Didier Ghez is a dedicated Disney historian who has embarked on a massive, multi-volume history of the art of Disney in his They Drew As They Pleased series from Chronicle Books; I enjoyed the first three volumes of the series, but volume 4, The Hidden Art of Disney's Mid-Century Era: The 1950s took my breath away.

The mid-century was a fraught time for Disney: the war was over, the studio was recovering, but relations were more strained than ever between the Disney brothers (Walt, as always, wanted to spend the company money on cool gadgets and ambitious projects, while Roy, his CFO brother, held him in check and threatened him with the wrath of the shareholders). The animator's strike of the previous decade was long settled, but resentments still simmered. Disneyland was on the horizon, and the studio was able to make ends meet by taking on commercial work.

Meanwhile, Disney's ranks of artists were swelling with modernists for whom the abstraction of animation bore some kind of tantalizing family resemblance to the abstract art movement. They wanted to experiment with form, with color, and above all, with motion.

Ghez features five artists in this volume, giving a brief biography of each, then a tour through their Disney and non-Disney portfolios of the era, supplemented with primary historical sources like letters and memos. The artists' style will be naggingly familiar to anyone with a passing experience of Disney movies, but Ghez features a wealth of work that was too weird, too ambitious, too esoteric to make it into a Disney production — it's a tour of a parallel universe in which Disney was the world's best-funded avant garde salon, where incredibly talented, fiercely driven painters and illustrators produced challenging work of enormous wit, drive, and ambition.

The five artists in the volume are Lee Blair, Mary Blair (swoon!), Tom Oreh, John Dunn and Walt Perogoy. The book begins with a sweet introduction by veteran animators Susan McKinsey Goldberg and her husband Eric Goldberg, who lived through the era at the studio.

They Drew As They Pleased Vol 4: The Hidden Art of Disney's Mid-Century Era: The 1950s
[Didier Ghez/Chronicle Books]