My small contribution to the Fantasy/Animation proceedings has been to think through animation’s place within what Pierre Mac Orlan (pseudonym of Pierre Dumarchey, 1882-1970) termed the ‘social fantastic’; a concept he developed, principally, over the 1920s and 1930s. At the centre of this discussion lies a 1934 essay Mac Orlan wrote for Arts et Métiers Graphiques on J.J. Grandville, in which he presents the 19th century graphic artist as a precursory source of inspiration for surrealism, Georges Méliès and the Disney animation studio. My interest in Mac Orlan was sparked by Walter Benjamin’s inclusion of quotations from this essay in his notes for his Arcades Project (and which Esther Leslie reports on in Hollywood Flatlands). As guest editor of an issue of Art in Translation (Vol. 8, No.1, February 2016) dedicated to ‘cinematographic art’, I have been fortunate enough to be able to include a translation of Mac Orlan’s essay, which has, in turn, necessitated that I look into his work more closely.
In the essay on Grandville, Mac Orlan indicates his signature concept when he states:
When the imagination breaks through the limits of decency that accommodate the requirements of social living, it relinquishes the official weights and measures that enable human existence to maintain its quotidian equilibrium.
Thus, the link Mac Orlan establishes between Grandville and Disney is filtered through his notion of the ‘social fantastic.’
So what is the ‘social fantastic’? In brief: an ambiguous, multifaceted, contradictory and compelling concept introduced at a Paris conference on cinema and the fantastic in 1925. It describes a certain modern mood or sentiment closely linked with urban street life, night life, shadows, fear, popular entertainments (the list goes on). I think of Mac Orlan’s ‘social fantastic’ as an unavoidable by-product of modern life, akin to the distortions visible when hot air rises. According to Mac Orlan the ‘social fantastic’ is inscribed across various arts including documentary photography, live-action cinema, animation, print cartoons, graphic art and literature.
Mac Orlan focusses on the then newly released Disney ‘Silly Symphony’, The Grasshopper and the Ants; watching the film evidently calling to his mind Grandville’s illustration, among other works, for La Fontaine’s version of the fable. His assessment is positive, contributing to the enthusiastic critical response to the Disney shorts at the time (that remind us just how pathbreaking these films must have been for audiences). Indeed, Mac Orlan’s reading of The Grasshopper and the Ants signals an upbeat face to the ‘social fantastic.’ He writes,
There is no melancholy in Walt Disney’s humour. It contains not the slightest germ of mortification. In this it differs greatly to Grandville’s, in which death is forever present.
Having only scratched the surface of this topic, readers will have to, for the time being, trust my dual conclusion that Mac Orlan’s largely overlooked comments on animation provide fresh, rich historical and theoretical insights into the fantasy/animation intersection, and that, conversely, animation stands as a productive means to sharpen our understanding of Mac Orlan’s ‘social fantastic’ due to the medium’s debt, synthesis and mobilisation of numerous art forms and technologies.
*The translation of Mac Orlan’s essay for Art in Translation is by Richard Elliott. I would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Musée départemental de la Seine-et-Marne, especially Noëlle Rain, and the Comité des amis de Pierre Mac Orlan.
Barnaby Dicker is a lecturer, researcher, artist-filmmaker and curator. His research revolves around conceptual and material innovations in and through graphic technologies and arts, including cinematography and photography, with particular emphasis on vanguard practices. He is the editor of a forthcoming special issue of Art in Translation on cinematographic art in which Mac Orlan’s Grandville essay will appear. He is a visiting lecturer in Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art, London, and Animation History and Theory at the University of South Wales, Newport and Cardiff. He also teaches at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham.