THE ARTS 09.04.09
THE ARTS 09.04.09

Opening the book on Maurice Sendak: CJM exhibit plumbs the depths of noted author-illustrator

Maurice Sendak is having a good year.

Nearly 50 years after his beloved picture book “Where the Wild Things Are” was first published, it has been made into a highly anticipated live-action film opening Oct. 16.

And on Tuesday, Sept. 8, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco will open a major retrospective of the writer-illustrator’s work, titled “There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak.”

The timing of the two events is a coincidence, but the CJM isn’t complaining. “We’re thrilled to have the synergy between the two,” said Dara Solomon, the CJM’s associate curator.

Although the 81-year-old Sendak made a name for himself in the 1960s and ’70s with classic children’s books such as “In the Night Kitchen” and “One Was Johnny,” he’s never stopped working. His latest book, “Mommy?,” was published in 2006.

And though he’s best known for the dozens of books he wrote and illustrated, Sendak also created the artwork for hundreds of books written by others.

“There’s a Mystery There,” which runs through Jan. 19, 2010, will feature more than 100 watercolors, drawings and sketches by Sendak — including many that have never before been displayed, along with video footage of interviews with the author.

The exhibit was created by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. The San Francisco exhibition is sponsored by the Koret and Taube Foundations, as well as the Louise and Claude Rosenberg Jr. Family Foundation, the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund, and Julie and David Levine. The national tour is presented by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, the younger of two sons.

When Sendak was 4 years old, the son of American aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and later found murdered. It was a pivotal moment in Sendak’s life.

Fearful that he, too, would be kidnapped, Sendak made his father sleep on the floor of his bedroom. And after Sendak overheard his uncle telling his father, Philip, that no one would want to take his children, Sendak never forgave his uncle. When drawing “Where the Wild Things Are” in the early ’60s, he gave the ugliest Wild Thing his uncle’s face.

“I waited all my life to get even with him,” Sendak said in an interview that will be one of several shown on video screens around the CJM exhibit. “Of course, you wouldn’t recognize him, so I had to write a letter to him and inform him, and they never spoke to me again.”

The themes of childhood kidnapping and death also informed much of Sendak’s later work, including the baby-snatching goblins in his book “Outside Over There,” and the evil gang of rats in “We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy.”

Sendak suffered pneumonia as a child, which led his parents to keep him mostly indoors. Alone in his room, he made up stories and watched other children play outside. “He became an observer even when he himself was a child,” Solomon said. “It helped him create his style of bubbly children.”


Final drawing for “Mommy?” drawing/courtesy of the contemporary jewish museum

In 1947, shortly after graduating from high school, Sendak created his first book of illustrations, called “Atomics for the Millions.” In 1951 he illustrated his first children’s book, Marcel Aymé’s “The Wonderful Farm,” and in 1956 came “Kenny’s Window,” the first book he both wrote and illustrated.

“Where the Wild Things Are,” the story of a boy named Max who runs away from home to a magical land populated by monsters, was published in 1963. It won the 1964 Caldecott Medal, the highest honor for an American picture book.

Much of Sendak’s artistic inspiration came from the Jewish and Italian children he observed on the streets of Bensonhurst, his neighborhood in Brooklyn. The character of Rosie, from “The Sign on Rosie’s Door,” was a real girl whom Sendak observed from the window of his parents’ apartment while she played with her friends.

“I am trying to draw the way children feel, or rather the way I imagine they feel,” Sendak said in a 1966 interview. “It’s the way I know I felt as a child.”

Sendak’s depiction of rowdy, even naughty children was revolutionary for the 1960s, an era in which most picture books featured obedient, passive children, according to Solomon, curator of the CJM exhibit.

“He wanted to show that children do get unhappy, they get jealous, they get angry, and that’s OK,” Solomon said. “These are real emotions that children feel. This is what makes him unique.”

In addition to the childhood fears that stayed with Sendak, he was deeply troubled by the specter of the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of many family members who’d remained in Poland.

For “Brundibar,” a 2003 book and stage production written by Tony Kushner and illustrated by Sendak — based on an opera created by Jews during the Holocaust — Sendak’s original villain (later changed to a bullying child) was Adolf Hitler. “I was determined to get even this way,” Sendak said.

To emphasize Sendak’s Holocaust themes, the CJM added pieces not seen in the original Philadelphia exhibit, including artwork from “Dear Mili,” an unpublished work based on a story by fairy tale author Wilhelm Grimm.

Since Grimm’s tales were set in Germany, Sendak decided to use “Dear Mili” as a Holocaust parable.

“In beautiful forest landscapes you see the smokestacks of Auschwitz. Some of the trees look like bones, remnants from concentration camps,” Solomon said. “That’s what’s so wonderful about Sendak — he works on so many different levels.”

Not all of his Jewish-themed work is Holocaust-related. Solomon noted that the exhibit will contain several pieces from Sendak’s book “Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories,” a collection of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Sendak’s illustrations were likely inspired by photographs of his family’s life in the shtetls of Poland.

“There’s a Mystery There,” located in the CJM’s first-floor gallery, is divided into four main themes: Sendak’s children, monsters, influences and settings.

“Although on paper they just divide up the content, they are actually able to tell this very complete story of Sendak’s life and career,” Solomon said. “His biography is woven through the exhibition. You’re constantly learning about Sendak through his work.”

The exhibit will include a space for young visitors to enjoy Sendak’s work. There will be a bookshelf with copies of most of his children’s books, and a carpeted area with a mural of a Sendak illustration, beanbag chairs and small tables where children can sit and read.

In addition to several Sendak-themed classes and lectures for adults, there will be a number of events for children, including a “Wild Things”–inspired costume-making day and a preschool hour on Sept. 13, Oct. 11 and Nov. 8 (during which the museum will open an hour early to give preschoolers a special view of the exhibit).

“Maurice Sendak has been so beloved by children for three, four generations,” Solomon said. “We’ve added some really good works to enrich this show — I’m really excited about it.”

“There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak” runs Tuesday, Sept. 8 through Jan. 19, 2010 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Admission is $5-$10. For more information, call (415) 655-7800 or visit