LMU exhibit uncovers subliminal abstract art slipped between the frames of a 1940s cartoon

By Brian Welk

A still from the hidden-art crash scene in “The Loose Nut” (1945) Image courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

A still from the hidden-art crash scene in “The Loose Nut” (1945)
Image courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

Woody Woodpecker was one of the wackier and more mischievous cartoon characters of the mid-20th century, so it’s only fitting that one of his cartoons would contain the ultimate animation prank.

While watching “The Loose Nut,” a Woody Woodpecker cartoon from 1945, Loyola Marymount University Animation Professor Tom Klein noticed something unusual. When Woody barrels through a door on a steamroller, the ensuing chaos is not random colors and lights but something more abstract.

Director Shamus Culhane (billed as James Culhane) had inserted his own avant-garde fine art into individual frames of the cartoon — and never told a soul about his experiment. You can practically hear Woody laughing now.

“This was kind of amazing. It’s unquestionable when you slow it down, he really made an effort to stack all of these modern art images,” Klein said. “Something this close to his heart and his artistic sensibility, I found it interesting that he hadn’t told that story. And I don’t know why!”

A new series curated by Klein and hosted by LMU’s Laband Art Gallery seeks to unveil the secrets of these cartoons in September. “Woody Woodpecker & the Avant-Garde” will offer the rare chance to see original storyboards and animation cels as well as view newly restored HD versions of the cartoons, screened in full at ¼ and 1/16 speeds to more fully illuminate Culhane’s painstaking efforts.

“Before the digital age, think about the work and time that was involved in sketching these storyboards,” muses Carolyn Peter, the Laband’s director and curator. “You see how radical Culhane was because there was a stringent process they were working within.”

During World War II, Walter Lantz Productions, the studio that created Woody Woodpecker, was also responsible for making military training films in addition to cartoons, and that led to everyone experimenting.

“The left hand didn’t always know what the right hand was doing,” Peter said.

Even though Culhane had secretly placed subliminal abstract images in his films, Klein said Culhane’s work started to change how artists drew cartoons and audiences viewed them. Cartoons became more musical, more violent and edited for a more rapid pace. Culhane’s influence can be felt in the more Modernist shorts of the 1950s, as well as in the similarly manic cartoons of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry.

But Culhane wasn’t the only one finding radical inspiration during this period. Starting in 1945, Culhane attended the American Contemporary Gallery in Hollywood, which featured screenings, paintings and sculptures from avant-garde European and Russian artists such as Man Ray and Oskar Fischinger.

Peter described it as a hub for intellectual immigrants displaced by the war that had wide-reaching effects on Los Angeles’ art world and on animation in particular.

Klein also observes a connection between Culhane and other avant-garde work from the period. In addition to Culhane’s cartoons, “Woody Woodpecker & the Avant-Garde” will showcase works by many of the Los Angeles artists who attended the American Contemporary Gallery in the 1940s. The mix includes abstract films, photographs and water colors by Ray and Fischinger as well as Knud Merrild, Byron Randall and Jules Engel.

“What I really wanted to do was have the heart of the show be the avant-garde films and fine art, and have in close proximity the evolving nature of the Woody Woodpecker cartoons directed by Shamus Culhane,” Klein said. “It creates this spiral where the inspiration is at the center, and the pop art surrounds the whole gallery. I’m hoping that when people walk through this exhibit they’ll be able to feel how these things are connected and reach their own conclusions.”

The Woody Woodpecker exhibit is part of a larger donation to the university pledged by the Walter Lantz Foundation, a gift that will include a new building for LMU’s film school.

The gallery space, meanwhile, offers a greater appreciation for how animation is put together and how even the strangest works of art can serve as inspiration.

“All art forms can and should be on your radar as possible influences,” Peter said. “Putting those all together can bring about amazing results that are much greater than one separate art form.”

“Woody Woodpecker and The Avant-Garde” runs from Sept. 22 to Nov. 20 at the Laband Art Gallery on LMU’s campus, 1 LMU Drive, Westchester . Call (310) 338-3087 or visit cfa.lmu.edu/labandgallery.