Needless to say, coming up with the idea that a Tim Burton exhibition might be a worthwhile endeavor was not enough in itself to make it happen. The next step was to create a project proposal. So even before speaking to the Museum’s Exhibition Committee or to Burton himself, we set about the task of developing a thesis for the show.
First we asked ourselves: What kind of artist was Burton? Gothic? Pop? What over-riding themes and motifs might we discover studying the various genres he worked in – fantasy, horror, science fiction, biography, children’s literature? Would his work be relevant in a museum of modern art? The thesis we arrived at and presented to our committee and to Tim himself was simple, and intentionally avoided expressing any predetermined notions of what kind of artist he might be: “to trace the current of Burton’s creative imagination from childhood to his mature work.”
With that, the next issue was: how to begin our research?
In addition to reading everything we could get our hands on, it will come as no surprise that we started by reacquainting ourselves with Burton’s widely known films for Warner Bros., Disney, Fox, and Paramount. I began at home with a stack of DVDs and worked my way through his fourteen features in sequence, watching each half a dozen times in one sitting. For instance, one day with this plan in mind, I watched Edward Scissorhands six times in a row from 10 AM to 10 PM. For the first and second viewings the narrative held my attention, and I considered how its fairy tale sensibility compared to the stories of other Burton films – Ed Wood for one. On my third and fourth viewings, I felt “free” of the narrative and focused my attention on the performances, considering for example what qualities Johnny Depp consistently brought to Burton films or how Burton’s personal relationships with Lisa Marie during the first part of his career and Helena Bonham Carter since 2000 might – like opposing muses – have inspired him to create differently. Finally on my fifth and sixth passes, I’d managed to get beyond the pleasures of the story and acting, and I was able to concentrate on deciphering Burton’s visual motifs and imaginative themes: his colorful stripes, clowns, and his black and white worlds of skeletal and wounded characters; his fascination with creatures and body modification; the dynamics of adolescence and adulthood and the fact that all his leading characters seemed to take comfort in creative activity. Looking back, it’s gratifying to note that all of this was apparent to us, even before we’d had a look at a single sketchbook drawing, painting, photograph, or sculpture in Burton’s private archive or discovered the treasure of film props, costume, and cinema ephemera in a studio warehouse.
I am pleased to assure you that my strategy for “deconstructing” Burton’s films by repeatedly viewing them in quick succession hadn’t done lasting damage to my enjoyment of them; after a few months spent on the road visiting archives and collections for the Burton show, I returned to the films – when we began pre-screening 35mm prints for our Burton film series – and found myself appreciating them once again like new and with even deeper understanding. Speaking of Burton research, next time I’ll begin reporting on our Burton research trips, describing our work in the studio archives, our visits with private collectors, and our first meeting with Tim Burton himself.