If next month’s theatrical release of Where the Wild Things Are has got you reminiscing over the fanciful linework of one Maurice Sendak, you’re in for a treat. The Contemporary Jewish Museum‘s (CJM) exhibit “Sendak on Sendak: There’s a Mystery There,” opening today, offers an interactive smorgasbord of the illustrator’s art, writings, and musings.
One thing this exhibit makes clear: you don’t need to be a minor to connect with Maurice Sendak’s work. There are raw and grown up themes heavily embedded in these illustrations. Wandering through the exhibit with or without a small person, a visitor can see that the artistry of Sendak’s illustration is not just in the lovably unruly Maxes, Pierres and Mickeys he creates, but also in the real and troubling emotions and experiences he evokes amidst the fantasy.
Known best for Wild Things, Sendak’s prolific career as an author and illustrator has spanned over forty years, resulting in dozens of original works, as well as illustrations of others’ writings. Sometimes criticized for portraying sad or frightening situations, Sendak seems to pride himself on portraying children’s emotional lives with depth. In fact, the CJM’s family guide for the exhibit takes pains to caution parents that the exhibit shows “children acting out powerful emotions,” but encourages them to see this as “a truthful telling of childhood that includes a mix of joyful and unpleasant but important emotional truths.”
“Fantasy makes sense only if it is rooted ten feet deep in reality,” says Sendak in one of the many quotations displayed throughout the exhibit. Sendak’s reality teems with dangers and demons. “Demonic people, wild things, something in disorder that races through the world, and that we have to live with,” Sendak explains. Max tames the Wild Things, while in Pierre, the ultimate wild child shouts, “I don’t care!” at each adult admonition.
Less obvious to readers of all ages might be the additional layers of meaning within Sendak’s illustrations. The exhibit highlights the artist’s penchant for hiding outside symbolism and storylines within his illustrations. “You have to find something unique in [each book], which perhaps the author was not entirely aware of,” says the artist. “And that’s what you add to the pictures, that whole ‘other story’ that you believe in.”
Many of these “other stories” came from the artist’s childhood in 1930’s and 40’s New York. Sendak’s immigrant family loved storytelling, and young Maurice developed his style while relating movie plots to the other kids in his Bensonhurst, Brooklyn neighborhood.
With this in mind, Sendak’s visual references to both New York City and old world Jewish culture pop out at museum-goers. The cover of In The Night Kitchen shows child protagonist Mickey flying in a dream past milk cartons, salt shakers and bread boxes stacked up like sky scrapers. Explains Sendak, “Night Kitchen… reflects a popular American art both crass and oddly surrealistic, an art that encompasses the Empire State Building, syncopated Disney cartoons, and aluminum-clad comic book heroes.”
Hints at an Eastern European sensibility surface in many ways. An illustration of the artist himself with several of his well-known characters for Time Magazine shows Sendak dressed in 19th century shtetl garb, a common theme in other pieces.
Themes of sadness and loss also come from Sendak’s childhood, when he suffered greatly from the loss of many family members in the Holocaust, including cousins of his own age. Sendak has expressed in interviews his belief that children are aware of life’s darker truths, as he was as a child. This shows in works like Outside Over There, in which goblins kidnap a baby while her older sister’s back is turned. The young Ida learns that she has to be vigilant while her parents are preoccupied. Images in the background even suggest that Ida’s father has died at sea in a shipwreck.
While all this might sound like too much for young ones expecting playful Wild Things, the family guide provided by the museum provides a list of questions parents can ask kids to help navigate themes of strong emotions. Preschooler days are scheduled on the second Sundays of September through December, in which displays will be at tot-level, and movement classes and performances will take place.
“Sendak on Sendak” will be on display through January 10th.