The wild one
'Just some kiddie book artist.' That's the label Maurice Sendak, author, artist, and opera designer, fought against for years.
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Sendak went to Manhattan in his early 20s, where he began what he calls a long apprenticeship, illustrating children's books written by others. He was largely a self-taught artist, though the works of European artists like Goya influenced him.Skip to next paragraph
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"Goya's portraiture," he says, "told me pictures could be strong, political, and sensual without turning them into a hack or being self-aggrandizing."
It was only after an editor suggested he write and illustrate his own book, that he began to achieve broader success. Several of his early books from the Nutshell Library, also are brought to life at the Skirball exhibit. The area based on "Chicken Soup with Rice," an homage to his Jewish mother, for whom chicken soup was a universal cure-all, offers children a huge bowl of styrofoam soup for kids to dive in.
The fulcrum of his life and the show, is of course, "Where the Wild Things Are." Children can dress up in Max's wolf costume and rumpus on their own with the many stuffed wild things around the display. But the selections of Sendak's handwritten journals tell a deeper, more painful side to the story, one that could not be told when the book was first published.
"The wild things really represent all the strange relatives coming from foreign lands who came to stay with the Sendaks because they were the first to establish a home in America," says curator Gilbert. "They hugged the little boy too hard, spoke words he couldn't understand and ate all the food in his house. Sendak was terrified of them," she says, and he used that sense of helplessness to create a character that still speaks to children today. "He wanted to give them a sense of power to fight their fears," she says, adding that he did not reveal this connection to real people until all these relatives had passed on.
After the huge success of "Wild Things," Sendak had the financial and artistic freedom to choose his assignments. "In the Night Kitchen," (1970) and "Outside Over There," (1981) completed the picture-book trilogy, he began with "Wild Things."
He pushed to have the last book published as both an adult and a children's story, but it was not successful. Once again, Sendak faced the unhappy prospect of being pigeonholed as "merely" a children's book illustrator. It would require several more decades during which attitudes toward children's literature changed and Sendak received more awards for his contributions before the recognition he sought would arrive. When it came in the form of the 1997 National Medal of Arts, he found he had outgrown the need.
"I was accepted at the grown-up party," he says, now with amusement. "The medal said, 'American Artist,' but by then," he adds, "I didn't need it." He feels the same over the debate of whether his work is considered fine art. "The distinctions of fine art bore me to death," he says. His work is all that matters to him now.
But for those in the wider world of illustrated children's literature, the battle is still being joined. As the éminence grise, Maurice Sendak sets the standard. "Snobbery is the biggest obstacle to him being recognized as a fine artist," says Nichols Clark, director of the new Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. "And it's not just Sendak. There are many illustrators who are far better artists than those who consider themselves fine artists."
The change in attitudes toward the field of illustration isn't going to happen overnight, says Mr. Clark, but it is happening. He points to steps forward like the refurbished reputation Norman Rockwell received after a recent retrospective.
"That was a major step in people beginning to recognize that people working in this genre need to be taken seriously," he says. If the market is any indication, the change is under way. Clark points to a sale of an illustration by children's book author Chris Van Allsburg for $65,000.
Sendak, meanwhile, continues to work on his latest project an opera based on a work that was performed by Jewish children in a Nazi death camp. Music, he says, is his first passion. He says one of his biggest disappointments in life is that he was born with no musical skills. Collaboration is the closest he gets. Besides, he says, hard work pleases his inner child.
"I'm still as enamored and turned on by work as I was when I was young," he says with a twinkle of satisfaction. "I'm still employed at 74. That's no small thing, I've come to appreciate."