By AML Publisher
Photos courtesy of Kevin E. McPherson
Drawings published with permission of The Rosenbach Museum, Philadelphia
Most people recognize famed illustrator and author Maurice Sendak for his work in Where the Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen and Chicken Soup. But Sendak’s amazing talents have graced the pages of 105 additional books besides the famed trio. This week the year long exhibit of Sendak’s work at Philly’s Rosenbach Museum has its final curtain call. There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak is a retrospective that encompasses four comprehensive galleries in the museum. Director Spike Jonze will be releasing his version of Where the Wild Things Are in an upcoming 2009 fall film adaptation of the same name. The film is written by Jonze and Dave Eggers.
There’s a Mystery There focuses on Sendak’s personality as a storyteller engaging with difficult and mysterious themes and memories in his work. It explores Sendak’s prolific imagination through the characters, influences, and settings of his books, as well as Sendak’s quest to illustrate what he calls “the Other Story,” the hidden meanings of a text that haunt and enrich his illustrations.
Sendak selected the Rosenbach Museum & Library to be the repository for his work in the early 1970s thanks to shared literary and collecting interests. His collection of nearly 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books and ephemera, has been the subject of many exhibitions at the Rosenbach, seen by visitors of all ages. The Rosenbach currently houses all of Sendak’s original illustrations for his books along with 3,500 works of art and an additional collection of 7,000 pieces of sketches and materials and manuscripts from the artist.
This week is also the inaugural Philadelphia Museum Week, with over fifty regional museums participating. There are a wide variety of discounts available on admission and museum store purchases- including at The Rosenbach-from now through Sunday, May 3rd. Patrick Rodgers is the traveling exhibitions coordinator at the museum and recently guided AML through the extraordinary Sendak exhibit and its fascinating galleries.
Gallery One: Sendak and His Kids
The Rosenbach has rotated the thousands of documents as part of the Sendak exhibit every four months since last May, making for a juggernaut of an exhibition. The fragile collection is particularly susceptible to light damage and the museum has to preserve the pieces forever. In addition, the exhibit is organized by four distinct rooms that cover Sendak’s main topics: kids, monsters, storytelling and settings. “We wanted to break down where Sendak finds mystery in his stories by themes that were as easy as possible because we know that there can be so many layered meanings in his children’s books, it can be a lot to chew on. Since we did rotate this exhibit, we also need to make it very flexible as well,” explained Rodgers.
In Gallery One, there’s the most recognizable of all of Sendak’s children-an original, vibrant watercolor of Max from his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are as well as early sketches of Mickey from In The Night Kitchen and Pierre from Sendak’s Pierre. The author, now 80 and residing in rural Connecticut, sourced his inspiration for his young subjects out of his childhood in Brooklyn during the ‘30s, where many of his playmates were immigrants. “These children were in a time period where they were fiercely independent-as was Sendak-so that’s acknowledged through many of his characters and the reality he was drawing from,” said Rodgers.
In the early version of Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s character was originally named Johnnie and the character cried a pool of tears that transported him out of the fantasy land. Sendak drew from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, explained Rodgers, as well from impressionists such as Rembrandt and his family members. “The monsters in ‘Wild Things’ are actually exaggerated portraits of Sendak’s aunts and uncles that he grew up with. When he was a boy, Maurice’s Polish relatives were Jews who had fled from Europe during the time of World War I. They spoke Yiddish; their customs were vastly different than what he had grown up with—even though Sendak’s parents were Polish. And, they handled Sendak very roughly. They were ravenous for his mother’s cooking and he described them as having strange hairs coming out of their ears and noses. Sendak grew up to love those relatives, yet he never lost the idea of their ghastliness when he was a kid. Later in his life, those memories translated to the inspiration for the monsters,” explained Rodgers.
The intense relationship between parent and child is a common thread woven throughout many of Sendak’s works and food also plays a huge role in many books, including, most apparent, In the Night Kitchen. Throughout the exhibit, there are monitors where visitors can stop and listen to taped segments from exclusive interviews with Sendak from his New England home where the author goes into further detail about the complexities of his writing. “The Rosenbach has a relationship with Maurice Sendak that goes back more than forty years. And because of that, in addition to the comprehensive collection, Sendak’s voice has become the centerpiece of this show. And so we were able to do these interviews with him and incorporate them into the exhibit to add another dimension and really bring it to life,” explained Rodgers.
Gallery Two: Sendak and His Monsters
Gallery Two highlights some of Maurice’s darker materials and fiendish characters. The Holocaust weighed particularly on the mind of Sendak as a subject matter, with his relatives talking frequently about the persecution they had faced in Europe. “An entire side of his father’s family perished during the Holocaust, and Sendak was acutely aware of this as a young child. So he had heard stories about their experience, viewed photographs and interacted with the Jewish community of Brooklyn. For Maurice, this was horrific,” said Rodgers.
The other sinister event that shaped Sendak’s career was the famed Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder in May of 1932. Only four-years-old at the time, Sendak and his family were sent into a full panic, as was a large portion of the country, when famed aviator Charles Lindberg’s son was kidnapped and later found in a shallow grave. “One thing you will find in Maurice’s work is kidnapping characters. And, he is, in essence, exorcising the demons of these childhood memories through these personalities he has created,” explained Rodgers.
Sendak’s Outside Over There is part of what the author grouped as a trilogy (‘Wild Things’ and In The Night Kitchen are the first two parts) because he felt these books all related back to his childhood and upbringing. In ‘Outside’, the heroine, Ida, has a little sister who was kidnapped by goblins-and it is up to Ida to find her baby sister and keep her from becoming a goblin’s bride. The book has eerie scenes and a ghostlike quality. Outside Over There is illustrated in a style that is radically different than Sendak’s other works. “There is a Victorian room and soft, calming pastel colors but at the window are these faceless goblins waiting at the window on a ladder to steal the baby in the nursery. So, it’s working in his fascination with the Lindbergh kidnapping,” said Rodgers.
The character of Brundibar is Sendak’s most horrible monster, a not so subtle reference to Adolph Hitler. In the late ‘30s, just about the time Hitler was menacing Czechoslovakia, Jewish Czech composer Hans Krasa composed a children’s opera called Brundibar. Sendak illustrated the children’s book version of Brundibar that was written by Tony Kushner and published in 2003. The book was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Illustrated Books of 2003.
The Rosenbach translates the character of Brundibar into a valuable lesson about bullying for young visitors to grasp, with creative and informative gallery cards that help explain Sendak’s work.“Initially Sendak went right for the heart of the topic-he wanted to make Hitler the bully. So, he produced this image of Brundibar as an organ grinder, thinking about how much he hates children. And Sendak found this really wasn’t him, it was not subtle enough. So, as an illustrator he was directly going to the source without making it his own, it was too literal of an interpretation and was never published in the final book. Instead, the Brundibar Sendak ended up sketching is completely different-he has these intense blue eyes of Hitler and the little mustache with a Napoleonic costume but he is all withered and shriveled underneath the outfit. He has this big, blustery persona but he is the scrawny little person underneath, like a coward. It’s not that Maurice thought kids could not handle it; he just realized that the original image of Brundibar was not mysterious enough so he changed his approach to fit the style that he (Sendak) was most comfortable with. The memories of the Holocaust are nothing something that Sendak ever felt he could resolve so this is his way of dealing with it,” explained Rodgers.
Gallery Three: Sendak and His Storytelling
Sendak’s favorite author is Herman Melville, who penned Moby-Dick, and in this room at the Rosenbach is (on loan) Melville’s stunning black walnut bookcase from his Berkshire estate Arrowhead. Inside, are pristine first editions of Moby-Dick, among other notable literary masterpieces. “Sendak wanted to include Melville in a very palpable way in the exhibit and having his bookcase in here does just that. And we filled it with Sendak’s favorite literature,” explained Rodgers. Maurice loves to collect books, and the touch screen monitor in this gallery has the author explaining how he enjoys smelling a book, feeling its surface and sketching his favorite characters from the authors he most admires.(As a young child, Sendak has also acknowledged he frequently sniffed at, bit or chewed on the books he read.) Sendak has illustrated some of most beloved favorite fairy tales with the pictures in this gallery, such as stories from the Brothers Grimm and Mother Goose.
Rodgers explained that Maurice Sendak has always enjoyed the process of storytelling, as Sendak’s father rarely read to him growing up but was known for his fantastical and wild tales. Sendak’s career has been the subject of some controversy as his attraction to the forbidden or nightmarish aspects of children’s fantasy is often portrayed in his books. In Sendak’s Pierre a little boy who behaves badly is eaten by a hungry lion. “Pierre is fantastically dark; it’s very theatrical and graceful. And, you can see the infusion of his love of Melville and (William) Blake. It’s a glimpse of his own personal favorites, and very much has an adult theme so it has been the source of literary discussion through the years. Sendak could not resist illustrating the authors he found so admirable,” said Rodgers.
Gallery Four: Sendak’s Settings
Sendak has very distinct backgrounds in his illustrations, as the final gallery room demonstrates, where he puts many of his mysteries and stories that support his interesting characters. The moon serves a variety of purposes in Sendak’s art. As his favorite source of lighting, the blue-white glow of moonlight adds mystery and depth to many of his picture books. The famous “wild rumpus” of Where the Wild Things Are takes places beneath a full moon. And, the image of Max in his wolf suit, surrounded by Wild Things howling at the moons, harkens back to the mythology of werewolves. “It is very hard to find a Sendak book that occurs in sunlight. The moon is so often present in his work. The moon is a mysterious element in itself, think ‘Man in the Moon,’ so Sendak takes advantage of that because there is a long line of children’s story tellers who have incorporate the moon in their work. He even makes the moon a character in some of his books-where the moon will transport characters from one scene to another, the moon will turn out to be another character in disguise. Sendak’s reoccurring use of the moon is almost as much of a character as it is a background element which is kind of fun,” noted Rodgers.
There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak exhibition highlights:
- Original color artwork from books such as Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, The Nutshell Library, Outside Over There, and Brundibar.
- “Dummy” books filled with lively preliminary sketches for titles like The Sign on Rosie’s Door, Pierre, and Higglety, Pigglety, Pop!
- Never-before-seen working materials, such as newspaper clippings that inspired Sendak, family portraits, photographs of child models and other ephemera.
- Rare sketches for unpublished editions of stories such as Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and other illustrating projects.
- Unique materials from the Rosenbach collection that relate to Sendak’s work, including an 1853 edition of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, sketches by William Blake, and Herman Melville’s bookcase.
- Stories told by the illustrator himself on topics like Alice in Wonderland, his struggle to illustrate his favorite novels, hilarious stories of Brooklyn, and the way his work helps him exorcise childhood traumas.
For more information on Museum Week, which runs April 27th to May 3rd, visit PhillyFunGuide.com/Museum Week.
The movie adaptation of Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are is scheduled for release in October of 2009.
There’s A Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak will be on display at the Rosenbach Museum & Library from May 6, 2008 to May 3, 2009, with new works on view every four months. A total of over 300 original watercolors, pen-and-ink sketches, doodles, manuscripts, books, and dummy books from the 1950s to today will be on display. Visitors can access new interviews with Sendak through digital touch screens throughout the galleries. This exhibition will begin a national tour in the summer of 2009.
Sendak chose the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, PA to be the repository for his work in the early 1970s thanks to shared literary and collecting interests. His collection of nearly 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books and ephemera, has been the subject of many exhibitions at the Rosenbach, seen by visitors of all ages. The Rosenbach Museum & Library seeks to inspire curiosity, inquiry, and creativity by engaging broad audiences in exhibitions, programs and research based on its remarkable and expanding collections. The museum was founded by legendary book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother and business partner Philip. With an outstanding collection of rare books, manuscripts, furniture, and art, the Rosenbach is a museum and world-renowned research library, set within two historic 1865 townhouses, that reflects an age when great collectors lived among their treasures. For more information about the Rosenbach Museum & Library, visit www.rosenbach.org.
Hands-On tours are approximately one hour in length. All hands-On tours are free with museum admission. Tours are limited to six guests, ages 8 and up. No RSVP is required. Gallery talks are free with museum admission. To RSVP for gallery talks, email email@example.com.
The Rosenbach Museum & Library is located at 2008-2010 Delancey Place and is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for students, and free for children under 5. For more information, please call (215) 732-1600.