The Haunting Magic of Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Design for battle scene, Act I (Nutcracker), 1982-1983, by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012). Gouache and graphite pencil on paper. (© The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.107:262. Photography by Janny Chiu.)
A new exhibit highlights Sendak’s set and costume designs for opera and ballet.

By the 1970s, Maurice Sendak was one of the greatest living writers and illustrators of children’s books. He had written and illustrated Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 and In the Night Kitchen in 1970. He had also created art for stories by the Brothers Grimm and Isaac Bashevis Singer. In 1978, at the height of his artistic powers, at the ripe age of 50, he was commissioned by opera director Frank Corsaro to design sets and costumes for a Houston Grand Opera production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This commission launched Sendak on a new and exciting — and much lesser-known — venture, as a set and costume designer for operas and ballets. “Drawing the Curtain,” the first exhibit of its kind (ongoing at the Morgan Library & Museum until October 6), explores this fascinating second act of Sendak’s career, which included set and costume designs for almost a dozen operatic and balletic productions, most prominent among them The Magic Flute, Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and an opera based on Sendak’s own Where the Wild Things Are.

The relationship between Sendak and opera would prove to be a mutually beneficial and mutually influential one. As Sendak brought his signature style — at once whimsical and mystical, entrancing and haunting, part Brothers Grimm meets William Blake, part Venetian Renaissance painting meets German Romanticism, with touches of El Greco, Van Gogh, and Walt Disney’s Fantasia — to Mozart’s most famous opera, Sendak in turn brought Mozart into his books. While working on his designs for The Magic Flute, Sendak began work on his next classic, Outside Over There, a book in which the presence of Mozart is as clear as the magnificent contrapuntal finale in the final movement of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony.

The plot of Outside Over There, Sendak’s most personal book (“an excavation of my soul,” as he described it), centers on a young girl named Ida who attempts to save her baby sister, who has been kidnapped by goblins, by playing a “wonder horn” to “catch those goblins with a tune.” (The Magic Flute, of course, features a magical musical instrument that the young prince Tamino uses to subdue wild animals and to withstand Sarastro’s tests.) Mozart himself makes a cameo in the book — the shadowy little cottage featured in it is in fact a stylized depiction of the forest cabin in which Mozart composed the bulk of The Magic Flute. In Sendak’s design for the show scrim that introduces The Magic Flute, he features the great composer himself. In a watercolor on display near the beginning of the exhibit, we see Mozart again inside his forest cabin, this time in silhouette, surrounded by fantastical Wild Thing–like creatures (meant to be the drei knaben—the three child spirits of the opera) receiving the gifts of musical inspiration.

The Morgan is fortunate — as are we, as spectators — to have been bequeathed over 900 objects by Sendak from his operatic and balletic designs, enabling them to put on such a wondrous exhibit. It features only a small sampling of Sendak’s sketches, storyboards, studies, watercolors, and dioramas, but they are more than enough to fill an entire gallery, and more than enough to spark further interest in Sendak as not only a great author and illustrator but also as a disciplined artist who was intimately familiar with the canon of classical music and who drew upon — while drawing for — opera and classical music in his writings.

As careful readers of Outside Over There can see, classical music was integral to his work. “I can hardly live without” music, Sendak said in a 1966 interview:

I do most of my work to music, and music plays an extremely important part in my work. Depending on what I’m doing at the moment, there is always a specific kind of music I want to listen to. All composers have different colors, as all artists do, and I kind of pick up the right color from either Haydn or Mozart or Wagner while I’m working. And very often I will switch recordings endlessly until I get the right color and the right note and the right sound and then settle down happily to whatever I’m doing.

Sendak told others that with Outside Over There he was trying to write “an opera with pictures.” At the same time, his designs for opera and ballet were no mere sideshows to his authorial efforts — as the magnificent illustrations and set designs on display at the Morgan make manifest. New York Times art critic John Russell asserted that “if he felt like it, he need never do anything but design for the opera house.”

For Sendak, the invitation to design the costume and sets for The Magic Flute was the opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to bring to life his favorite opera by his most beloved composer, with his own visual language and aesthetic sensibility. Sendak was initially somewhat intimidated by the prospect and was also apprehensive about working in the three-dimensional world of the stage after having worked for so long in the two-dimensional world of books. He wrote to his friend Tony Kushner, “I worry a good deal (as you know) about the possible dire effects of thirty years’ worth of composing for the page on my stage designs. Have I, in fact, been able to bridge the gap between the two disciplines?” But once Sendak became more comfortable drawing for the stage, he took to it with gusto.

As much as he venerated Mozart, however, Sendak was not entirely faithful to the great composer’s work. Ever the impish artist — much like his two most famous child protagonists, Mickey and Max — Sendak brought his mischievous side to The Magic Flute, playing up the opera’s allusions to Freemasonry by making some of the characters Freemasons (Mozart himself was a Freemason), and suffusing the stage with set designs that were an eclectic and eccentric mélange of William Blake’s mystical romanticism, Christian symbolism, medieval and Renaissance motifs, Art Deco extravagance, Borscht Belt kitsch, and ancient Egyptian architectural grandeur. Many of his designs for The Magic Flute were heavily indebted to Blake in particular, and the Morgan helpfully juxtaposes copies of Blake’s illustrations with Sendak’s in order to highlight the ways in which Sendak’s storyboards for The Magic Flute quote from Blake’s Behemoth and Leviathan (1805) and Milton’s Mysterious Dream (1816).

Design for show scrim (The Magic Flute), 1979-1980, by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012). Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper on board. (© The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.104:120. Photography by Janny Chiu.)

Following Sendak’s and Corsaro’s successful collaboration on The Magic Flute, the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Sussex, England, asked them to create a new production of Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges. Corsaro and Sendak decided to set the opera during the time of the French Revolution, a setting rather different from that of the typical Sendak creation. Consequently, Sendak at first suffered a bout of artist’s block until he came upon the drawings of the Venetian artist Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804). Newly inspired, he set to work. Sendak borrowed so liberally from Tiepolo in his set designs for Prokofiev’s satirical opera — about a prince who is cursed to love three oranges (each of which contains a princess) — that he confessed to Corsaro that his borrowings amounted to artistic theft: “It is an odd matter indeed, this almost magical union that occurs between stealer and stealee: it is as though I know what I want but can see it only inside (in this case) a Tiepolo drawing and then I can draw it out and make it properly my own.”

Beyond illuminating the extent of Tiepolo’s influence on him — as can be seen in the exhibit’s placement of their drawings side by side — Sendak’s comments raise age-old questions about the nature of artistic originality and the line between artistic borrowing and artistic stealing: Should artistic stealing be thought of as some sort of crime on the part of the artist? Is it something that — rather like coaching during a tennis match — everyone does but few are called out for and fewer still fess up to? Sendak did admit to it, and for that, he at least deserves recognition for his honesty. “I have an unshakable faith in the people I steal from,” Sendak said, a practice which, say what one will about the ethics of it, proved to be artistically fruitful, both for Sendak and for us as enjoyers of his art.

The first production of the opera version of Where the Wild Things Are was held at the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels on November 28, 1980. The score, written by the British composer Oliver Knussen, is strikingly Stravinskyian, recalling the great modernist Russian composer’s then-shocking (and now-classic) Le Sacre du printemps, with its clashing chords and atonality — ideally suited to the disruptiveness and disorderliness of Max’s clash with his mother and his nocturnal, nautical journey to the lawless world of the Wild Things. Audio guides available for this exhibit include musical selections from each of the operas and ballets featured in it, including Knussen’s innovative score, and a video display at the entrance of the gallery shows highlights from Sendak’s and Corsaro’s operatic collaborations, making the exhibit a truly immersive audio-visual experience.

Study for stage set #10 (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979-1983, by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012). Watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on paper. (© The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.103:52. Photography by Janny Chiu.)

In addition to being able to glimpse three-dimensional versions of Sendak’s famed creatures, longtime lovers of Where the Wild Things Are like myself may learn new things about Sendak’s most beloved book, such as the ways in which Sendak’s Jewish background crept into Where the Wild Things Are: Some of the Wild Things have Yiddish names (such as Tzippy); the design for Max’s mother (at least in the operatic adaptation) is based on a caricature of a Yiddishe mama so stereotypical it would make Alexander Portnoy blush; and, perhaps most interestingly, the design for the Wild Thing “Moishe” is based on Sendak himself — it is a kind of self-portrait of the artist as a Wild Thing. (Maurice Sendak was called “Moishe” as a boy).

For his version of The Nutcracker, Sendak, ever the Mozart devotee, altered Tchaikovsky’s ballet to make it more closely align with fellow Mozart aficionado E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original 1816 tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the story upon which the ballet is based. (Hoffman was such a Mozart enthusiast that he changed his middle name to Amadeus.) Sendak sexualized the ballet in subtle but significant ways, most prominently in making Clara, the Nutcracker’s female protagonist, twelve years old (as she is in Hoffmann’s original story) rather than seven years old (as she is in Tchaikovsky’s ballet). Whether it is preferable for balletic adaptations of the Nutcracker to be more faithful to Hoffmann’s original, somewhat more troubling tale or whether it is more desirable to stick to Tchaikovsky’s G-rated version — which Sendak deemed “bland and banal” — is an open question, but what is unquestionable is Sendak’s adoration of Mozart, whom he referred to as “a god I could really respect, because he was an artist.” Sendak even went so far as to feature a bust of Mozart in his set design for the ballet, unmistakably signaling to the audience that they were no longer in Tchaikovsky’s musical and artistic universe.

The exhibit also juxtaposes Sendak’s drawings for Leoš Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen with illustrations from Romantic artists such as Samuel Palmer and Caspar David Friedrich. In his design for this opera, which takes place in less urban, more naturalistic settings, Sendak drew not only on the European Romantics but on his own love of nature. (He is reported to have spent a good deal of time walking in the forests near his Ridgefield, Conn., home.)

The Edge of the Forest, interlude between Act II, scenes 2 and 3, for PBS broadcast (The Cunning Little Vixen), 1983, by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012). Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper. ( © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.105:102. Photography by Janny Chiu.)

Sendak’s work is renowned for its playfulness and whimsicality, but there are darker, more haunting aspects of it as well. “Drawing the Curtain” does not shy away from these aspects of his work, thereby giving us a more complete picture of Sendak’s complex artistry. Sendak was born in Brooklyn in June 1928 to a family of Polish Jewish immigrants. Most of his extended family, who were not so fortunate as to make it to America prior to 1939, perished at the hands of the Nazis. The nightmare of the Holocaust (and very likely a speck of survivor’s guilt as well) tormented Sendak and his family throughout his life, and the specter of pernicious, life-threatening human actors lurking in what we might naïvely assume to be safe, innocent spaces consequently looms large in his books, particularly in In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. Sendak chose to respond to the horrors of history not through politics and activism but by deepening his engagement with art. “One has to listen to [Mozart’s] music, one just has to look at Vincent [van Gogh]’s paintings to have hope. . . . Certainly it gives me hope.” Sendak’s response to this familial, national, and historical trauma — the creation of a canon of classical children’s literature as well as his work on productions of beloved operas and ballets — has given hope, joy, and countless hours of wonder to a myriad of children and adults across the globe.

In 1990, Sendak co-founded The Night Kitchen Theater, a theater company for children, combining his passion for writing for children with his new-found passion for theater production design. Though the exhibit does not touch on Sendak’s work with The Night Kitchen Theater, one gets the sense that designing sets and costumes for theatrical and musical productions specifically meant for children must have given him a special kind of fulfillment that he did not obtain from either his writing of books or from his designs for opera alone.

Lastly, in a portion of the exhibit that can easily be overlooked, Sendak’s interest in three-dimensional toys is showcased in two mechanical sculptures of Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood that he created with his brother Jack (with some assistance from their sister Natalie) in 1948. These sculptures, constructed with painted wood, textiles, string, and metal, are both fairly small — each is no larger than about the size of a softball — but they may be some of Sendak’s most fascinating creations. In the Little Red Riding Hood sculpture, the wolf lying calmly in bed looks truly monstrous. The straw-yellows, tomato-reds and lime-greens recall Van Gogh’s color palette. The bare wooden chair next to the bed also evokes Sendak’s favorite painter. The sculpture is discomfiting in a way that a Van Gogh painting of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale would be discomfiting — intense, vibrant, mildly anxiety-inducing, somewhat bewildering, bordering on the hallucinatory, and inescapably transfixing.

The Pinocchio sculpture is somewhat more “childlike,” if you will — a bit more placid, filled with traditional children’s toys such as a rocking horse, a toy soldier, a rubber ball, a duck-shaped ship, and what looks like a “good witch” grasping a wand. All of these objects surround Pinocchio — who looks more like a scarecrow than the Pinocchio we might be more familiar with from the Disney movie — dressed in a lime-green suit, red mittens, green-bean-colored pants, and black shoes. Even in this seemingly innocent scene danger lurks: The duck-shaped ship bears an ominous-looking red insignia reminiscent of something that would be seen on a pirate ship; a jagged saw looms over Pinocchio’s head; and the right side of the sculpture depicts Pinocchio playing with a jack-in-a-box, a coiled, serpent-like toy perhaps symbolizing the element of surprise (and possible danger) lurking even in childhood.

The Brothers Sendak tried to sell the toys to FAO Schwarz but were rebuffed; perhaps executives of the famed New York toy store deemed these toys too frightening for children. The failed attempt, did, however, lead to Maurice’s meeting Ursula Nordstrom, who at that time worked at FAO Schwarz and who would later become his editor and longtime champion. Sendak’s early fascination with pop-up books, mechanical toys, and still objects that come to life would come through later in the fantasy sequence in Where the Wild Things Are wherein Max’s bed pops up and begins to transform into a tree and his bedroom metamorphoses into a lush, thickly forested jungle-like landscape.

“Drawing the Curtain” is on a superficial level a fun exhibit for Sendak fans that explores his diverting second act, his post-midlife career as an opera and ballet scenographer. However, it is much more than that: It is one of the best arguments for high-quality children’s literature that I have ever come across. Seeing the way in which Sendak was influenced by (and liberally borrowed from) his artistic predecessors, and learning of his thoroughgoing love of classical music, makes one realize that to read Sendak to one’s children is not simply to read them entertaining bedtime stories; it is to open them up to the whole world of classical art, literature, and music — to Mozart and Tchaikovsky, to Van Gogh and Tiepolo, to Winslow Homer and Antoine Watteau, to Janáček and Prokofiev, and to William Blake and Herman Melville (whose writing Sendak greatly admired) and E. T. A. Hoffmann, to English and German Romanticism and to the Italian Renaissance, to Enlightenment empiricism and the French Age of Reason and the world of classic American film (Sendak credited King Kong as an important influence upon his Wild Things). The journey from Sendak’s books to the great works of world art — like Max’s journey from the tranquil domesticity of his bedroom to the raucous natural world of the Wild Things — is only a single boat-ride of the imagination away.

After seeing this exhibit, I can’t help but think that the person I am today — like Sendak, a wonderstruck worshiper at the artistic altars of the Italian Renaissance and German Romanticism, a writer of strange stories and idiosyncratic fiction of my own — is in large part the result of being fed a steady diet of Sendak (with Where the Wild Things Are being my usual main course) as a child. While I may have departed from Sendak in certain key ways — his musical deity was Mozart; mine is Beethoven — I remain very much his child, a free-thinking, non-conforming, art-and-music-loving Wild Thing living in two worlds at once — in the mundane world of history, the world of trauma and suffering and prosaicness, and in the imaginative world of art and literature, the world of creativity and sublimity and of ever-abiding hope for transcendence. Like my brothers Max and Mickey — and my sister Ida — I suspect that I am far from the only one.

“Give me the child till he is seven,” the Jesuits used to say, “and I shall give you the man.” Give your children to Sendak — and to other great works of children’s literature — and who knows how far they will go in intellectual and imaginative journeys of their own. Give your children Sendak, and let the wild rumpus begin.

Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and a Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of America in New York, and is studying English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written for The Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and Harvard Divinity Bulletin, among other publications.


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