Monday, October 7, 2013

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak was one of the most renowned American illustrator and writer of children's books of the twentieth century, best known for his books Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. Born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents, Sendak was exposed at an early age to concept of mortality during the Holocaust. The deaths in his family during the Holocaust created a profound sense of guilt in young Sendak, and he dealt with the theme throughout his life, such as with his work Brundibar. 

He developed his passion for books as a child when he was bedridden with health problems, and decided to become an illustrator after watching Walt Disney's film Fantasia. He drew his inspiration from news stories and cultural developments, from the introduction of Mickey Mouse in 1932 to the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. Despite his gifts and successes, Sendak never received any formal training, and was nurtured by the legendary Ursula Nordstrom, editor of HarperCollins. Throughout his 60-year career, he has illustrated more than 100 picture books and has been called "the Picasso of children's books".

Sendak's art reached out to me as it strikes a chord with the inner child within everyone. Beyond the meticulous beauty of the products of his vivid imagination, his artwork tells a forthright story that captures. Unlike most legendary artists whose eminent works displays grandly in museums and gains accreditation for cultured patrons, Sendak's work as an illustrator reaches out far and wide to children across the world. It is thus for many the first pieces of artwork, appreciated without contrivance or grandeur, stripped down to its bare portrayal of fantasy and adventure. My first pictures ever drawn were cartoons, and only now do I understand the importance of the footprints left by each and every illustrator I had come across in the books of my childhood, and how they taught me in the most mesmerizing ways the pleasures of aesthetic art.

Final Drawing for Where the Wild Things Are

This scene from Where the wild things are is suffused with a sense of expectation as Max imagines himself out of the confines of his room. The subtle but harmonious blend of colors from the sky, the moonlight and the trees infuse everything with a sense of life. The mood is clearly set by the moonlight - the furtiveness and the promise of adventure. The trees are particularly interesting as we notice their wide variety in both shapes and height, and for me it adds a strong perspective in the dimension of his artwork. The viewer is easily brought into this simple piece, sharing in the tranquil liveliness of the night. 

Final Drawing for Where the Wild Things Are

Sendak presents his monsters as wild, ugly and unruly. "I wanted my wild things to be frightening," Sendak said in one of the many undocumented quotations in The Art of Maurice Sendak. Yet children loved these creatures with their way of domesticating monsters, in particular the ones presented to them by Sendak. In this drawing, every monster is similar to the rest in terms of physique but each sports a clearly different expression and invites the imagination of each having a different personality. His drawing of monsters are both clompy and intricate, the large heads and chunky bodies, yet the texture of fur and scales remain clear. The background of his classic leaves adds a wonderful play of light and dimension to the picture.

Study Sketches: Boy Throwing a Tantrum (Top), Alligators (Left), Very Far Away (Right)

The study sketches made by Sendak offer a clear insight to some of the most important considerations of his artwork. The sketches are simple, formed by sure, definitive and sometimes loose strokes, but are stripped down to a definitive purpose, be it in movement or expression. The sketch of the boy throwing a tantrum for instance, captures the key differences in facial expression when the boy is happy and angry. The lines and sketchy, yet as with all great illustrations, captures a lot with simple strokes. 

Final Drawing for Outside Over There
Pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, 1978

In Sendak's Outside Over There, Ida has a little sister who was kidnapped by goblins and she has to save her. Outside Over There is part of what he grouped as trilogy, with Wild Things and In the Night Kitchen as the first two parts, as he felt these books all related back to his childhood. This book is illustrated in a style radically different from his other works, with the soft pastel colors and the calming textures. At the window however, two faceless goblins lurk waiting to steal the baby in the nursery. This picture exemplifies Sendak's keen fascination with the Lindberg baby kidnapping, a childhood memory that haunted Sendak. 


Maurice Sendak: a celebration of the artist and his work, curated by Justin G. Schiller and Dennis M.V. David; edited by Leonard S. Marcus. 

The Art of Maurice Sendak, by Selma G. Lanes

Maurice Sendak Collection - The Rosenbach Museum and Library

Sendak on Sendak,

Written by Xu Rui

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