Editor's note: The The Jewish Museum provided source material to Resource Library for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the The Jewish Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak
April 15 - August 14, 2005
The Jewish Museum is presenting Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak, a major exhibition exploring the prolific career of the renowned illustrator and author, from April 15 through August 14, 2005. Best known for children's classics such as Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and In the Night Kitchen (1970), Maurice Sendak is an award-winning, multifaceted illustrator and author whose work also includes set and costume design for opera and ballet. Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak is the largest exhibition of his work in over a decade, and one of the largest ever mounted. (right: Maurice Sendak, final illustration for "and made him king of the wild things" from Where The Wild Things Are (1963), watercolor on paper. From the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.)
Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak explores Sendak's art created over fifty years, including his most recent work, particularly in the performing arts, and celebrates his unique vision. It will provide Museum visitors with key insights into Maurice Sendak's mind as well as fascinating glimpses into his extraordinarily varied artistic styles. Tracing Sendak's work from 1960 to the present, the exhibition is filled with projects in different media. Various stages of the artistic process will be represented. The exhibition will give visitors a rare opportunity to view original drawings by Maurice Sendak. Nearly 140 works will be on view including 112 original drawings by the artist. Preliminary and final drawings, artwork for posters, and theatrical sets and costumes created from Sendak's designs are among the exhibition's highlights. Lavish ballet and opera sets and costumes for productions of the operas, The Magic Flute, Hansel and Gretel, and Brundibar, and the ballet production of Where the Wild Things Are will be on display.
Maurice Sendak was born in 1928 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He came of age on the streets of his native Brooklyn, and was first drawn to popular culture by Mickey Mouse cartoons and movies such as Fantasia and King Kong. In his work Sendak remains in contact with the child within himself. While he pays tribute to artists of the past, he claims "each book demands an individual stylistic approach." His work reverberates on multiple levels, informed by memories "lived and not lived" from Brooklyn and the Old Country, and by Germanic culture, embodied by the Grimm Brothers and Mozart, which the artist has embraced in an attempt to work through the trauma of the Holocaust, during which many members of Sendak's family were lost. (left: Maurice Sendak, final illustration for In The Night Kitchen (1970), black line on acetate over watercolor on paper. From the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.)
While he writes in complete silence, Sendak usually illustrates to music -- his favorite art form -- and strives for a musical quality in his work, which may explain his "theme and variations" technique. At the core of his work, the artist has said, is always the same theme -- how children get through the day, how they cope with emotional isolation. Sendak's work is characterized by a constant push and pull between horror and beauty, and marked by his ever-present urge to find a way to deal with the Holocaust, to acknowledge those "wild things" which, ultimately, remain untamed. Sendak's career has been a rewarding but arduous journey, accompanied by his "chosen rabbis," as he likes to call Shakespeare, Melville, and above all, Mozart. Sendak's fertile imagination offers a wonderful window "to the outside over there." Or, as the artist said through his heroine Rosie: "When everybody screams and yells: There is nothing to do! There's nothing to see! Who dreams up a place they'd like to be? That's me!"
Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak has been organized by Claudia Nahson, Associate Curator at The Jewish Museum, and focuses on three main themes: a distinctive body of Sendak's work that deals with his family and the old world of Eastern European Jewry; works informed by Sendak's own experiences growing up Jewish in Brooklyn and by American popular culture; and works that convey the artist's desire to process the horrors of the Holocaust while reconciling with Germanic culture by embracing its richness, bringing the artist back full circle to his own past. The exhibition is divided into three sections: "The Old Country," "Looking at America from a Brooklyn Window," and "Into the Woods of Connecticut, into the Land of Grimm" which culminates in an entire gallery devoted to Brundibar, Sendak's latest project -- both an opera and a picture book. One of the exhibition galleries will be transformed into a reading room inspired by Max's room as it turns into a forest in Where the Wild Things Are. The exhibition installation design was created by Dan Kershaw. Kris Stone designed all the theatrical environments in the exhibition. (right: Maurice Sendak, final illustration for "Oh, how the poor little sister did grieve!" from "Hansel and Gretel" in The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm (1973), pen and ink on paper. From the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.)
The Old Country
As a child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America just before World War I, Maurice Sendak grew up in a household with strong ties to the Old Country. When he was 13 years old, Sendak learned that his paternal grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins had perished in the Holocaust. The realization that children his age could die was a great shock to Sendak and became a preoccupation in much of the work he has created.
It became clear to the artist that his life's work must "retrieve all those lost Jewish souls and return them to the living." His illustrations for Isaac Bashevis Singer's tales for children, Zlateh the Goat (1966), are infused with portraits of Sendak's lost relatives inspired by photos salvaged from family albums. In Grandpa's House (1985) was written by the artist's father, Phillip Sendak, and published after his death with illustrations by the artist. It is a Yiddish tale within a tale of the father's own shtetl boyhood and immigration to America, and of a boy named David who sets out on a quest, running into his own "wild things."
While Sendak pays tribute to the relatives who perished, he pokes fun at those he grew up with. His best-known creations -- those beloved monsters of Where the Wild Things Are (1963) -- are none other than his maternal aunts and uncles who visited his childhood home in Brooklyn every Sunday, pinched his cheeks and ate all the food in sight. Now that the inspirations for the "wild things" are gone, Sendak is again looking back at the Old Country, not to grieve or to pick on his doting relatives, but rather to reacquaint himself with an old passion -- klezmer music. Recently, Maurice Sendak recorded Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer Tale (2004), a collaboration with Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, and a humorous retelling of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, set against the background of shtetl life and music. Suddenly, Sendak says, he has "become a mad dancing Jew!"
Looking at America from a Brooklyn Window
None of the artist's characters embody childhood in his native Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s as well as Rosie, the ten-year-old girl who Sendak, as a budding artist, sketched endlessly from his window. He later made her the heroine of The Sign on Rosie's Door (1960). In explaining the circumstances of his birth, Sendak wrote: "I was born on June 10, 1928 in a shtetl called Kings Highway, in a land roughly bordered by Avenue P and Bay Parkway, in a country called Brooklyn, surrounded by Yiddish-speaking, and I foolishly thought, Italian-speaking Jews...Yes, I was convinced that Italians were happy Jews." In fact, Rosie seems to represent the free-spirited childhood that was denied young Sendak, growing up in a household haunted by the Holocaust. By the time the artist revisited the story of Rosie, in the book's later animated and musical adaptations, its heroine was transformed from an Italian-American girl into an American-Jewish diva who screams "Oy Vey!"
The artist has spoken fondly of his childhood outings to Manhattan. The spell its dazzling night skyline exercised on Sendak is superbly captured in The Night Kitchen (1970), an ode to New York and to American popular culture and a fond farewell to the city as he moved to rural Connecticut. As Sendak has distanced himself from the city, his nostalgia has dissipated. His brutally honest illustrations for We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993) acknowledge how menacing the city can be for homeless children living in a hostile adult world. Sendak's ongoing and ambiguous romance with New York City continues in his posters for the annual "New York is Book Country" event. His "wild things" in these posters seem to be doing what they like best, be it chomping on a book or devouring the Big Apple, while engrossed in European literature from the Brontë sisters to the Brothers Grimm.
Into the Woods of Connecticut, into the Land of Grimm
As Sendak moved from New York City to rural Connecticut in the early 1970s, his work gradually became darker in nature. His illustrations for The Juniper and Other Tales of Grimm (1973) -- his first venture into the land of the Brothers Grimm -- reflect a growing interest in Germanic culture and the artist's ongoing quest to understand the Holocaust.
Sendak's works of the last three decades are filled with tension between terror and beauty, anger and guilt. In Outside Over There (1980), Sendak's own Grimm-like tale, his heroine Ida reluctantly marches into the woods in search of her baby sister who has been kidnapped by goblins. Dear Mili (1988), a long-lost Grimm story about a child sent away by her mother to spare her from war, is a poetic and brutal rendering of the woods as a source of life and death.
Sendak's illustrations for the book tell a story in which the fate of Mili is shared by all children affected by the ravages of war, including Anne Frank and forty-four Jewish children deported by Nazi Klaus Barbie from the French village of Izieu to their deaths in Auschwitz in 1944. Through the artist's moving intervention in the horrors of the past, the children are entrusted to Mozart, Sendak's favorite composer, who conducts them in a final requiem. The world that Sendak re-creates in these works is dangerous as well as healing.
Sendak's Brundibar (2003) is both a picture book and an opera based on a 1938 children's opera by Czech-Jewish composer Hans Krása. Playwright Tony Kushner adapted the libretto and Sendak created the illustrations for the book and designed the sets and costumes for the opera. Brundibar tells the story of two children named Pepicek and Aninku who, alone and without money, set out to procure milk for their mother who has fallen ill. At the town square they encounter Brundibar, a teenage bully, who makes plenty of coins by playing his hurdy-gurdy. When the brother and sister attempt to earn some money by singing, they are chased away by Brundibar. With the help of some friendly animals, they return with 300 schoolchildren and sing a beautiful lullaby, making enough money to buy milk for their mother who, at the end of the story, is restored to health. A political allegory, Brundibar became a symbol of resistance for the inmates of the concentration camp in Terezin, where the opera was originally performed by young Jewish prisoners. Brundibar is a simple tale, and like most of Sendak's stories, it is about children setting out on a quest that leads to discovery. It is also Sendak's most focused treatment of the Holocaust. Preliminary and final illustrations for Brundibar never exhibited publicly before will be shown in Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak. A full set from the Chicago Opera Theater production, designed by Sendak, and featuring costumes for Brundibar, Pepicek and Aninku, and the animals, will also be on view. (left: . Maurice Sendak, final illustration for "His hurdy-gurdy phumphed and wheezed . . . " From Brundibar (2003), dated October 1, 2002. From the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.)
About Maurice Sendak
Born in 1928 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents, Maurice Sendak illustrated his first book, Peter and the Wolf, when he was in his early teens. He knew from that point on that "making books was what I was going to do with the rest of my life." While in high school, he created a comic strip for the school newspaper. In his senior year, he submitted a number of illustrations for a physics textbook, Atomics for the Millions. After graduation, he took a job working for F.A.O. Schwartz as a window dresser and continued there for three years while taking evening classes at the Art Students League. His first children's book illustration assignment, for The Wonderful Farm, was written by Marcel Aymé and published in 1951.
Over 50 years, Maurice Sendak has gained fame as an illustrator and author. He has illustrated more than 100 books, many of which he has also authored. He has won every important prize in children's literature, among them: the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are; the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Illustration (1970); the American Library Association's Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (1983); and the first Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (2003), an annual international prize for children's literature established by the Swedish government. In 1996 Maurice Sendak was presented with a National Medal of the Arts in recognition of his contribution to the arts in the United States.
Sendak's art and stories capture childhood's humor, hopes, and fears, and have won the hearts of children and adults the world over. Yet, they are characterized by complexity and dark undertones that set his work apart from standard children's fare. He has commented about his work: "I am obsessed with childhood and with the extraordinary heroism of children."
The exhibition is supported by the Eugene M. and Emily Grant Foundation in honor of Evelyn G. Clyman; by a special grant from New York State Governor George E. Pataki administered by the Empire State Development Corporation, Charles A. Gargano, Chairman; by Susan and Leonard Feinstein; by the Joseph Alexander Foundation; and by The Jewish Museum's Second Century Society.
Programs to Accompany Exhibition
On Tuesday, May 3 and Wednesday, May 4 at 8 pm, The Jewish Museum will present an in-concert performance of Brundibar, a new version of the opera created by Maurice Sendak and playwright Tony Kushner in 2003. This special concert mixes music from Brundibar, performed by the Young People's Chorus of New York City along with instrumentalists and vocal soloists. Maurice Sendak will participate in a post-performance conversation with Tony Kushner.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Jewish Museum in Resource Library.
Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library Magazine for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2005 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.