Beginning Friday, the Portland Public Library will show 50 works by the late children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak, considered by many to be the grandmaster of the art form.
“Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sendak’s best-known book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” On view through Oct. 25, the show features original works from the book, including sketches, illustrations and works on paper, as well as 50 statements from famous people who opine about Sendak’s influence on their lives.
“Maurice Sendak helped raise my kids,” writes actor Tom Hanks.
“I would look at those pictures — where Max’s bedroom turns into a forest — and there was something that felt like magic there,” said movie director Spike Jonze.
The exhibition is a collaboration between the library and Maine College of Art. MECA’s illustration department chairman, illustrator Scott Nash, began an annual exhibition of children’s book illustrators last year. Edward Gorey was the first, and now comes Sendak.
That’s two giants in two years.
“I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Maurice Sendak is one of the most important children’s book artists of our time. He reinvented the way we think about modern children’s books,” said Nash, who has written and illustrated many children’s books himself, including “Flat Stanley” by Jeff Brown and “Saturday Night at the Dinosaur Stomp” by Carol Diggory Shields. “He was part of a group of rogue artists who entered into the world of children’s books and shook things up back in the late ’50s up to the present day.
“He is, for many artists involved in children’s books, the seminal artist.”
Sendak (1928-2012) illustrated more than 100 books in his career. He received many honors for his work, include a Caldecott Award, a Newberry Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, a National Book Award and a National Medal of Arts.
But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was elevating the children’s book to an important literary form to be taken seriously, Nash said.
Sendak seemed to weave Old World influences with his modern approach to design. The book felt as much like the early work of 17th-century Netherlands painter Hieronymus Bosch, who was known for his fantastical imagery. “But Sendak contemporized them and made them relevant to the modern era,” Nash said.
Following the success of the Gorey show in 2012, Nash knew he had to find something big as a follow-up. He put out a call on Facebook, asking people what they would like to see.
“Sendak kept coming up over and over again,” he said. “About three days into it, up popped a note from a friend who said, ‘Scott, if you want to do a Maurice Sendak show, I know the guy you need to talk to.’ By putting the call out there, I got a direct connection to the person I needed to talk to.”
The exhibition came together quickly. It’s a traveling show, stopping at spaces across the country.
Nash was born in 1959, four years before “Where the Wild Things Are” was published. He was older, past his childhood, when he delved deeply into the book.
“I had a visceral reaction to it,” he said. “It felt very different from other contemporary children’s books that people were reading.”
While Sendak is best-known for his work in the publishing world, his talents went beyond books and included designs for costumes and stage sets for the opera.
The diversity and range of his work inspired other artists to expand their artistic reach in turn, Nash said.
“I’ve always said that being an artist gives us a license to meddle in a bunch of different media,” Nash said, noting his own work in animation and gaming. “Sendak is an inspiration for that. He said, ‘I can also do an opera set. I can do theater.’
“He did not set boundaries.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: