Brain Pickings

The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss

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“…a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work.”

When we celebrated the 108th would-be birthday of Dr. Seuss earlier this month with his little-known, body-positive “adult” book of nudes, reader Jennifer Alluisi flagged a fascinating deeper dive into Geisel’s more obscure creations — The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss (public library | IndieBound), originally published in 1995, collects 65 of Geisel’s whimsical paintings, sculptures, and rough sketches of weird and wonderful beings in otherworldly settings, created for his own pleasure and never exhibited in public. Though Geisel’s most enduring legacy remains his timeless children’s literature, this volume sheds new light on his contribution to contemporary art — a realm he approached with the same blend of idiosyncratic talent and uncompromising dedication that made him a cultural icon in his “other life.”

A Seuss drawing suggesting that no matter how big, inflated or different the image we try to portray, being ourselves is most important.

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L. P., Secret Art Collection, courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry

For an added treat, the introduction was penned by none other than the great Maurice Sendak, who writes:

I retain a most vivid picture of Ted standing in his studio before his easel, palette in hand, brush poised. He would lean forward and then back on his heels, head cocked to one side and then to the other. The artistic ‘dance’ step was repeated over and over again.

He enjoyed working after midnight — seldom during the working-day hours. He did not consider painting to be ‘work,’* so it had to wait till late at night. Painting was what he did for himself and not something he felt comfortable in sharing.

[…]

I remember telling Ted that there would come a day when many of his paintings would be seen and he would thus share with his fans another facet of himself — his private self. That day has come. I am glad.

'Pink-Tufted Small Beast in Night Landscape,' 1960

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'The Stag at Eve,' 1960

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Sendak captures Geisel’s remarkable character:

The Ted Geisel I knew was that rare amalgamation of genial gent and tomcat — a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work. He was, of course, immensely charming and polite about the whole matter, but when Ted fixed you with his calm cat-gaze, you knew when to shut up. It was easy to respect the simple honesty and curious privacy behind the gentle bluster of the man, but Seuss’s apparent lack of interest in style, fashion, and any kind of analysis relating to his work astonished me. Only after years of friendship was I completely won over; Dr. Seuss was serious about not being ‘serious.’**

'Peru 1 (Giant Llama Led Through Village), 1925

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'Peru 2 (Vultures Waiting for the Fall), 1925

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'Peru 3 (Cock Fight), 1925

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'Peru 4 (Angry Pig), 1925

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Zachery

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

'The Manly Art of Self-Defense,' 1927

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Untitled

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Untitled

TM & © 1995 Dr. Seuss Enterprises

Of Seuss’s art in general and the works collected in The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss in particular, Sendak writes:

There was certainly nothing cookie-cutter, bland, or trendy about Ted Geisel. These works abound in nuttiness, ‘political incorrectness,’*** and lots and lots of cats. In short, you have entered Seussville, where questions and doubts are left at the door with the coo-coo something-or-other. Enjoy yourself.

Complement with Seuss’s little-known wartime propaganda cartoons.

* See Lewis Hyde on work vs. creative labor

** See Paula Scher’‘s TED talk on serious vs. solemn design

*** For the radical politics and political incorrectness of iconic children’s authors, see Tales for Little Rebels

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