The Boston Visionary Cell

Walt Disney and Josef Albers

© Paul Laffoley 2008

November 20, 2008

Dear Mr. Laffoley,

I am writing to you to inquire as to whether you would be willing to tell me the story pertaining to the connections and history of Walt Disney’s connection to Josef Albers. Miles Huston told me a story that he said originated with you regarding Walt Disney and his infatuation with the Black Mountain College and the clique surrounding Josef Albers. I have been very interested in the subject matter and would love to hear what you have to say.

Thank you,


Dear Anais,

In 1933, when Black Mountain College opened in Asheville, North Carolina, its artistic director was Josef Albers (1888-1972) the last head of the Bauhaus before the Nazis closed it. The contract for Albers and his wife Anni was offered by the American architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005). By 1935 Walt Disney (1908-1966) got wind of what was up. He rushed to get an interview with Albers explaining that no one had understood so far the artistic implications of the new field of animation. When they met Albers was not amused with Disney’s vision of cute nature. The meeting ended with Albers blowing up saying, “I will not allow any American kitsch to infect the minds of ‘my’ students.”

Disney was astonished but not deterred from his mission. He sensed, however, that Albers’ “will to power” was more sexual and mature than his, which was more neurasthenic and analytic. The comparison made Disney angry. Pretending to leave, he began to question the students away from the watchful eyes of Albers, about the nature of their life at school and who their teachers were. At that moment Disney began to realize just how much he disliked the European attitude of paternalism, which he had just experienced close up. He did, however, discover the way the students “escaped” from the school in the summer. They all went to Chihuahua in Northern Mexico. There the students would eat wild peyote derived from the buttons of the mescal cactus. In its refined form it is mescaline- the hallucinatory crystalline alkaloid: C11H17NO3. The students would, of course, look forward to the summer hiatus, not realizing that the faculty was secretly fostering their use of peyote because of its antispasmodic capabilities. Most of the European faculty knew that sensitive Americans were not used to being taught by artistic tyrants like Josef Albers, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) or Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).

By 1936 Disney was taking mescaline on a regular basis and as a result his most famous work appeared: “Fantasia.” In 1940 it became a staple of American cinema, the year it was launched. While “Fantasia” appealed immediately to children, its adult understanding did not develop until the mid-60’s, years after Black Mountain College ceased to exist. What happened, of course, was that the hippie generation (the cultural grandchild of “Wander Vogels”-“The Wandering Birds”- the German youth after World War I, in a disenfranchised state) was the first group to recognize “Fantasia” as the first American “stoner movie.” What was still not understood was that the entire ensemble was also a vicious satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) or Francois-Marie Voltare (1694-1778).

The structure of “Fantasia” consists of eight pieces of fairly well known European musical compositions, spanning the years from the 18th century to the early 20th century. Disney, himself, had never natured musically as his audiences never had, thus allowing him to work his animation to all ultimate degree. In fact what he did to “The Rite of Spring” was considered by the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) to be deemed unforgivable. To these compositions Disney juxtaposed his own animations which acted as programmed literary synesthetic visuals, very much in the vein of the hallucinations one might experience from advanced and compulsive alcoholism, such as seeing “pink elephants.”

November 13, 1940 in New York City “Fantasia” began without opening credits or logos, just the master of ceremonies Deems Taylor delivering a short introduction to the film and about the conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) who was the director of the Philadelphia orchestra. It turned out that Stokowski (an English born American) became the “bridge” Disney was “unconsciously” looking for. During the meeting of Disney with Albers, Albers began to express the traditional “put down” of Americans in relation to culture meaning “Americans have no culture.” So when Disney in 1938 started his attack on Black Mountain College and its teachers he chose “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” which is a medieval fairy tale that had been rendered into a poem by Johann Von Goethe (1749-1832) the great German poet and dramatist. Goethe called it “Der Zauber Lehrling.” From the poem the composer Paul Dukas (1865-1935) made the tale into a concert piece. Since “The Sorcer’s Apprentice” was first, all Disney was planning to do. The story was of German orgin. He first heard it played in The Hollywood Bowl and it seemed to fit the bill. Disney bought the rights to the music and actually identified completely with the story. The German sorcerer was, on the one hand, Albers, but, on the other had, he was also the superego or the father-figure of Disney. In fact the sorcerer was named “Yen Sid” (or Disney spelled backwards). Mickey Mouse was cast as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Mickey was the alter ego of Disney. In fact Disney used his own squeaky voice for the voice of Mickey. While progress on the film went well, in fact it went too well. Since the cost reached $125,000, Disney figured it would never pay if it was released as a single film. Then a surprise happened. He ran into Stokowski at “The Brown Derby.” While talking over lunch, Stokowski heard the whole sad vengeful take of the confrontation between Disney and Albers. Stokowski said “I like what you are doing, and I will conduct ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ for nothing. In fact I will put up the ante on that pompous ass, Albers, who was already to join the Nazi party just as the S.S. officials shut down the Bauhaus. He was planning to imitate the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969) who was pulled out of Germany by Philip Johnson, the same thing that was done for Albers.”

But then Stokowski’s mood lightened as he formed the idea that would become “Fantasia.” Even the name came from the famed conductor. “Fantasia” is an Italian word from about 1724 that means a free musical composition that dominates any programmatic implications that might be associated with it. In other words it is the inverse of programmatic music. The only artist that attempted this was Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) the Russian painter that tried to paint without making conscious representation. Such a task is, of course, impossible, as the symbolists demonstrated at the end of the 19th century. One of his plays (Yellow Sound) written in 1912 and based on contemporary theories of the relationship between color and music which was influenced by occultism, and therefore, what Disney wanted was the complete equivalent. This was realized in 1940 when Albers saw Disney’s “Concert Film” for the first time. And it made Albers extremely angry, because he knew Disney as Stokowski produced a product that would challenge the ideology of European “abstraction” over American “representation.” Albers did not care about the general American public, he was only interested in the reaction of his American students, which were becoming more negative to his methods of teaching, month by month. After the day sessions spent doing “abstractions” at night the students would stay up in their bunk houses drawing and painting from nature. When Albers discovered what was going on, he ordered the students back to the dining hall for more “abstract” lessons until they fell exhausted onto the floor of the refectory to sleep.

Disney for the climax of “Fantasia” chose the work of modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) the Russian composer known as one of the “five” and that of the Franz Schubert (1797-1828) the Austrian composer. Mussorgsky’s tone poem “St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain” is seamlessly woven with Schubert’s rendition of the prayer “Ave Maria.” The two pieces form the seventh and eight aspects of “Fantasia,” and put, evil against good, dark against light, death against life. As a terrifying and dramatic celebration of evil, the black god Chernobog (Wormwood) (from Slavic mythology) awakens on top of Bald Mountain to be one model of “Batman.” It is Walpurgis Nights (from the English saint Walburga, A.D. 779 – the eve of May Day), the night witches ride to their appointed rendezvous. Chernobog summons ghosts, demons, skeletons, witches, dragons, goblins and zombies from a nearby cemetery. This is an exact reference to Albers’ attitude toward his students. Chernobog-Albers summons fire and lava in order to make his charges dance and fly around him, much to his delight, before he destroys them. During the sequence handfuls of demons are held a loft and they transformed first into naked women, then into demonic animals before being dropped into hot lava, with lustful smiles. The sequence is in reality a premonition by Disney of an event that took place at Black Mountain College in the mid 1940’s. When he was 63, Fernand Le’ger (1881-1955) wrote to Lawrence Kocher about the possibility of a teaching position. When he came for a visit, Le’ger gave lectures in French about the relation of architecture to painting, and gave a demonstration of the “ballet mecanique” film. Since he was such a big star in the cubist movement they gave him a run of the place, and the inevitable occurred. One day he decided to accompany the women into their shower room, “sketching under the guise of being an artist.” At the same time he started pinching and flirting with these naked wet women until one day they wised up to the fact that “this old geezer” was actually a sexist perv. They suddenly turned the showers on him. He left the school while declining the invitation to teach. Without warning the day light of the morning and the church bells began to diminish the power Chernobog as he went into hiding under his wings. While hooded figures with glowing candles moved in a silent procession as the chords of “Ave Maria” begin to fill the forest as the pilgrims enter a beautiful pasture just before dawn. With the first light the blue sky and the floating clouds give the audience a vision of Heaven on Earth.

I will not comment at this time on the other five set pieces that constitute “Fantasia,” except to say that at the end of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” which Disney expected to be his only weapon of choice against Albers, Stokowski and Mickey Mouse meet as shadows, shake hands and congratulate each other. This scene seems to make no sense in the continuity of “Fantasia.” It was to act as the finale of Disney’s efforts to get back at “Black Mountain” college until he realized that “Black Mountain” was “Bald Mountain.” And the shadow meeting was the “bridge” between fantasy and reality, so that both entities can be experienced as ontically equivalent, giving credence to the principles of prayer, meditation, and magic. Of course, Disney knew this from his previous work that this was true.

In the end, therefore, Albers left B.M.C. in 1955, one year before the school failed, to become the chairman of the design department at Yale University. Disney, however, went on to found his self-styled cultural empire free of Eurocentric pretentiousness.

© Paul Laffoley 2008