The wild one
'Just some kiddie book artist.' That's the label Maurice Sendak, author, artist, and opera designer, fought against for years.
LOS ANGELES — 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.
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."
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.
"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."