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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Sendak Tapes

For those of you who have seen Peter Dobrin’s recent articles in the Philadelphia Inquirier (both Sunday's and Tuesday's), you already know that the Sendak Collection held here on deposit since 1968 will be leaving us shortly and returning to the Sendak Foundation in Connecticut.  Our exhibition Sendak in the ‘60s will remain on view through its scheduled end-date, November 2, so be sure to check it out!  There are some amazing pieces from Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen on display, but the ‘60s was perhaps Sendak’s most varied and inventive period so there’s something for everyone in there. 

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some behind-the-scenes memories and reflections of our work with Maurice Sendak over the decades.  Tens of thousands of people have enjoyed Sendak’s work through exhibitions and programs here over almost 50 years, but (at least for those who haven’t met him) not everyone knows how generous Maurice was with his time and insights on a personal level.  He visited here often, bringing artwork with him, speaking to docents about his work, and doing lectures and signings of his latest books for visitors. 

Maurice Sendak in 2007.  Photo courtesy of Michael O'Reilly.
When we interviewed him in 2007, Sendak remembered his first visits to the Rosenbach in the late ‘60s fondly: “I remember I would lay in Dr. Rosenbach’s room, and they would bring me in some drawings for a French novel by Fragonard and there was a big animal fur blanket and I used to lay under it with my Fragonards all around.  Hey—that was living!  Of course, they took it all back in the morning.” The Rosenbach’s first big Sendak exhibition went up in 1970, displaying much of Sendak’s work up to that point while also including works by artists who influenced Sendak that were either borrowed from his personal collection or from other area museums.  Admission then was $1.50.  In a review in Artforum, critic Selma Lanes (who ten years later would publish a compendious biography of Sendak) noted how this early retrospective lifted Sendak out of the easy-to-dismiss “kiddie-book” category to which he had often been consigned, and placed him within a continuum of inventive illustrators: “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 Clive Driver, the Rosenbach’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.’” 

That was the first of many Sendak shows over the next four decades.  Later exhibitions would delve into specific Sendak books (Chicken Soup with Rice or In the Night Kitchen, for example), or investigate themes and techniques in his artwork (such as Maurice Sendak, Comic Strip Technique, and Wilhelm Busch in 1993, or the 1986 exhibition Man’s Best Friend about Sendak’s dog Jennie).  Periodically—when a new exhibition went up or a new Sendak book was published—Sendak would stop by and speak with our docents.  It’s rare for educators to have access to a living artist whose work they interpret for visitors, and we’re fortunate that past staff had the foresight to record some of those sessions on cassette tapes.  Listening to them now, I’m struck by how earnest, warm, and excited Sendak sounded in those conversations.  You can hear him turning the pages of his picture books as he shows the docents particular illustrations.  He clearly wanted our docents to be well-supplied with information and insights on which to chew.  In one conversation he expounded on the distinction he saw between illustrating a “picture book” (giving Where the Wild Things Are as an example) and a “story book” (citing Higglety, Pigglety, Pop!).  He likened a picture book to an opera, where images and texts move back and forth in a kind of syncopation.  But a story book, he explained, must remain focused on the narrative, noting that the trick is to add something to the pictures; he said he tried to inject a certain “emotional coloring” to his pictures for Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh the Goat to counterbalance Singer’s dry wit in the text.  In other conversations he comments on his fellow-illustrators, like N.C. Wyeth (“Complicated feelings.  A great master... but he has somewhat the problem of Arthur Rackham, where he has one style, that N.C.-Wyeth-look.”), and Dr. Seuss (“a master and a maniac…condemned to being a best-seller”), as well as various authors like Melville (“You don’t want [your illustrations] to get in the way of him…he’s a trumpet, a noisy writer”), Randall Jarrell (“He was one of the few writers I’ve ever worked with who could…visualize what a book could look like.  Very few writers understand the business of illustrating their books.  They just want nice pictures”), and Isaac Singer (“The best part of the collaboration was him.  The worst part was him”).  And, of course, Sendak took many questions from our docents about everything from his work in theater and opera to his childhood memories and familial relationships.   

The bulk of Sendak’s artwork might be leaving the Rosenbach, but so much remains.  The authors and illustrators in our permanent collection that so inspired him (Dickinson, Melville, Carroll, Tenniel, Blake…) will still be here to inspire others.  The Rosenbach still owns a few hundred pieces of Sendak artwork, including the one-of-a-kind Chertoff mural, which is an inspiration of itself.  But perhaps most importantly, the perspectives on art and literature that Sendak shared with staff, docents, and visitors here have unquestionably left their mark on this institution.  

 Patrick Rodgers is Curator of the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

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