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There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak

Wildly Wonderful

Many of us grew up with Max and his wolf suit, wishing that we, too, could go and rule where the wild things are, far away from the everyday problems of family and school and being a kid. The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak presents this familiar childhood favorite, and many others written and/or illustrated by Maurice Sendak, in a way that not only reminds audiences of why they loved Where The Wild Things Are as a child, but also why that book, and Sendak’s work in general, still has relevance -- for adults as well as for children.

An exhibition of over one hundred works -- including complete books, preliminary and final drawings, as well as Sendak’s “dummy” books -- Sendak on Sendak brings together a sampling of Maurice Sendak’s work and organizes it to reveal common themes and influences, many of which lie deeply hidden beneath the beautifully rendered drawings and whimsical stories. Influenced by everything from the Lindbergh kidnapping to the Holocaust to Van Gogh and Mozart, Sendak infuses his illustrations not only with a fanciful beauty, but also with what he terms the “Other Story”-- the story within the story of which he says, “that’s the story I am telling the children.”

Sendak’s illustrations are unquestionably wonderful, often both playful and elegant but always masterful, yet the secrets that lie within them, the “Other Story", are often surprising and quite grave. The Holocaust in particular looms large for Sendak; while he grew up in Brooklyn, much of his family was killed in the Holocaust, leaving a deep imprint on him. A final drawing for Dear Mili, a fairy tale by the Grimm brothers, not only incorporates a guard tower from Auschwitz looming over a group of children slowly marching across a bridge, but also hides emaciated bodies and the shapes of human bones in the twisted and crooked trees.

Another nightmarish event that made its mark on the young Maurice was the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping. Several drawings from Sendak’s book, Outside Over There, the story of a girl whose baby sister is stolen away by goblins, show his preoccupation with this event. While still fantastic and a bit quirky, the illustrations from this book are somewhat more realistic, employing heavy use of shading and more detailed renderings rather than the simple lines and colors of many of his other works, exhibiting Sendak’s full range.

These illustrations, along with those of The House of Sixty Fathers (a story about the Japanese invasion of China during WWII), reveal the extent to which Sendak sought to use a variety of drawing techniques and styles to best capture the spirit of a particular story and to appeal to different audiences. The Holocaust, homeless children, kidnapping, invasions; these do not sound like the types of ideas and images that typically appear in children’s books. Yet, Sendak regularly sneaks in (and sometimes makes central) these difficult topics.

Even his “milder” works take on challenging issues such as children fully expressing their wide range of emotions, in turn being angry, stubborn, disdainful, playful, worried, and kind. Sendak’s exceptional talent for capturing gesture and expression make the illustrations of books such as Where the Wild Things Are and Pierre both immensely entertaining and exceptionally authentic. Included in the exhibition are photographs of children (in all states of motion and emotion) from which Sendak often drew in order to more faithfully depict his characters.

In addition to his interest in the Brothers Grimm, Mark Twain, William Blake, and Herman Melville, Sendak also had an abiding fascination with scenery and stage setting, and in fact became a stage designer for a time. An entire section of the exhibition, entitled Setting: Cityscapes, Landscapes, and the Moon, is devoted to this facet of Sendak’s work. Here visitors are reminded of both the delightful and the magnificent settings of many of Sendak’s stories -- the beautiful city skyline of In The Night Kitchen; the eerie and foreboding forest of Dear Mili (along with its references to Auschwitz); the mystical, primeval jungle of Where The Wild Things Are.

While Sendak on Sendak is an exhibition of illustrations for children’s books, one that includes truly kid-friendly factors such as a family guide to the exhibition, special family days, and a fun Sendak-centered menu in the café, it is also an exhibition that reveals children’s literature as a vehicle for presenting complex issues that affect children and adults alike.

What the exhibition seeks to do, and achieves masterfully, is to reveal the many influences that underlie the works of Maurice Sendak, both his own works and his illustrations for other works. In its thematic juxtaposition of the pieces, the exhibition unveils the “Other Story", giving viewers a taste of the deeply fascinating, and sometimes deeply disturbing, messages Sendak sought to convey while at the same time showing the extent of his wonderful talent. It is also, of course, just in time for the forthcoming film version of Where the Wild Things Are.

Contemporary Jewish Museum
Runs September 8, 2009 through January 19, 2010
Tickets: Free - $10