“If there must be more to life, then it is surely what art provides.” -Maurice Sendak
If the name “Max” triggers fond memories of a mischievous little boy, a faraway land filled with wild monsters and the threat of being sent to bed without supper, chances are you’re a Maurice Sendak fan.
Best known for the award-winning children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak is the subject of an exhibition premiering at the Columbus Museum of Art. It’s the first major exhibit of his work since his death in 2012. It’s also the largest and most complete show devoted to the prolific artist whose work ranges from picture books and comics to designs for opera, theater, film and television.
The exhibition has been extended at the CMA until March 19.
On view are more than 150 sketches, storyboards and paintings by Sendak as well as film clips, posters, a giant goose, and a cozy book nook for reading. Museum guests can pick up “A Maurice Sendak-Inspired Sketchbook” where they’ll draw a self-portrait, reimagine their friends or relative as a character in a story and sketch their favorite pet. Sendak and his partner, Eugene Glynn were dog owners who considered their pets to be family members. Their dogs frequently appeared in Sendak’s books.
You can have your photo taken with a giant “wild thing,” watch clips from the film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” and see a costume from the film. There’s a video from “The Nutcracker” featuring Sendak’s costumes and sets. As you’d expect there’s beloved original artwork he created for popular books: “A Hole is to Dig” by Ruth Krauss, “The Little Bear Series” by Else Holmelund Minarik and “Zlateh the Goat” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Among the other books he both wrote and illustrated are “Kenny’s Window, " “Very Far Away,” “The Sign on Rosie’s Door,” “Nutshell Library,” “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” “In the Night Kitchen” and “Outside Over There.” You’ll also see work by the artists Sendak emulated including William Blake, Walt Disney, Winsor McCay, George Stubbs, Beatrix Potter and Philipp Otto Runge.
“So many of us grew up with Maurice Sendak’s illustrated books,” notes Nannette Maciejunes, CMA’s executive director emeritus. “The exhibition not only gives you the chance to see original drawings for his beloved books, but to discover Sendak’s range as an artist and the true depth of his creativity.”
Maciejunes, who has always been a Sendak admirer, believes Sendak’s creativity can inspire all of us. In addition to being a great children’s book artist/illustrator, he also devoted much of his life to music and theater. While there have been previous exhibits about him, this is the first to be shown in an art museum setting.
“There’s such a great humanity to Sendak’s art,” Maciejunes adds. “Like actors who don’t want to watch their own movies, he didn’t want to put his work up on his own walls. There’s a drawing that appears in ‘Higglety Pigglety’ that was inspired by his own dog, Jennie. It was one of the only works hung in his own house.”
Credit: Photographed by Ian Paul, Homer
Credit: Photographed by Ian Paul, Homer
Designing an exhibit
The exhibition premiering in Columbus was organized by the CMA in conjunction with the Maurice Sendak Foundation. Jonathan Weinberg, who serves as exhibition curator for the Foundation housed in Sendak’s Connecticut home and studio, was guest curator. He also curated the 2020 exhibit at the CMA entitled “Art After Stonewall.”
Weinberg, who spoke in Columbus, knew Sendak personally for 40 years and first met him in 1967 at the age of 10. “Maurice said at various times for shock effect that he liked children as few and far between as he liked adults,” Weinberg told the crowd. " But the truth is that he enjoyed little kids and had a remarkable ability to talk to them directly as if they were his equal.”
The two hit it off immediately. “That night he drew me a really beautiful and elaborate picture of the Lion in the style of the character that was in his newly published masterpiece “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” recalls Weinberg. " He also signed my copy of the book.”
Weinberg, who reminds us that Sendak was the most honored children’s book author in history, said one of his friend’s magical talents was his ability to shift his drawing style. “Style to me is purely a means to an end,” Sendak once said. “And the more styles you have the better.”
That versatility and range of styles is dramatically on display in Columbus. In addition to his whimsical drawings, there is artwork that’s somber and dark. In 2003, “Brundibar,” was staged at the Chicago Opera Theater with libretto by Tony Kushner and direction, sets and costumes by Sendak. The opera is based on a 1938 Czech opera for children that was performed 55 times by the children of Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp. Nearly every child who performed in the opera was killed in the Holocaust.
Sendak was born to Polish immigrant Jewish parents in 1928. “One of the great tensions was that he was Jewish but loved German culture and music,” says Maciejunes. “He was gay and there is also a grappling with that.”
She says “’In the Night Kitchen’ is still regularly censored because the little boy in the story drops through the floor of his bedroom on the way to the ‘night kitchen’ and loses his clothes. “It’s sad that something natural has been turned into something that is a scandal.” Maciejunes observes.
An entire gallery is devoted to Sendak’s most famous work. Are the story and illustrations too scary? According to Sendak, the title of the book came from a Yiddish phrase “vilde chaya’, meaning wild beast. “It’s what almost every Jewish mother or father says to their offspring, ‘You’re acting like a vilde chaya! Stop it!” He also liked to claim that the monsters were inspired by childhood memories of his relatives who would pinch his cheeks, and, like the wild things, exclaim “we’ll eat you up, we love you so!”
Maciejunes believes kids like to get scared a little bit. “My daughter and grandchildren loved it,” she shares. “Max rules those giant monsters. He is the king although they are bigger. Children know the world isn’t happy and joyful. Maurice Sendak would like children to grapple with the human experience.”
Don’t be surprised to hear museum patrons exiting this exhibit while exclaiming: “Hey, Maurice Sendak! We’ll eat you up, we love you so!”
HOW TO GO:
What: “Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak”
Where: Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad Street, Columbus
When: Through March 19. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Admission: $18 for adults;$9 for seniors (60+) students and children (4-17); and free for members and children 3 and under. Special exhibition admission is an additional $10. On Thursdays from 5-9 p.m., general admission and admission to the special exhibit are $5 each. General admission is free for all on Sundays.
Dayton Art Institute members at North American Reciprocal Museum level receive free general admission for two adults plus children and will still pay the special exhibition fee.
The exhibit is accompanied by a full-color 256-page illustrated catalog. It sells for $55 in the museum gift shop.
For more information: (614)221-6801 or www.columbusmuseum.org
Related programming: An illustrated talk, “Wild Things: Maurice Sendak, His Art and Vision”, is slated for 2-3 p.m. Sunday. Feb. 19 at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, 96 S. Grant Ave. Historian Leonard S. Marcus will draw from his wide-ranging knowledge of children’s literature and popular culture and his 20-year-long friendship with Maurice Sendak to show how the creator of “Where the Wild Things Are” changed children’s literature and our understanding of childhood forever.