PRINT May 1971

The Art of Maurice Sendak

THE QUALITY OF ORIGINALITY is often strained in our judgments of artists, be they painters, sculptors or illustrators of children’s books. In a recent profile of Louise Nevelson in the Sunday Times Magazine, the sculptor speaks of her earliest encouragement by an art teacher in grade school: “. . . She held this up [Louise’s drawing of a flower] and said it was the best because it was original. That word was very big to a child. I clocked it; I knew that to be original was what it was all about.”

Perhaps the most refreshing impression one took from the recent exhibition of “The Art of Maurice Sendak” (December 6, 1970—March 28, 1971) at the Philip H. & A. S. W. Rosenbach Foundation in Philadelphia is how little originality of style counts in the evaluation of this master illustrator’s art. Marking the artist’s gift to that institution of the bulk of his original drawings, and spanning the whole of Sendak’s career to date—from his first earnest efforts for Marcel Ayme’s The Wonderful Farm (1951) to several faultless drawings from his latest picture book, In the Night Kitchen (1970)—the work exhibited comprises a moving record of the slow mastery of style, of several styles, of any style in fact, that happened to serve the Sendak work at hand.

Given our valuation of originality, such a prelude may appear to derogate the artist’s work. On the contrary, it is high tribute to an illustrator who, from the outset of his career, has steadily rated inner content above self-indulgent graphic flamboyance. What is wholly original in Sendak has been so since his first rather pedestrian drawings (not exhibited in the current show) for a little-known work published by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, Good Shabbos, Everybody (1951): his uncanny ability to make palpable the emotional reality of any tale, the atmosphere in which its child and adult characters exist, and the psychological spark of life which at once unites and separates each of them. There are already in the gestures and expressions of the grandparents and small children in that earliest work, as well as in the claustrophobic sense of Jewish family solidarity he there projects, a preview of the delicate and more universal portrayal of childhood happiness and security Sendak began to create six years later for Else Holmelund Minarik’s five Little Bear books. Looked at one way, the Rosenbach show chronicles Sendak’s rise from parochial and humble Brooklyn beginnings as a self-taught cartoonist, onward and upward into the aristocracy of children’s book illustrators, a fit companion for Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott or the gifted French illustrator Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel.

Though unchallenged as the leading children’s book illustrator of our time, Sendak, as viewed at the Rosenbach, seemed oddly out of joint with the mainstream of American children’s book illustration in the ’50s and ’60s. During an era when bold use of color, abstract design, outsize format and showy technical virtuosity abounded, his work has always remained low-key, curiously retrograde and 19th-century in spirit. From the exhibited selections, made by both the artist and Clyde Driver, the Foundation’s young curator, Sendak clearly emerges as a conscientious and respectful student of the past, an innovator within a long tradition rather than a smasher of stylistic idols. As Sendak himself has put it: “I borrowed techniques and tried to forge them into a personal language.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Sendak is almost wholly self-taught. Though he and his older brother Jack drew pictures from childhood on and even bound their own books of tales, Maurice received little formal art training. He studied art in high school—about the only subject he enjoyed—and worked after school and on weekends for All-American Comics filling in backgrounds for such strips as Mutt and Jeff. His first full-time job after high school was at a Manhattan window display house where he remained until 1948 when he and Jack tried to start their own business, manufacturing animated wooden toys. The carving and engineering were Jack’s province, the painting and decorating Maurice’s. Two of their creations are in the current exhibition, one an ingenious Red Riding Hood tableau in which the wolf springs from grandma’s bed when the child activates a lever.

Though the brothers had no success marketing their handiwork the toys were too expensive to produce in quantity F.A.O. Schwarz did hire Maurice for its own window display department. While working there, he briefly attended night classes at the Art Students League and, through the store’s book buyer, met Ursula Nordstrom, the children’s editor of Harper & Row, who invited him to illustrate his first full-fledged entry into children’s books, Marcel Aymé’s The Wonderful Farm.

Sendak considers much of the published and unpublished work he did in the early ’50s as a sort of intensified working apprenticeship. One way or other, the artist had been preparing himself for his career since childhood. During his early teens, Sendak recalls, “I spent hundreds of hours sitting at my window, sketching neighborhood children at play there is not a book I have written or picture I have drawn that does not, in some way, owe them its existence!’ (The black-and-white line drawings for A Hole Is to Dig, his first collaboration with Ruth Krauss and the book that brought him his earliest fame, owe their existence to this sketchbook.) Then, too, between the ages of 16 and 18, long before he had ever received a formal book commission, Sendak illustrated several books strictly for his own pleasure, among them Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp, Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Hans Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Though none of these early efforts appears in the present show, they are ultimately promised to the Rosenbach Foundation in Sendak’s will. ”I couldn’t bear to part with them now,“ the artist says. ”When I look at them, they remind me of my state of mind at that time, an apartment I lived in and a street where I was very happy."

The seven books he illustrated for Meindert de Jong during the early ’50s represented a gradual broadening of his graphic technique. He feels that the realistic demands made by de Jong’s stories, set as they were in a variety of locales unfamiliar to him, required that he do research outside his own immediate experience, find new modes of expression—in short to move out of Brooklyn. In these tales hemoved as well from the pen and ink line drawings of his earlier work to experiments with brush and wash.

At the same time Sendak was developing his technique along conventional lines in his published work, he was moving in quite another direction in sketchbooks filled with fantasy pages done for his own diversion during the years 1952–1957. Selections from this collection comprise the only catalog there is to the Rosenbach show, and they further confirm the constancy of the artist’s inner vision. Themes—obsessions, perhaps—which are to play so central a role in all his own later work (children falling through space, being devoured, losing their clothes, cavorting in the altogether and ending up at a feast or safe in bed after an assortment of harrowing adventures) are all touched upon in these freely-executed pen sketches, each sequence drawn within the playing-time span of a single piece of music. “Often I worked to chamber music,” the artist recalls, “and best were the short piano pieces that practically guaranteed a page finished safely.” Sendak remembers these drawings fondly as “the only homework to which I energetically applied myself, the only school that ever taught me anything.” The pages, some perfunctory in execution and others of high polish and charm, comprised a sort of graphic free-association process through which the artist liberated both imagination and hand for the more personal works to come during his most productive decade, the ’60s.

The first book Sendak both wrote and illustrated, Kenny’s Window, in 1956, is a dreamy and still tentative evocation of the Brooklyn boy he must have been and possibly rediscovered through his musical improvisations. As the viewer threaded his way among well-lit cases and along well-filled walls in the two small rooms which comfortably contained the entire exhibition, it became apparent that Sendak’s vision comes into sharp focus between the years 1957 and 1962. His surer touch begins to show in such works as Little Bear (1957) which marks the start of his romance with the great German and English illustrators of the 19th century; his painterly The Moon Jumpers (1959), which distinctly promises the later Where the Wild Things Are, and his own The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960),are far more in focus graphically and verbally than either of the prior books he did on his own. Other works of these years, No Fighting, No Biting (1958) and What Do You Say, Dear? (1958) also move into the 19th century, the place which was to be Sendak’s spiritual home for some time to come. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, too, Sendak also grows more interested in the niceties of bookmaking. End papers begin to loom large, and ornamental page borders. One also begins to be aware of influences consciously and effectively used.

At various times, to different interviewers, Sendak has provided a varying list of those artists who have deeply marked his work. The names range from William Blake whom he calls “the chief head influence on my art” to the Frenchman, Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel, from Thomas Rowlandson to Heinrich Hoffmann, from the English Victorian illustrators, Arthur Hughes and George Pinwell, to the turn-of-thecentury American comic-strip artist Winsor McCay. In another vein, he has also mentioned the ’30s movie extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, Buster Keaton, King Kong and Mickey Mouse as materially influencing his art. And just last June when he accepted the highest international honor accorded an illustrator of children’s books, the Hans Christian Andersen Awards Illustrator’s Medal in Bologna, Italy, he mentioned yet another influence, Attilio Mussino, an illustrator of Collodi’s Pinocchio. Of this artist Sendak told his listeners: “My eyes were opened by the offhand virtuosity of the man, the ease with which he commanded a variety of styles, controlled them all, blending them and still managing to keep them subservient to the tale. He taught me at one and the same time respect for finish and style as well as a certain disregard for these qualities. Style counts, I now saw, only insofar as it conveys the inner meaning of the text being illustrated.” He might have been talking about himself as he appears through the show’s selections.

Time and again as the viewer wanders between the adjoiningrooms of the exhibition, he is struck by the persistence of Sendak’s imagery from the outset of his career. The earliest work in the exhibition aside from a Mickey Mouse drawn by “Murray Sendak” at age 8 is a small oil painting of a childhood friend, Rosie, lent by the artist’s brother and dated 1948. Through the primitive brushwork and sentimental characterization, true Sendak lovers quickly recognize the prototype for black-eyed Mimmy in Good Shabbos of 1951 and the more polished Rosie of The Sign on Rosie’s Door nine years later. There is also a recurring, soggy-legged lion who appears in a work illustrated for his brother Jack’s book, Circus Girl (1957) and in his own Higglety Pigglety Pop a decade later. The lion is memorable because he hasn’t changed at all. Early and late, his foreleg is so badly conceived as to look like nothing so much as a well-stuffed lion suit. (The lion in his Nutshell Library volume, Pierre, suffers the same lion-suit syndrome but being a broader rendition it is less obtrusive.) Though consistently badly drawn, the lion is curiously electric, magical in effect.

As more and more in the early ’60s Sendak settled into the 19th century, “early and late,” he acquired and discarded a variety of styles with ease. The viewer sees in a juxtaposition of a Rowlandson drawing borrowed from the Philadelphia Museum how much his work for Lullabies and Good Night Songs (1965) —and The Bee Man of Orn and The Griffin and the Minor Canon somewhat earlier owes to this early 19th-century caricaturist. A Blake drawing from The Gates of Paradise can be seen as a decidedinfluence on, of all lighthearted works, The Nutshell Library, just as the work of a Blake protégé, Samuel Palmer, clearly had a marked effect on both the near visionary illustrations for Randall Jarrell’s The Bat-Poet (1964) and The Animal Family (1965). Randolph Caldecott, too, recurs as an influence in several works. (Sendak even dips pen to him by branding his initials on the saddle of one of his own “Caldecott” drawings.) In 1962, perhaps resisting the pull into Victoriana and an ever more fussy concern with Cross-hatching and the imitation of steel engravings, Sendak makes a new departure and comes briefly under the sway of Winslow Homer’s watercolors. A sketch of Bermuda placed beside a Sendak illustration for Charlotte Zolotow’s Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present shows how the artist emulated not only Homer’s seemingly effortless technique but takes over Homer’s composition almost brazenly.

Yet, in the end, the intensity of Sendak’s personal vision effaces all questions of borrowings and influences. As authors increase their vocabularies, so Sendak simply adds techniques to his graphic repertoire; all such borrowings are always in the service of his own vision.

Accompanying his increased reliance on both the German and English illustrators of the 19th century was Sendak’s increased dependence on family photographs. As one caption, written with the artist’s concurrence puts it, “The look of people frozen in time, the look of the photograph has been turned to personal affect ” Many of the drawings for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories (1966) derive directly from old-world family photographs of his grandparents and great aunts and uncles. The baby in his Higglety Pigglety Pop (1967) is copied almost exactly from a. family photograph of himself as an infant, as is another photograph of his brother Jack transposed into a drawing for a Randall Jarrell memorial volume. In Higglety, too, several drawings are screen memories of toys, street scenes and objects that Sendak remembers from his childhood as if they were photographed or etched in his mind.

In the two works closest to his heart, Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and In the Night Kitchen (1970), Sendak feels the dominant influences were cinematic: King Kong in the former and, in some wholly unconscious way, The Gold Diggers of 1935 in the latter. (By six, Sendak was a frequent companion of his mother on Friday night forays to the movies—to get the free dish of the week—and he saw such films at an impressionable age.) Many who know the work of the American comic-strip artist, Winsor McCay, feel much more is owed to his strip Little Nemo in Slumberland which has much the same format and even sequences remarkably close in spirit to Sendak’s world of the night kitchen. But Sendak is, above all, eclectic in his borrowings. There is a page from the German artist Wilhelm Busch’s classic Max and Moritz in the exhibition showing a baker popping two dough-crusted boys into an oven, a fate identical to Sendak’s Mickey.

Yet, there are two minute dummies under glass, the precursors of each of these works, which show how the matter of visual debts is entirely secondary, the books’ cores being pure Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are grew directly (albeit slowly) out of a dummy dated eight years earlier (November 17, 1965), titled Where the Wild Horses Are. Less than an inch high and about five inches long, that dummy is a small gold mine containing elements which later appear in other Sendak works as well. A small boy sails off to an island, follows a sign to where the wild horses are, is attacked, kicked out of his clothes by the horses, but luckily finds a ship and sails back home. Though all the raw material for Wild Things is there, the graphic form was not discovered for some time to come.

The small dummy for In the Night Kitchen precedes this latest work by only one year. It is far closer to the final work in conception than Wild Things but the mise-en-scène is not at all developed. There is no hint of the final staging of the night kitchen with its skyscrapers built of kitchen tools and supplies, no Oliver Hardys, no marvelous art-déco curtains. Even the Little Nemo resemblance is absent.

As his career has progressed—through 59 books to date —Sendak’s inner vision has, with his increasing technical virtuosity, been more and more successfully objectivized. He becomes more and more himself. What the viewer realizes, perhaps for the first time, in such a show, is how pale the final books are beside the original works of art. In Where the Wild Things Are, for example, the overall impression of the book is of somber blue-green drawings with little tonal range or subtlety. The originals, however, are full of delicate pinks, yellows and soft greens. They have, too, a crispness undreamed of from the published book. (One of the things the Rosenbach Foundation hopes to do as custodian of Sendak’s work is to publish a fine-art edition of Where The Wild Things Are for collectors.)

Sendak spoke at Bologna of having recently had a new vision of what he wants his future work to be. “I no longer want simply to illustrate or, for that matter, simply to write. I am now in search of a form more purely and essentially my own I must turn to music to describe something of what I am after. The concentrated face of Vercli’s Falstaff, or a Hugo Wolf song, where music and words mix and blend and incredibly excite, defines my idea. Here words and music form a magic compound, a ‘something else’—more than music, more than words.” Sendak would like his picture-book art to move into the realm of the something else—having “the immediate beauty of music and all its deep, unanalyzable mystery.” A visionary of childhood who has also made of himself a master technician, he has set the goal for his work of the ’70s. As an artist he has yet to stand still.