Sendak at the Rosenbach

While Maurice Sendak isn’t necessarily thought of as a young adult author, he’s one of those children’s authors that we carry with us for the rest of our lives. Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen are books that my friends and I find ourselves quoting around the grad school TA offices – I even had a poster in my office with Max and a couple of Wild Things with the caption “Reading is Fun.” The students that got it, got me. I’ve even known a few guys (and yes, it’s always guys) with Max tattoos, but that’s probably for another post.

Today I had the pleasure of exploring the exhibit “There’s A Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak” at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library. A major retrospective, the exhibition gives a profound sense of the depth and breadth of Sendak’s work – as both artist and author. The museum optimized their rather small gallery spaces to present a variety of image/text combinations ranging from sketches, mock-ups, and proofs, to finished artwork and published texts, along with inspiration and source materials including William Blake’s engravings and poetry, the music of Mozart, novels by Herman Melville, and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century children’s books (a staple of the Rosenbach collection). The presentation provides an intimate sense of the artist’s process without belaboring the step-by-step progression from sketchbook to printed codex. Interactive multimedia materials including interviews with the author were included in each gallery.

A highlight of the show was the creatively packaged Gallery Guide with talking points for parents and kids. After exploring the gallery, kids can punch out figures from the explanatory cards and play with them and the beautifully printed mini-folder which converts to a backdrop, against which kids can “create all sorts of new stories inspired by Sendak’s characters.” This sort of dynamic, physical interaction with the characters from the stories, and with the material object of the book itself, seems central to Sendak’s ethos and aesthetic.

The exhibit was ultimately quite moving, no doubt in part because of the nostalgia Sendak’s art inspires for my own youthful reading: Where the Wild Things Are is an Ur-text for virtually everything I’ve ever done creatively and academically. But the surprise here was how the curators insisted on foregrounding the darkness in Sendak’s work – often found in what he calls “the Other Story” within the stories. This comes out most clearly in his work for adults. Rarely-seen work like Sendak’s engraving for Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, reveal a claustrophobic darkness which perfectly complements James’ ghost story. His illustrations for Melville’s Pierre reveal a repressed eroticism and anxious self-consciousness which I cannot help but think draws on his own experiences as a gay man working in a potentially hostile industry (consider how the controversy over the little-boy nudity in Night Kitchen – librarians notoriously drew diapers on Mickey – “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me! God bless the milk and God bless me!” – would have been exacerbated if he had been public about his sexuality back in 1970). This ambivalence produces both suffocating anxiety and explosive anger in his work, emotions that play across the page in the dark adumbrations of his engraving work and the lurid color of some of his most striking illustrations.

This ambivalence is not exclusive to his adult illustrations. In his art and writing for children, kids experience emotions raw and deep – from awful loneliness (Kenny’s Window), to sublime fits of rage (Wild Things) – and are exposed to terrible danger and violence. According to the Gallery Guide:

“Many of Sendak’s books represented in this gallery like Pierre, Wild Things, Night Kitchen, Kenny’s Window, and Very Far Away feature children acting out powerful emotions. You might see the images in these books as expressions of a truthful telling of childhood that includes a mix of joyful and unpleasant but important emotional truths. This is at the heart of what Sendak is illustrating: childhood feelings of joy, passion, anger, frustration, confusion, distrust, betrayal, and loss.” 

Too, the shadow of the Holocaust casts a pall over much of Sendak’s work, from illustrations for fairy tales (some of which he found too sadistic to illustrate well, resorting to flattened perspectives that recall fifteenth-century northern European manuscript illuminations, which the artist finds frustrating and unsatisfatory), to his collaboration with Tony Kushner on the book and English stage adaptation of the 1938 Hans Krása children’s opera Brundibár, which was performed in the Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt before most of the cast was dispatched to Auschwitz. Though Sendak claims to despise religion, and Judaism in particular, he has illustrated a collection of Jewish folktales by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories) and a story written by his father that recalls Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust (In Grandpa’s House). In his illustrations for these stories, Sendak finds in his ethnicity, along with a deep well of anxiety and rage, a sense of quiet strength, solidity, and permanence, in spite of the threatening world that surrounds his characters – children and adults alike.

It is this that I think keeps Sendak fresh for child, young adult, and grown-up readers – his celebration of the confusing mish-mash of emotions that make up every stage of our lives. Unlike some canonical childhood stories that tell us falsely that things will get better as we get older, Sendak reminds us – as confused adolescents or quietly traumatized adults – that though this confusion may not “get better,” we’ve been there before and felt these things with the raw nerves of childhood. And in Sendak’s universe, we can rely on our imaginations, our friends, our beloved pets, and especially our precious, precious books to show us the way through.

Sources:

  1. Cohen, Patricia. “Maurice Sendak’s Concerns, Beyond Where The Wild Things Are.” The New York Times (September 9, 2008).
  2. The Rosenbach Museum & Library. Gallery Guide: “There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak.” Philadelphia: Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2008.
  3. Sendak, Maurice. In The Night Kitchen. New York: Harper Trophy, 1970.
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