A School Library Journal survey named Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” as the top picture book of 2012.
First published 50 years ago, “Wild Things” won the prestigious Caldecott Medal as the most distinguished children’s book of 1963. Twenty million copies have since been sold.
Yet “Where the Wild Things Are” was controversial out of the gate; at first it was widely banned. This might sound hard to believe, but the American Library Association listed Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” among the 25 most challenged and banned books in America during the 1990s.
In other words, Sendak (1928-2012), who passed away last year, is both one of the most controversial and most beloved children’s book authors in American history.
This makes “Maurice Sendak: 50 years, works, reasons” a particularly apt show for the Portland Public Library’s handsome Lewis Gallery. It’s an exciting, entertaining and challenging show celebrating a fundamentally important piece of American culture. While it features images made for and inspired by “Wild Things,” the exhibition is testament to Sendak’s range – drawings, paintings, prints, theatrical design, an eye-catching 1974 animated short, and even an A+ student project (at age 15) illustrating Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
While the original art for “Wild Things” resides at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, “50 Years” features dozens of works in Sendak’s own hand alongside its echoes in various media.
One of Maine’s most significant exhibitions of 2012 was the PPL’s Edward Gorey show. “Fifty Years” doesn’t quite equal the Gorey exhibition’s curatorial elegance, but it more than makes up for that with its poignance and appeal.
My 9-year old son said it was his favorite art show. My 11-year old son also loved it, but came away with some tough questions. Sendak’s bio on the wall starts with a line item about the Lindberg baby and then indicates that in 1941, Sendak’s family – who lived in Brooklyn – learned that everyone from the village of his father’s family had been killed or carted off to concentration camps by the Nazis (they were Polish Jews). Sendak said this “terrible” reality defined his childhood.
Sendak’s power as an artist and author stems from his unwillingness to pretend that childhood is a safe place free of angst, anger and psychological chaos. Max, the protagonist of “Wild Things,” is moody and surly. He undergoes a Jekyll-to-Hyde-and-back transformation and winds up with a story like the Prodigal Son writ small on a young and grumpy day. Ultimately, Max is welcomed back from being sent to his room by a still-hot dinner left for him by a loving parent.
Kids relate to the descent into and return from an angry episode into the warmth of a familial embrace.
Most memorable, however, are Sendak’s illustrations. “Fifty Years” features his “wild things” in drawings for books, posters and drawings for fans. There are commissions, etchings, watercolors, pencil drawings and even a bronze sculpture.
There is a commercial edge to selections that reveals the sponsoring gallery’s presence (AFA NYC), but this shadow doesn’t squelch Sendak’s fiercely authentic originality. In fact, his casual drawings for fans do much to reveal the intense density of his forms. Sendak’s birthday note drawing of Mickey Mouse, for example, masterfully uses open forms (every line isn’t part of a closed, outlined shape) that feel very different than the outlined and cross-hatched monsters of “Wild Things.”
But I am disappointed about the inclusion of costume design drawings made by Constantine Sekeris for the 2009 Spike Jonze film, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Sekeris draws in a beautiful old master style, but they have no business in a Sendak show. Worst of all, one of Sekeris’s drawings was used for the huge exhibition title graphic that can be seen from the main floor of the PPL. It irked me that my kids were misled into thinking these were particularly impressive Sendak drawings.
But moving past the ethical stain on AFA’s commercial veneer, Sendak’s pencil drawings and watercolors are everything you could want them to be.
“Wild Things” follows a protagonist – Max – with a perpetrator streak (his chasing the dog down the stairs with a fork doesn’t go over well with Max’s mom) through psychologically internal struggles. It touches the same literary realm as Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and E.T.A Hoffmann (my sons’ first encounter with Sendak comprised his designs for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker”). The cover of “Wild Things” – with its sleeping monster – makes a compelling case for its being a dream novel (traumnovelle).
The big difference, of course, is that Sendak is writing after Freud and Surrealism.
Staying with “Wild Things” as a visual art journey, we see Max’s drawing of a Wild Thing pinned to the wall while he chases his dog down the stairs. This helps us see the Wild Things not just as the products of Max’s imagination but as visual art – an idea backed by the fact that the Wild Things are heavily crosshatched in an engraving style (an art/illustration convention), but Max is not.
Underlying “Wild Things” is a logic tying it to Pirandello’s 1921 seminal absurdist play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” But from a Jungian or Freudian perspective, there is nothing absurd about the latent energies or developmental roles hard-wired in children: They are endemic and – as ill-fitting as the word seems – normal. And this is why so many children found and related to “Wild Things” even when the book was banned; Sendak didn’t give them rosy-cheeked apples and fresh spinach cheering upward bound choo-choos, he showed children their impulses and bad dreams were part of growing up and could even be harnessed to produce great things.
Sendak was a brilliant author, but he will always be remembered as one of America’s greatest and most beloved artists.
When Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) was asked about whom he most admired, he responded: “Sendak, Sendak, Sendak.”
And who am I to argue with Dr. Seuss?
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: