As if to raise a curtain on the coming celebration of Maurice Sendak, the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum has unveiled a probing, multidimensional exhibit showing the back story of the children’s author and illustrator, whose “Where the Wild Things Are” is about to open as a major motion picture.
Heralded by high-decibel discussion, including a New York Times Magazine cover story, before its release, “Where the Wild Things Are” is directed by the eccentric Spike Jonze, based on a screenplay by Dave Eggers and produced by, among others, Tom Hanks and Sendak himself. All that, along with the movie’s star-power cast, is throwing the 81-year-old Brooklyn-born child of Jewish immigrants into an unprecedented spotlight.
But the San Francisco exhibit There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak, which opened on September 8, shows that the man whose most famous book was regarded as too scary for children by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim is in fact a great documentarian of how the nightmares of childhood are overcome.
Since 1951, Sendak has written and illustrated more than 100 children’s books and also has designed sets and costumes for operas, ballets and stage plays, some of the performances based on his own stories. His life and work invite renewed attention with There’s a Mystery There.
The San Francisco exhibit samples decades of Sendak’s gorgeous watercolors, pen and ink drawings, preliminary sketches and mock-ups of books, all on loan from the Rosenbach Museum & Library of Philadelphia. Sendak’s parents came from Eastern Europe and he incorporates some of his family’s history (and the faces of some relatives) into his art. The Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibit illuminates personal aspects of Sendak’s creativity as it explores the artist’s biography, his process and his sources of inspiration. This personal background, which could be called his own “Other Story,” can be detected within his storybooks; it includes Sendak’s loss of relatives in Poland during the Holocaust, and his father’s tales of shtetl life.
A fascinating, never published mock-up for the dust jacket of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories” (1966) portrays seven bearded, befuddled fools of Chelm standing over the book title, “The Devil’s Trick and Other Stories.” The book subsequently was re-titled and given a cover picture of a boy greeting a goat. (Perhaps someone didn’t want any reference made to the devil in a children’s book title; there’s a mystery here.) Sendak grew up in a household where Yiddish was spoken and Eastern European family life had not been forgotten. He pays tribute to shtetl culture with evocative black-and-white drawings for the Singer book and for “In Grandpa’s House” (1985), based on his father’s tales.
Another intriguing celebration of Jewish identity can be seen in the 1979 list of characters for an opera based on “Where the Wild Things Are.” Sendak called the opera’s female Wild Thing Tzippy and gave the bearded Wild Thing his own Yiddish name, Moishe. In a videotaped discussion of that production, he humorously admits that the opera’s premiere was “ghastly”: Actors nearly suffocated in the costumes Sendak designed, and children in the audience laughed most when one Wild Thing accidentally fell offstage into the orchestra pit. Sendak also confesses that the opera’s Wild Things “were saying terrible things” such as “wildechaya” (“wild kid or adult”) in Yiddish as part of their libretto.
Far more than Wild Things can be seen at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which displays more than 130 Sendak illustrations in four distinct, thematic groups: “Kids: Innocence and Experience,” “Beasts of Burden,” “Influences: Friends, Family and Inspirations” and “Settings”; each grouping facilitates discussion in captions and video interviews of “The Other Story” — the story behind his work. I would have added at least a fifth theme of “Social Justice for Children,” as it emerges strongly in some of the drawings for “Brundibar” (2003) and “We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy” (1993). “Dumps,” a tale replete with kidnappers, AIDS news and kids living next to large rats, turns the attention of parents and children to uncomfortable social situations — as do a number of Sendak’s stories.
The discomfort caused by some of the stories — Sendak’s deployment of monsters and brutes only a child can tame — may be part of their attraction. Other Sendak stories of homelessness and kidnapping, and his modern equivalents of Brothers Grimm barbarisms, could keep a child awake, too, as the books explore childhood fears in a universal picture language. But the innocents in the stories survive, and even thrive on challenges they face and so do those reading the stories. Moreover, once Sendak’s drawings are removed from the narrative action and framed individually on a museum wall, they seem less likely to disturb viewers than to enchant them with antic humor, color and invention.
Still, there is a dark, nightmarish aspect to some of the stories, particularly for those adults who see in the visual acknowledgments of Sendak’s Yiddish background images that evoke the Holocaust. “Brundibar,” with text by playwright Tony Kushner, portrays Czech Jewish ghetto children rebelling against a tyrant who resembles Hitler in an early Sendak sketch for the story. In a later draft, the tyrant turns into a more clownish bully, an organ grinder with Napoleonic hat and bluster; but the story of children resisting tyranny remains a poignant tribute to its sources: Czech composer Hans Krasa’s opera, and children in the Terezin concentration camp who sang about “Brundibar” in 1943 before they were sent to Auschwitz. On one level, the story is simply a fable in which children rally, sing (despite Brundibar’s objections) and drive away the town bully; but it alludes to far more disturbing events of the 1940s and, as in other Sendak works, more meets an adult eye than might be seen by a child.
This could explain why many of the drawings at the Contemporary Jewish Museum hang at a height more easily viewed by adults than by small children, as if the kids are not expected to see everything. Special exhibit features have been added for youngsters: a book corner where they can sit and read Sendak’s works, and a giant, wall-length blowup of the Wild Things dancing, in front of which I saw one 5-year-old boy joyously pose for his mother’s camera. The museum also has printed a special gallery guide for older children. But without question, Sendak is not merely a children’s illustrator. His superb stories and detailed drawings with their splendid colors, and the witty depictions of rebels, bullies, monsters, fools and adventurers, confirm Sendak’s position as an outstanding American artist, period. The precision and imagination of fantasies he draws rival at times those of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” Edward Lear’s “Book of Nonsense” and the “Alice in Wonderland” of Sir John Tenniel (Lewis Carroll’s illustrator).
For too long, in too many libraries and museums, there has been an unspoken prejudice against this kind of illustrated literature — consigning it to the world of children, as if adults cannot appreciate and enjoy Sendak’s playful world on its own terms, including Holocaust and shtetl references for which children may not be prepared. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Sendak once admitted that when he started out as an illustrator in the 1950s and ’60s, “children’s books were the bottom end of the totem pole. We didn’t even get invited to grown-up book parties at Harper’s.” Whether or not he is now invited to publisher parties, Sendak has changed the status of his profession. Illustrations such as his merit exhibition in museums, and his books should be appreciated by adults as suitable for adults, not just for children.
Joel Schechter teaches at San Francisco State University and is the author of “Messiahs of 1933” (Temple University Press 2008), a book about American Yiddish theater.