Corp’rate Day

thoughts on art and fiction

(In)Edible Beauty

We do not begin with a siren singing (that comes later) but with a human passenger in want of his sea-legs.  In the opening scene of Walt Disney’s cartoon version of The Little Mermaid (1989) (amidst a range of nautical-themed pratfalls), the Prince’s comic old retainer balks over the side of a galleon, his face coloured a septic shade of green.

The Little Mermaid, 1989, dir. John Musker, Ron Clements, Disney (film still)

The Little Mermaid, 1989, dir. John Musker, Ron Clements, Disney (film still)

The image forms a dissonant prelude to the baroquely-mawkish whimsy that follows (given the tendency among Disney’s harshest critics to equate saccharine sentimentality with nausea).  Mermaid is of course famous for affecting a sappy bowdlerisation/ neo-conservative enhancement of Hans Christian Andersen’s morbidly cruel, pietistic fairy tale (originally published in 1834).  But the film’s power to beguile and offend (both the dupes of mass culture and the guardians of avant-garde taste) suffuses the materiality of the drawing and the sugary, lubricious graphics of the animated film-form itself.  Marina Warner speaks of a ‘plastic ideal: a pneumatic, invertebrate, fluid world’ (Warner, 1994: 404); and this she relates to the poet Paul  Valéry’s image of Jellyfish in his prose poem of 1938: Degas. Danse. Dessin:  a world of ‘no solids, of crystalline elastic bodies without bones, or joints, or unchanging attachments’ (qtd. Warner: 403). There is an echo too of Salvador Dalí’s ambiguous concept of the Psychoatmospheric-Anamorphic Object (1932):

The vaguest feelings become classifiable entities, that can be counted and settled in broad daylight according to the cognitive order of the hardest and most precise anatomies, in comparison to which the finest articulations of …crustaceans or of armors take on the vague, dubious , and amoeba-like contours of the most deliquescent jellyfish and soft watches. (Dalí, 1998: 247)

There is of course a crucial material distinction between these two variants of ‘extra-plastic’ language. In Disney the perky ‘stretch-and-squash’ convey a cheerful and vibrant form of animism, whereas Dalí’s collapsed forms evoke a sense of putrefaction, of solid matter given over to entropy—their distortions are thus imbued with existential malaise, in contrast to Disney’s blithe animation of ornaments and toys.  As Christopher Frayling writes in reference to Beauty and the Beast (with its memorably fleshy candlesticks):

The Disney version has cracked the problem of how to make the castle sequences interesting by introducing a talking candlestick called Lumière, a camp speaking-clock called Cogsworth, a cockney teapot called Mrs Potts (based, says Angela Lansbury, who provides the voice, on Mrs Bridges in Upstairs, Downstairs) and a set-piece dance number (which could be have been called Busby Berkeley’s Knifes and Forks of 1992) by all the palace’s kitchen utensils. (Frayling, 1992: 25).

What would Dalí have made of a psycho-atmospheric-anamorphic version of Upstairs Downstairs?  Then again Dalí himself was insistent that a ‘overwhelming materialist prosaism forms the immediate and urgent needs on which rest ideal desires’ (Dalí, 1998: 197-8). In a 1937  article for Harper’s Bazar he had cited those Disney ‘as proof that Hollywood…[had].. suddenly discovered all that it once dimly desired in the subconscious’ (Dalí 2007: 154).  Eight years later he was invited by the studio to work on a six-to-eight minute episode called ‘Destino’ intended for a so-called ‘package film’ a composite of feature-length in the mold of Fantasia (1940) and Make Mine Music (1946).  When the film was completed posthumously (by Dominique Montféry and a team of French animators overseen by Roy Disney —Walt’s nephew) in 2003, the influence of Disney’s romantic canon appeared writ-large over the production team’s interpretation of Dalí’s sketches and studies: especially the post-war fairy-tales Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), and the pseudo-pantheist musical numbers in Pocahontas (1995).  The scenes of metamorphosis tend, as in Cinderella, towards images of sartorial chic and polite courtship abetted by charming fauna. We are a long way from the scatological unease of Dalí’s Lugubrious Game, his scurrilous painting of 1929 which had both entranced and horrified Georges Bataille.


Arthur Rackham, illustration to Undine, 1909.

Arthur Rackham, illustration to Undine, 1909

Of all Dalí’s theoretical propositions, the most strikingly pertinent to Disney’s animated work  is that of ‘terrifying and edible beauty’, propounded in his essay for Minataure in 1933, as a testament to the ‘tangible and delirious hyper-materialist aspirations’ of l’architecture modern-style (Dalí, 1998: 197).  While the concept of la beauté comestible encompasses the morphological type of Surrealism that Dalí practiced and which he theorised further in his essay on the ‘Psychoatmospheric anamorphic objects,’  it also hints towards a more convincing point of synthesis between Disney and the Surrealist avant-garde than an immediate visual comparison with Dalí’s actual painting might yield. Though Dalí addressed his notion solely to architecture, principally to the work of Gaudí and Hector Guimard (designer of the Paris Métro) many of his observations apply equally well to the two-dimensional graphic proponents of Art Nouveau, including the famous Edwardian children’s or gift-book illustrators (Maxfield Parish, Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham), whose formal and iconographic approaches the Disney artists took great pains to emulate.  When Dalí gives his account of exterior ornament in the modern-style he might almost be describing one of Rackham’s or Nielsen’s -or of course Disney’s- whorled neo-gothic images.

Imposing columns …unable to support themselves on their own, like the weary necks of heavy hydrocephalic heads, emerge from hardened undulations of sculpted water rendered with a photographic instantaneity…, reliefs whose… ornamentation freezes the convulsive transitions… of the most fleeting metamorphoses of smoke, as well as… the hair of these new women…and the floral ecstasies in which they vanish. (Dali, 1998: 195-6)

Antoni Gaudí, Casa Batlló, 1905-1907, Barcelona, anonymous photo

Antoni Gaudí, Casa Batlló, 1905-1907, Barcelona, anonymous photo

For Dalí, the ‘terrifying sublime’ of Art Nouveau lay in its mutability and ambiguity of substance; both Gaudí’s and Guimard’s structured forms imitate organic shapes found in nature and thus seem to dissolve the solid consistency of iron and stone. Dalí found this simulated transition between hard and soft matter especially intriguing; as such the modern-style is often cited as a likely source of influence for his own amorphous repertoire. A further corollary of this troubling confusion of hard and soft is the speculative ingestion of non-organic objects: a primary fantasy in Dalí’s anamorphic project, notably in the case of the signature melting watches (which had been inspired by the super-soft remains of a camembert).  By the same token, in his essay on Gaudí, Dalí insisted upon a ‘wild comparison’, likening an Art Nouveau structure to a cake, to an ‘exhibitionist, and ornamental “confectioner’s” table’ (Dalí, 1998: 197).  For Dalí, the quixotic structures of Art Nouveau constituted the ‘first edible houses, the first and only eroticized buildings’ (Dalí, 1998: 198). It is amusing how literally this notion prefigures The Cookie Carnival (1935), a Disney Silly Symphony released two years after the publication of Dalí’s essay, in which an urban setting and its figures are transmuted into various types of anthropomorphic patisserie.

The Cookie Carnival, 1935, dir. Ben Sharpsteen, film still.

The Cookie Carnival, 1935, dir. Ben Sharpsteen, film still.

It is always tempting to homogenise the Disney style in relation to its perceived ideological evils- especially in relation to what cultural theorists have dubbed, the ‘trademark’ innocence: that masks the ‘personal, historical and material relationship between Disney film and politics’ (Bell et al., 1995: 5). As Richard Schickel famously observed, Disney: ‘always and only showed us a clean land. Indeed the whole wide world was scrubbed clean when we saw it through his eyes’ (Schickel, 1997: 53). And subsequent commentators have strived to locate this sententious atmosphere of hygiene —as Jack Zipes insists, the ‘pastel colours with their sharply drawn ink lines create images of cleanliness’ (Zipes, 1995: 38).  But perhaps the uniformly plastic sheen of Disney animation and the hard-edged graphic contours (turning by degrees oozy, tumescent or flaccid) are not so much ‘sanitary’ as they are dissembling of material distinctions, of flesh from plastic, of clouds from viscous deposits of congealed milk.  This glutinous homogenization of form is in fact rather chaotic in its ontological suggestion; for it erodes all the stable hierarchies of the material world, the natural and the inorganic, the edible and the non-edible.   Georges Bataille, the French writer and anthropologist who contributed to Surrealism in its early phase, wrote a response to Dalí’s painting The Lugubrious Game (1929) in an essay of the same title published in the Surrealist magazine Documents in 1929.   Dalí’s paintings, he declared, were ‘frighteningly ugly’ but in the manner of an ‘equivocal ugliness that gives, in a provocative way,’ the illusion of its opposite – the ‘illusion’ of beauty (Bataille, 1985: 27). It is by means of such phenomena that one might grasp in language the true ambivalence inspired by Disney’s feverishly inviting forms.

The language of the ‘cute’ is itself fraught with ambiguity, as the cultural critic Sianne Ngai has shown—in its ‘exaggerated passivity and vulnerability the cute object often excites a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control’.  In her analysis of what she calls an ‘everyday, ready-at-hand object’—a frog-shaped bath sponge—Ngai demonstrates the extent to which the aesthetic of cuteness ‘depends on a softness that invites physical touching’ (Ngai, 2005: 815). Speculating on the pejorative associations of the cute within avant-garde and intellectual culture, Ngai quotes Adorno on the pleasures of consumption, the aesthetic experiences of ‘tasteful savoring’ and ‘physical devouring,’ that bring art uncomfortably close to ‘cuisine and pornography’ (qtd. Ngai, 2005: 814). According to Ngai:

The smaller and less formally articulated or more bloblike the object, the cuter it becomes, in part because smallness and blobbishness suggest greater malleability and thus a greater capacity for being handled [or]…squished. (Ngai, 2005: 815-16)

The Little Mermaid, 1989, dir. John Musker, Ron Clements, Disney (film still)

The Little Mermaid, 1989, dir. John Musker, Ron Clements, Disney (film still)

It is worth mentioning also, that in the scene described above, a fish discarded by a cantankerous old sailor proves in a subsequent close-up to have a soulful, humanoid expression; perhaps the nausea (mentioned in my opening paragraph) relates, above all, to this traumatic revelation; perhaps – like Lewis Carol’s Alice – the servant balks at eating that to which he might been ‘introduced’ (Carroll, 2009: 230). Indeed yet another farcical scene of vomiting involves the mermaid’s crustacean lackey who retches—this time in explicit response to the decimated bodies of his compatriots being boiled and roasted in the palace kitchen. As horrifying as this spectacle is of an economic and culinary order founded on cannibalism, it is above all played for insouciant laughs.  The preyed-upon figures are virtually conceived as prototypes for a range of tie-in movie merchandise, and their curvilinear, shiny, pneumatic forms directly anticipate their vivid commercial after-life as dolls, key-fobs and plush-toys. What better confirmation could we require of Ngai’s proposition that ‘cuteness is a kind of violence,’ or of Dalí’s fantasy of synthetic objects made nutritional by a ‘psycho-atmospheric’ process of deliquescence and animation? (Ngai, 2005: 816)  For in the end, the mermaid’s is a love story unfolding against the backdrop of culinary genocide, a love story which ‘gives us proof’, to quote Dalí, ‘of a formation that is urgent and needful for the amorous imagination: to be really and truly able to eat the object of desire’ (Dalí, 1998: 198).

A version of this paper was delivered at ‘Subversive Beauty’ Association of Art Historians Summer Symposium, University of Loughborough, July 2011.


Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess. Selected Writings. 1927-1939. ed. and trans. Allan Stoeki. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985). pp. 24-31.

Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells. ‘Walt’s in the Movies’. in From Mouse to Mermaid. The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture. ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995). pp. 1-17.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. (London: Penguin, 2009).

Dalí, Salvador. The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí. ed. and trans. Haim Finkelstein. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

__________. ‘Surrealism in Hollywood’. in Dalí and Film. ed. Matthew Gale. (London: Tate, 2007). pp. 154-156.

Frayling, Christopher. ‘Twists in the Fairy Tale’. The Sunday Times. The Culture. (11 October, 1992). pp. 24-25.

Ngai, Sianne. ‘The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde’. Critical Inquiry, vol. 31 no. 4 (Summer 2005): pp. 811-847.

Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version. The Life, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. 3rd ed. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997).

Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde. On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1994).

Zipes, Jack. ‘Breaking the Disney Spell’. in From Mouse to Mermaid. The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture. ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995). pp. 21-42.