• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Why the Wild Thing is Wild

Lovers of Maurice Sendak (and who does not love Sendak?) are in for a treat at the Society of Illustrators now through July 10.


Sendak (1928–2012) illustrated his first book in 1946 at the age of 18 and went on to become the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century. In association with Justin G. Schiller and Battledore Ltd, the Society of Illustrators is sponsoring a Retrospective Exhibition and Sale of original Sendak pencil sketches, ink drawings, watercolors and lithographs—including, for the first time on public display, original art from Sendak’s first book, alongside studies for published illustrations, poster designs and operatic stage sets.


(As an aside: When I was Op-Ed art director at The New York Times, Sendak had done an illustration that he wanted to deliver to me. I lived only two blocks from his lower Fifth Avenue apartment, so he brought it to my University Place home. He walked the five flights of stairs and entered to find 10 or more of my friends sitting around a small TV, watching a reel-to-reel video tape of Richard Nixon's "Checkers Speech." Sendak paused a second, gave me the artwork, and quickly left. After the video was done, someone asked who had come by and left so quickly. "That was Maurice Sendak," I said. "And you didn't stop to introduce him?" said one of the guests. "What kind of jerk are you? He's our hero.")


I asked Schiller, a longtime friend and dealer of Sendak, to speak about the exhibit and the artist's importance to the world of children's books.


First published book illustration by Maurice Sendak. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Created for his science teacher in high school.

What makes this Sendak exhibit different from any other Sendak exhibits?

The current exhibition of Sendak at the Society of Illustrators is presented on the 75th anniversary of Maurice completing his first book assignment (1946, at the age of 18 and still in high school). The book actually published the following year. Atomics for the Millions was written in part by Sendak's science teacher, who allegedly threatened him with not graduating if he did not cooperate and illustrate this early book on atomic energy. Surprisingly, it became a popular high school textbook, and was translated into six other languages. Here, Sendak expresses his comic genius in creating playful illustrations to augment somewhat complicated formulas. It was certainly a task he did not enjoy, and often spoke about his gratitude in later years expanding his repertoire into imaginative illustration art.


"We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy," pencil study, 1993, for The New Yorker Cover design, published on Sept. 27, 1993. This is the artist’s only New Yorker cover design. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

In evolutionary terms, at what point in the exhibit does he transition from a superb draftsman to an artist with a personal style?

While I personally find his early Hole is to Dig style very charming (1952), the work he did for Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955) represents a porthole to his future achievements. Each book would require Sendak to explore designs by some of his favorite artists and then select which style might work best for him. All of his books seem to have unique character ambiance, the artist becoming familiar with his images and making them playful. See, for example, his pictures for Tolstoy and the 1838 fantasy by Clemens Brentano, Gockel, Hinkel and Gackeleia, where the original extraordinary lithographs served to inspire individual movement from the Black Forest.


"Wild Thing: Literary Lunch," pencil study on paper, 1991. Study for the Strand Bookstore promotional poster/tote bag. Depicts “Bernard” Wild Thing about to devour a pile of books. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

You have some drawings for Very Far Away. Did that ever become animated?

Very Far Away is Sendak's second book that he wrote, a tale where young Martin becomes jealous of a new baby in the family, no longer being the focus of his parents' attention. So he threatens to leave home, packs a suitcase and wears his cowboy outfit in rebellion. But having promised his parents he would never cross the street without an adult accompanying him, he simply walked around the block and ended up conferring with some local animals.

The 1975 success of his animated Really Rosie (after the Nutshell Library) with music by Carole King suggested doing a companion film, and together they chose Very Far Away. At our current show we have several original-style drawings done for the 1957 book, and then two decades later restyled in watercolor. Also animation portraits from other scenes, but ultimately the project went unsold.


“Wild Things” at a gallery. Depicts two Wild Things (Moishe and Lady) examining framed portraits of Mickey, Max and Alligator hanging on the wall. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

I am smitten by the drawings he did for The Tale of Gockel, Hinkel & Gackelia—it not only is more stylized, it seems cartoonish. What was his intention in moving in this direction?

The inspiration for Maurice's style with Gockel, Hinkel & Gackelia was the cartoonist Wilhelm Busch, who is credited with introducing the multi-panel images on a large folio paper that led to our familiar comic strips. Busch did "Max und Moritz," which evolved into the Katzemjammer Kids, until anti-German sentiment over WW I put an end to the strip. The German Romantic style from the original 1838 illustrations gave a more artistic flavor to these images.

Where do you see drawings of monsters, like The Credit Crunch, fitting into the evolution of Sendak’s overall work?

Following the immediate success of Wild Things in winter 1963, Sendak was asked to use his monster figures for many other projects, but he didn't want to prostitute them. Finally the idea of the Credit Crunch gave him images that suggested bulbous Wild Thing–like figures that are not Wild Things but nevertheless suggest them. He created three character designs, of which we have two studies. You will see another use of Wild Thing–like monsters in his 1970 "Hoorah for Happy Birthdays in Spring and Summer" poster, with two children popping out of a birthday cake to promote his first European exhibit at Galerie Daniel Keel (Zurich).


New Year’s Baby on Globe, pen and ink, 1976. Drawing of a baby holding a goblet while sitting on the Earth, created for a New York Times Op-Ed page (Jan. 1, 1977). © The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

The drawings in this exhibit are most surprising to me. Should we expect to see more rarities as time goes on?

As you may know, Steve, I met Maurice in 1967, and by 1970 we were representing him at our bookshop with the sale of original art, publication-day signing parties, also vintage prints and posters. I have contracts with Maurice that allow me to do promotions, exhibitions and sales, including the ability to reproduce any originals in my possession, so that is how we manage to deal with the Sendak estate and Sendak Foundation when everyone else has problems.

As for future shows, the Sendak Foundation is planning a 2022 (or 2023) retrospective touring exhibition with original art, and then you will get to see many of his spectacular original book illustrations. The Sendak archive is currently stored for research purposes at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and in another year or so it is hoped the Sendak house will be available for small private tours to see his studio and the environment wherein he lived.

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