The wild one
'Just some kiddie book artist.' That's the label Maurice Sendak, author, artist, and opera designer, fought against for years.
For generations of children who are now parents and grandparents, author and illustrator Maurice Sendak inhabits a special realm where the demigods of our youth have gone to live.Skip to next paragraph
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Simply put, he changed the lives of children around the globe with his stories about Max who wouldn't eat dinner, and Rosie who bossed everyone from her front stoop, and Pierre who could only say I don't care.
These were not the sugarcoated tots of our parents' kiddie books these were cantankerous, lively, mischievous beings that many among us believed finally told the real stories of how we lived and felt as young children.
When "Where the Wild Things Are" was published in 1963, it caused a furor librarians banned it for being "too frightening" and psychologists condemned it as "too dark." But children embraced it and the story about the boy who went to rumpus with the Wild Things changed not only their lives, but the literature forever.
"He made his mark both by being a very good artist and breaking down the taboos that had characterized children's books," says art critic and author Leonard Marcus. "The emotional range he brought was unprecedented."
The book won him the coveted Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book, but not the respect he craved as an artist. He never forgot that he was basically a boy from Brooklyn who had never gone to college. When the awards began to come in, he craved larger recognition. "I wanted to be acknowledged as an artist," he says, "not just some kiddie-book artist."
While he has written or illustrated more than 90 books, Mr. Sendak also has collaborated with numerous opera companies and even a modern dance company, continually pushing the boundaries of his art. A feature film based on "Wild Things" is slated for next year. Now, two museum shows, one on each coast, place Sendak securely at the forefront of a broader national discussion about the lines between functional art and fine art.
"It's a matter of cultural prejudice that we view illustration as being a lesser art," says Mr. Marcus. Adds Ann Temkin, curator of contemporary and modern art at the Philadelphia Art Museum, "It's a far more open environment today for thinking about artists in disciplines that once might have been quarantined or seen in limited fashion, and that would certainly include book illustrators."
The traveling exhibit, "Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak in his own Words and Pictures," now in Los Angeles at the Skirball Cultural Center, examines his work in the context of his family being Holocaust survivors.
Next month, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art opens its doors in Amherst, Mass., with a show honoring Sendak's career as a fine-art illustrator.
"Children's books were always very pretty," says Barbara Gilbert, curator of fine arts for the Skirball. "But Sendak wanted them to be honest." Think of the dark power of Chris Van Allsburg's "Jumanji" to understand Sendak's legacy to younger writer/illustrators.
As the third and youngest child of an immigrant Jewish family living in New York, Sendak says honesty meant portraying the childhood he knew one full of great loss, fear, and boredom. "Children didn't have summer camps in the Brooklyn he knew," Ms. Gilbert says, "so they were left to their own resources."
Sendak's parents considered him a frail child and often kept him indoors. His childhood, full of a housebound poverty and Jewish relatives fleeing Europe in the 1930s and '40s, marked him for life.
"I can't say exactly why," says Sendak, "but I am still trying to filter through all that business in my life and turn it into art." The interactive display at the Skirball makes direct and poignant connections between his childhood and his books.
First stop for visitors as they enter: Rosie's front stoop, based on the heroine of his third book, "The Sign on Rosie's Door," (1960). The real counterpart in Sendak's life was a neighbor girl who entertained herself and countless other children during the dark war years with her theatricals and parties.
Sendak passed many hours of his young adulthood sketching the troops of children as they entertained themselves under Rosie's stern watch. "Rosie was my escape," says Sendak. "It was like settling into another world just to watch her."
Children can dress up in Rosie's costumes and perform in her makeshift theater. The author says there is a bit of Rosie in every book written after 1949, when he first began drawing her, for she also awoke in him an awareness of the role art would play in his life. "It dawned on me that art was the way I could survive."