MAURICE SENDAK – At The Contemporary Jewish Museum

There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak
Retrospective on view from September 8th through January 19th, 2010

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

This fall, things get wild at the Contemporary Jewish Museum as it presents There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak, a major retrospective of over 100 works by Maurice Sendak, the famed author and illustrator of over 100 picture books who changed the course of children’s literature forever with his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are. On view September 8, 2009 – January 19, 2010, this is the largest and most ambitious exhibition of original watercolors and drawings from more than 40 of Sendak’s books, including his most beloved titles. It also features rare sketches, never-before-seen working materials, and exclusive interview footage.

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Preliminary design for dust jacket for Where the Wild Things Are.
Pen and ink, watercolor. Maurice Sendak, 1963

Organized by the world’s only repository of Sendak’s work, The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the exhibition is a fascinating and revealing journey into the artist’s life and work for both children and adults. Families gain a deeper understanding of the characters and stories they love while adult audiences get an unprecedented opportunity to explore the more mature and sophisticated ideas behind many of Sendak’s beloved tales, discovering how they were shaped by intensely personal stories and influences, especially the people, places, and events of Sendak’s childhood.

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Final drawing for Where the Wild Things Are.
Pen and ink, watercolor. Maurice Sendak, 1963.

Sendak, now 81 years old, was born in Brooklyn in 1928, the youngest of three children. His parents, poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, suffered greatly from the loss of many family members in Poland during the Holocaust. The sadness and complexities of the Holocaust, the rich memories of his parent’s lives in Europe, and his own childhood adventures and anxieties are currents that run through all of Sendak’s work. These hidden nuances and personal secrets, or “The Other Story” as Sendak calls it, inform much of the exhibition. “That’s the best fun in all of this – the layers of meaning, the layers of storytelling,” Sendak said in a 2007 interview. “When you hide another story in a story, that’s the story I am telling the children.”

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Final drawing for Mommy? Maurice Sendak, 2006

Sendak himself serves as the visitor’s guide through this landscape of hidden narratives. Interspersed throughout the artworks are touch screens where visitors can activate clips of interview footage in which Sendak elaborates on a range of topics from his creative process to his childhood use of storytelling to gain acceptance with neighborhood kids. The exhibition showcases original watercolors, drawings, sketches, dummy books, ephemera, and more — some of it in various states of completion including covers that changed, drawings with eraser marks and even manuscripts with the author’s comments in the margins. The pieces are arranged thematically in four interpretive areas: Sendak’s child characters; his monsters and villains; his influences; and the settings of his stories.

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MAURICE SENDAK – and the final drawing for Zlateh the Goat & Other Stories.
Pen and ink. Maurice Sendak, 1966

Sendak’s understanding of children’s impulses, needs, anxieties and motivations is one of the most distinguishing aspects of his work. In this first section of the exhibition, visitors encounter preliminary sketches, notebooks, and finished books featuring the characters that made Sendak famous, including stubborn Pierre who just doesn’t care. With Pierre and many of his other rebellious child heroes, Sendak gives voice to children’s ungovernable emotions – jealousy, guilt, anger, fear – in addition to their playful pleasures. Often, his characters resort to magical dreams and fantasy as a way to cope with these feelings, something Sendak relied on himself as a child. The exhibition highlights some of these with illustrations from books like Kenny’s Window, in which a boy’s dream sends him on a quest without leaving his bedroom and In the Night Kitchen about a nighttime fantasy adventure in a baker’s kitchen.

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Final & preliminary drawings for Higglety, Pigglety, Pop! or There Must be More to Life. Pen and ink. Maurice Sendak, 1967.

Mirth and mischief go hand in hand with menace however. Sendak’s monsters and villains include some of the most celebrated characters in American literature. The author has always been willing to expose his characters to potentially perilous situations, causing some parents and librarians to squirm, though this has not diminished the stories’ huge popularity. “Adults can forget what a terrifying life childhood can be and how make-believe tries to make everything nice again,” said Sendak in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “What I bring is my memory of how quixotic and inexplicable and dangerous it sometimes is.”

Bullies are a fact of life for many children. Sendak himself claims he was not a particularly popular child. Sketches and storyboards from his 2003 collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner, Brundibar, not only touch on the terror of bullying, but also highlight the lasting impact of the Holocaust in Sendak’s work. Based on a Czech opera performed by children in a Nazi concentration camp, the nefarious Brundibar evolved from a portrait of Hitler. Symbols of the Holocaust appear throughout Sendak’s illustrations.

Another childhood trauma often echoed in his stories and highlighted in this section of the exhibition is the kidnapping of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1932. Terrified of being kidnapped himself, four-year old Sendak asked his father to sleep in his room with a baseball bat. When his uncle got wind of this, he grimaced and said to Sendak’s father “Who would take your children?” Sendak later got even with this uncle by turning him into one of his ugliest “Wild Things” (most of which were based on his relatives), but the terror of the kidnapping lingered and appears in several of his books like 1981′s Outside Over There, in which a baby is taken by goblins.

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Final drawing for Where the Wild Things Are.
Pen and ink, watercolor. Maurice Sendak, 1963.

“This important exhibition opens a fascinating new window onto the work of now legendary author and illustrator Maurice Sendak,” states Contemporary Jewish Museum director and CEO, Connie Wolf. “His stories have been read by children for over five decades and now many of these children are parents themselves. The exhibition illuminates for audiences – young and old – how his own childhood, his Jewish family, and Jewish traditions influenced his work. The Museum is thrilled to have this unique opportunity to engage audiences of all ages in a dialogue about Sendak, his beloved stories, and Jewish art, culture, history, and ideas.”
Click here for more information: There’s a Mystery There

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MARK YOUR CALENDAR: FRIDAY, AUGUST 21st @ 6:15 pm

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THE EGYPTIAN (1954) — Starring Edmund Purdom as “Sinuhe”
A Swords & Sandals Cultural Encounter at the de Young Museum

Seán Martinfield will introduce the 1954 CinemaScope classic, The Egyptian, starring Edmund Purdom, Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, Jean Simmons, and Bella Darvi as a “Woman of Babylon”. The 20th Century Fox epic is a tale of Pharaoh Ahkenaton, father of Tutankhamun. This special event is one of many during the current exhibit: TUTANKHAMUN: And the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.
Click here for more information: THE EGYPTIAN, August 21st, 6:15 pm

Visit Seán on YouTube:
Lorena Feijóo – A Look at “Giselle” with Seán Martinfield
SAMSON & DELILAH – Meet Seán Martinfield
CA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES – A Preview Look with Seán Martinfield

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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