David Brody follows the trail of interwoven fiction, fact and art in Nabokov, Bruegel, Disney, Eve Sussman, Lech Majewski, and others.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1938 novel Laughter in the Dark begins with an art collector daydreaming about financing an animated film that would bring an old master painting to life, a Dutch genre scene of skaters and taverns. The collector Albinus has arrived at this “beautiful idea,” as he calls it, while frequenting the cinemas of Berlin (ill-fatedly, as we’ll see). At the movies Albinus discerns how the popular American cartoon shorts of the day, sequential paintings in effect, furnish a coarse prototype for his moving Dutch landscape—with the difference that Albinus’s film would be ambitiously refined, “movement and gesture graphically developed in complete harmony with their static state in the picture.” No ordinary cartoon, Albinus’s animation would map the technique of Mickey Mouse onto the most venerable traditions of art.
Nabokov was a Berliner like his creation Albinus when he began writing a first serialized version of the novel in Russian for the amusement of fellow exiles displaced by the Bolsheviks. Berlin was a capital of cinema, and there Nabokov had become, again like Albinus, a frequent moviegoer. In 1931, the year Nabokov began publishing his serial, a Disney cartoon called The China Plate was released internationally. This black-and-white, non-Mickey graphic narrative takes the form of a looping tableau vivant—in striking correlation to Albinus’s plans for the Dutch landscape. Nabokov might well have seen it; perhaps he made a mental note of this 7-minute romp before settling in for the feature—say, the Greta Garbo vehicle of the same year, Mata Hari. (As we’ll see, Garbo seems to have left her stamp on Laughter in the Dark no less than Disney.) In The China Plate, a pastoral glaze painting adorning the dish of the title brings forth antic Fu Manchu figures (casually racist; intended as charming) who soon come to chase one another, finally coming to rest again as part of the porcelain decoration more or less where they started. Just so, in the quaint winter landscape that Albinus imagines, the figures would arise from their painted stasis to drink, flirt, and skate awhile. As the film concludes, they would slowly arrive back at their eternal poses, “ending it all,” according to Albinus’s daydream, “with the first picture.”