than others) devoted to each of his films. Throughout there are numerous examples of how Burton’s ideas were born early and developed into projects years later. For example, in The Nightmare Before Christmas section there’s a sketch that – as a helpful TIFF employee pointed out – had actually been drawn over 10 years earlier when Burton was working on Frankenweenie. Yet it looks almost identical to the finished product we all know and love.

Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958) Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas storyboard. 1993. Pen and ink, marker, and colored pencil on paper, 5 x 7" (12.7 x 17.8 cm). Private Collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

Also featured are his long-missing TV adaptation of Hansel and Gretel (1983), examples from the flash animation shorts The World of Stainboy (2000), and his Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys (2003) collectible figure series (a personal favorite of mine); and art from a number of early unrealized projects (including a 1983 Dream Factory sketch mocking Disney). Letters and hand-written notes abound, showcasing his hands-on method of working.

Tim Burton Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958) Untitled (The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories). 1998. Pen and ink, watercolor on paper, 11 x 14" (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Private Collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

Despite the impressive display of movie memorabilia, the best part of the show is in a room off the main space that showcases some of Burton’s earliest work – sketches and films he made while growing up in Southern California, and later while attending the California Institute of the Arts. Much of what’s in this room is Burton at his best because it’s Burton uncensored. Through much of his career he’s had to compromise his dark and twisted vision in order to get his work made and distributed, but in these early examples there’s nothing holding him back. His ghoulish cartoon sketches in particular are full of violent imagery and vulgar humor – yet still, like all his work, there’s charm to be found in the bizarre lunacy.

Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958) Untitled (Cartoons Series). 1980–1986. Pencil on paper, 13 x 16" (33 x 40.6 cm). Private Collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

In closing it should be noted that I’ve never been a diehard Tim Burton fan. I would consider myself more of a casual admirer. I haven’t seen Pee Wee’s Big Adventure since my age was in single digits (and for the record I remember being terrified of it), and I’ve never seen Sweeney Todd, Planet of the Apes, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But what I have seen I’ve always appreciated. That said, I’ve been to more museum and art gallery exhibits than I can remember. But never have I been to an exhibit where I stopped and examined every single piece in such detail. Sketch after sketch, prop after prop, I was drawn to every single item and felt the need to give each one close inspection. They’re that intriguing. All-in-all it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I don’t think you have to be a major Burton fan to appreciate it. A fondness for the macabre on the other hand is something of a prerequisite.

The Tim Burton Exhibit runs until April 17th, 2011 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, then heads to Los Angeles in May.

Header Photo Credit:

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005)
Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Shown: Co-director Tim Burton on the set
Photo credit: Derek Frey


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