Guest post by Leah Marie Chizek.
Ahead of the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s recent reopening, I had the opportunity to walk through the galleries, where I ran across Jim Dine’s 44-print Pinocchio suite just after it had been installed. Dine first saw Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) when he was six years old, and his prints are a complex tribute to both the film and the original Italian series of tales on which it is based. There is an intrigue, even a darkness about them that I hadn’t fully expected to see, and which I couldn’t recall from the film. All I could remember was the tale of a lovable puppet on his quest for boyhood, joined by his dapper crooning sidekick, Jiminy Cricket. Sure, he may have had to endure his fair share of humiliations and trials, like that pesky nose that grew longer every time he told a lie! Ultimately, though, Pinocchio proved deserving of his wish to become an actual boy, the son his father and maker Geppetto had always longed for.
To refresh my memory, I decided to watch Pinocchio again but if I had seen it before, I must have forgotten just how much the little guy really goes through before his wish is granted: he is abducted, caged, enslaved, transformed into a donkey and, in a masterful underwater animation sequence, swallowed by a whale while fathoming the deep seas. I clutched my pillows during a few scenes but still, this is Disney we are talking about, and the film is ultimately softcore—something that cannot be said of Carlo Collodi’s work, which turns out to be rather more sinister.
In 1881, the first of several forthcoming installments by Collodi was published in the popular Italian children’s journal Giornale dei bambini. The tales proved incredibly popular, but here boyish charm and guilelessness is in short supply. Collodi’s Pinocchio is naughty. Really, really naughty. Sadistic even. His first reaction to Geppetto is a menacing sneer, and it isn’t long before he gleefully offs the cricket that serves as his conscience—still recognizably an insect—with a mallet. Perpetually unrepentant, he is subject to a litany of increasingly sordid punishments, only to be hung by the Fox and the Cat from the branches of a tree in the fifteenth installment—a fate that horrified his young fan base. Collodi may have grown bored of his creation, but his miscreant marionette had become an unlikely Tuscan icon that his publishers soon forced him to resuscitate. For twenty-one more episodes, Pinocchio returns to his incorrigible ways, plying unadulterated mischief until he eventually—unexpectedly—turns himself around. The reward? Once again authentic boyhood, hard-won in fraught fashion the way only European fairy tales bring to life.
Walt Disney and his team of animators were fascinated with Collodi’s tale. Still celebrating the overwhelming success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), their first animated feature, Pinocchio offered new and intriguing possibilities to test their creative mettle. Its episodic character meant countless anecdotes to choose from, anecdotes so surreal and so grotesque they represented welcome challenges for the team’s animatronic talents. But it wasn’t long before they ran into trouble. Pinocchio’s body was one problem: woodcuts for the first published edition of Collodi’s tales show why. Never envisioned on celluloid, Pinocchio on paper is a puppet of disagreeable mien and a stiff ensemble of wood and string that did not lend itself well to the kinetic expectations of the silver screen. But Disney himself soon realized there was another problem: Pinocchio wasn’t especially likable, and Collodi’s story, though brimming with an intriguing ensemble of innocents and hooligans, lacked a certain warmth American cinemagoers had come to expect.
The animation team thus decided to present Pinocchio onscreen as if he were a real boy. This solution not only made him more sympathetic but overcame the mechanical constraints his marionette’s body presented to the animators while still giving them an ingenious opportunity to showcase their skill: When we first see Pinocchio, he is still a mute and lifeless toy that Geppetto wishfully parades across the floor of his studio. With rickety wooden limbs, the marionette sways and dances toward cat Cleo, only to apparently transform from wood to flesh in the next instant. This is the wide-eyed, apple-cheeked boy we all know, of friendly disposition and much suppler limb, and certainly no cricket-killer. In fact, out of Collodi’s blue cricket is born yet another silver screen star: Jiminy Cricket, who becomes a friend and loyal companion to Pinocchio. Together, as they negotiate snafu after snafu, each increasingly dire, it is Jiminy who brings to the situation a necessary dose of diplomacy and good humor. Even in the darkest moments where Pinocchio has again succumbed to trickery and temptation, Jiminy always does his utmost to defuse things, and ultimately it is he who sees Pinocchio safely home again to ensure his wish will really be granted. These various innovations proved to be a winning formula, retaining the moral force of Collodi’s original tale—the struggle against temptation—but revealing Pinocchio’s great heart from the get-go.
“In the end, it is his great heart that holds me,” Dine has said of Pinocchio, referring even to Collodi’s original anti-hero. Dine’s compassion for him and his maker Geppetto—the artist as maker—is the product of his own insecurities and struggles over the course of his artistic career. In Pinocchio’s journey, he sees too a metaphor for art, “the ultimate alchemical transformation.”
Dine’s lithographs, together with a bound first edition (1883) of Collodi’s Pinocchio from the Lilly Library and related memorabilia, are currently on view as part of the free exhibition Jim Dine: Pinocchio, Geppetto, and Other Personal Metaphors, on view in the Center for Prints, Drawing, and Photographs at the Eskenazi Museum of Art through May 10, 2020.
Pinocchio will be screened at the IU Cinema on December 8 at 1 pm as part of the Art and a Movie series and CINEkids International Children’s Film Series. Beforehand, there will be a free pre-screening tour and family program, entitled “Dine and Pinocchio in Focus,” at 12 pm at the Eskenazi Museum of Art.
Leah Marie Chizek is a graduate assistant in the Department of Works on Paper at the Eskenazi Museum of Art. She is currently a dual-master’s candidate in art history and library science, with an emphasis on rare books and manuscripts.