Eye-Opening: Michelangelo, Goya and Pixar’s Inside Out

Recreation of Inside Out's opening scene

Don’t get misled by Pixar's new Inside Out. It's not for children. It’s an animated film so obviously based on the paradigm of Western art that it demonstrates what EPPH has often argued: that ever since the 1940’s many, if not most, successful Hollywood films have been made according to the same esoteric formula as we show in art, unspoken of as such by the scriptwriters and directors and unknown, it seems, to the critics. The philosophy is as occult in Hollywood as it was in the Renaissance.1 Whether the makers of these films see painting and sculpture the same way we do is unknown to me though they are surely knowledgeable of the same process in literature and film. Inside Out is slightly different to its predecessors though. It “literally” shows what other films hide allegorically.

Above is an approximation of the opening seconds. Joy, with her back to us, is responsible for the happiness of an infant girl called Riley. She appears at a control board in (where else?) Headquarters facing a bright, fuzzy oval which is the child's eye seen, so to speak, from the inside. Joy is in her mind. The eye is blank because Riley is asleep. Later on, all hell breaks loose as Joy and her colleagues - Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Jealousy - try to control her youthful behavior and, in turn, are controlled both by Riley's will and the greater forces of nature. Goya specialized in scenes like that.

Goya, Vagabonds Resting in a Cave (1808-11) Oil on canvas. Marques de la Romana Collection, Madrid

Many of his images depict just a corner of his eye on the inside where mysterious goings-on in dark surroundings reflect the mental nature of the work’s own creation and the vividness of his imagination. The bright light in the distance is always the natural light outside his eye as Goya imagines it.2

L: Goya, Industry (1801-05) Tempera on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid
R: Recreation of Inside Out's opening scene

Windows are a common eye-form in art too, especially arched or ocular ones. In this painting by Goya (left) the scene is more reminiscent of Inside Out's Headquarters (right) than you might expect. Other than changes wrought by history and the medium, the biggest differences are that the figure sits facing us using her spinning wheel (of life?) in place of Joy's technological control board. Goya's title is Industry, an abstract name like Joy’s and appropriate for the mind. 

Top: Scene from Pixar's Inside Out
Bottom: Goya, Armaga Presencia. Engraving. Plate 13 of the Disasters of War series.

When Joy and the others look out the rear window of Headquarters into the mechanism of Riley's mind, it still appears that they are looking out eye-windows though of a different kind (right). Goya again did something similar in the above etching as John Ciofalo, an art historian, has correctly noted. He linked the scene inside the arches to the inside of a skull and described the woman in white as Goya's depiction of Truth.2 However, not knowing that every painter paints himself he could only suggest the scene as some kind of self-representation.

Salvador Dali, The Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1941)

In the 20th century Salvador Dali, who had a tendency to make clear what other artists veil, used double-arches (above) for the same purpose while depicting, in the visual illusion of Voltaire's head, how ideas morph and change shape in the mind. As almost everywhere in art and the new movie too, the scene is inside, not out.

Poster for Pixar's Inside Out

And, lastly, for those familiar with how Michelangelo shaped the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel into Dante Alighieri's profile (see outline), this poster for Inside Out is an interesting equivalent. Just as Michelangelo included the expression of numerous emotions inside Dante's head like the well-known man gripped with fear in the lower center, so Riley's "head" is filled with personified emotions. That is not all though. Michelangelo's resurrected Christ emerges in the top center of "Dante's mind" (see purple circle above) in a strangely similar way to Joy in Riley's. Both Christ and Joy have at least one arm stretched upwards, hand splayed outwards, in a moment of glorious transcendence. At its best, that is what happens in the human mind, in great movies and art. And once you realize that the great scenes in painting are inside out, you will be joyous too.

For 50 more examples in art of scenes "behind the eyes" by a wide variety of important painters, see the theme Behind the Artist's Eye.

1. See "Ratatouille and the Great Masters" (Apr. 2011) and "Hollywood and the Man Within My Head" (Jan. 2012)

2. John J. Ciofalo, The Self-Portraits of Francisco Goya (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press) 2001, p.122-8

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