Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Maurice Sendak’

21 AUGUST, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Rare, Sensual Illustrations for Herman Melville’s Greatest Commercial Failure and Most Personally Beloved Book

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“The strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.”

Something magical happens when a great artist interprets a great author — one need only look at William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, and Salvador Dalí’s literary illustrations for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne. But one of the most extraordinary such “collaborations” across creative culture’s space-time continuum came in the form of a now-rare 1995 Kraken edition of Herman Melville‘s controversial 1852 novel Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (public library), illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak.

The story of the book itself — an absolute disaster for Melville both critically and financially, and yet one he considered his “kraken book,” a book eclipsing Moby-Dick in its profound potency like the mythic kraken outshines the whale in might — is at least as scandalous as its plot.

In 1850, Melville wrote in a letter that “a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.” The following year, when Moby-Dick was published, the critical reception validated his fear — reviewers eviscerated the book, which Melville considered his greatest work to date, as irreverent and blasphemous. Though Melville’s style was praised by some for its ingenuity, most critics issued scathing remarks about it, including one prominent British reviewer’s assertion that it was an “ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact.”

As the reviews were pouring in, Melville wrote in a letter to his friend and great champion Nathaniel Hawthorne in June of 1851:

Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.

He proved heartbreakingly right: It took more than seventy years after Melville died a penniless customs agent for Moby-Dick to be extolled as one of the greatest books of all time.

So when Melville walked into the Harper & Brothers publishing office on January 2, 1852, with a copy of his Pierre manuscript, he was doubly embittered by how deftly reviewers had validated his prior grim fears about criticism. For their part, the Harper brothers were less than eager to publish a new book by an author whose most recent novel had done so dismally. Too polite and political to give Melville an outright rejection, they instead channeled their reservations by offering him a humiliating contract — instead of their standard author royalty rate of 50 cents on the dollar, they offered him 20 cents. This automatically meant that Pierre would have to sell 2.5 as many copies as his other books in order to yield Melville the share he had previously gotten — a share, no less, with which he had still run into considerable debt to the firm.

Desperate and resigned, Melville decided not to pitch the book to other publishers and signed the Harper & Row contract on February 20, 1852.

But then he did something even crazier — something that would seal the book’s tragic fate: He decided to enlarge the original 360-page manuscript with an additional 150 pages, in which he took the already extravagant plot to preposterous lengths. After book XVI, he inserted a section titled “Young America in Literature,” lacing it with his satirical, thinly veiled personal gripes against the literary establishment. (In one particularly vivid passage, he envisioned “the highly improbable event of the near approach of the Millennium, which might establish a different dynasty of taste, and possibly eject the editors.”)

The book all but perished, both in sales and in critical reception. Critics dismissed it as “perhaps, the craziest fiction extant” (The Boston Post) and “a confused phantasmagoria of distorted fancies and conceits, ghostly abstractions and fitful shadows” (New York Literary World) — the latter being the most burning of the bunch, as it was penned by editor Evert Duyckinck, the very friend with whom Melville had shared his prescient lament about criticism two years earlier.

But in the twentieth century, Pierre found its two greatest champions — Melville scholar Herschel Parker and the great Maurice Sendak, who considered it Melville’s greatest novel and who had previously illustrated another literary titan. So when Parker approached the beloved artist about the Kraken edition, Sendak was thrilled — doubly so because the book’s unabashed blend of sensuality, nightmarishness, and ambiguity mirrored his own aesthetic and paralleled the sensibility of his greatest lifelong influence, William Blake.

In fact, Sendak had independently begun working on drawings for Pierre after attending the 1991 Melville Centennial Conference. He found in this unusual, extravagant, almost ludicrous yet remarkably layered text the perfect canvas for equally over-the-top pictorial representation. The resulting drawings — by far the most sexually expressive of any of his work, featuring 27 discernible nipples and 11 male “packages,” three of which unclothed — are unlike anything Sendak created before or since. Bold, unapologetic, and incredibly sensual, the illustrations are also subtly subversive in their treatment of gender identity and stereotypes, from Pierre’s effeminate body-choreography to Isabel’s scrumptiously muscular back à la Venus with Biceps. This subversion was a subject close to Sendak’s heart, as a gay man who came of age decades before marriage equality and shared the last half-century of his life with his partner, Eugene Glynn, but it was nonetheless a subject he never explored directly.

The Kraken edition, however, is remarkable not only in inviting Sendak’s striking drawings, but also in restoring the Melville text to its original form, before his embittered 150-page addition. It is intended, as Parker notes in the introduction, “to supplement (not to rival) the text Harper published.” He writes:

[This edition] will at last make it feasible for lovers of Melville to comprehend his original design for the book and his original achievements in it.” Equally important, this version of Pierre will illuminate Moby-Dick. Even readers who have long loved Moby-Dick will perceive its psychological stature more clearly in the light shed by the book Melville wrote next — the short version of Pierre, surely the finest psychological novel anyone had yet written in English.

Indeed, Pierre‘s psychoemotional subtlety is perhaps best captured in a meta way, in this exquisite Melville line from Book IV of the novel:

In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.

The Kraken edition of Pierre; or, the Ambiguities is currently out of print but is oh-so-much worth the hunt. Complement it with Sendak’s rarest, most defining illustrations, his little-known posters celebrating books and the love of reading, and his posthumous love letter to the world.

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13 JUNE, 2014

Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World

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A visual voyage there and back again.

Writing about the allure of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — that’s perhaps why his stories continue to enchant generations and attract admirers of all ages. Tolkien’s first major work, The Hobbit (public library) — the prequel to his epic novel The Lord of the Rings, which made its debut nearly 20 years later — was published in 1937 and in the years since has drawn remarkable international acclaim. Because the story is driven by visual whimsy, it has also produced a number of vibrant illustrated editions from all around the world, beginning with Tolkien’s own artwork for the original edition, which I wrote about some years ago. Here are a few favorites.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN (GREAT BRITAIN, 1937)

In October of 1936, Tolkien delivered to his publisher the manuscript of The Hobbit, in which he included more than 100 illustrations — Tolkien, unbeknownst to many, was a rather gifted and prolific artist. These manuscript drawings were recently released in The Art of the Hobbit (public library) — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors.

In creating the artwork for The Hobbit, Tolkien borrowed from a short story he had written for his son Michael, titled “Roverandom.”

Also included are conceptual sketches for the now-iconic dust jacket cover painting of the mountains Bilbo Baggins transverses in his adventures.

See more of Tolkien’s art here.

TOVE JANSSON (SWEDEN, 1962)

In 1962, shortly before she received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen award, beloved Swedish-speaking Finnish artist, writer, and Moomin creator Tove Jansson illustrated a Swedish edition of The Hobbit. Janssen was at the peak of her career and brought to the Tolkien classic her signature touch of subtly wistful whimsy.

Alas, this gem is now severely out of print, practically unfindable online, but available at some better-stocked public libraries.

RIYÛICHI TERASHIMA (JAPAN, 1965)

In 1965, artist Ryûichi Terashima illustrated a Japanese edition of The Hobbit, notable not only for its delicate line drawings but also for the exquisite production of the book itself, which mirrors the sensibility of Terashima’s art with lavish paper and luxury binding. It has been reprinted several times, as recently as 2008.

The book is currently out of print, but used copies can be found online; alas, not at the library.

MIKHAIL BELOMLINSKY (RUSSIA, 1976)

In 1976, Russian — then Soviet — artist Mikhail Belomlinsky took on the Tolkien classic shortly after graduating from an MFA program in painting, architecture, and sculpture. The opportunity kicked off Belomlinsky’s career as he turned to political cartooning and children’s books. He went on to illustrate more than 100 of the latter, both in Soviet Russia and in the United States after his move to New York City in 1989.

JIRI SALAMOUN (CZECH REPUBLIC, 1979)

In 1979, when he was forty-four — the same age Tolkien was when he published The Hobbit — the Czech artist, graphic designer, and illustrator Jiri Salamoun was commissioned to illustrate a Czech edition of the book. He brought his eclectic background in visual storytelling and the graphic arts — spanning film poster design, typography, book illustration, and silk-screen printing — to the project.

This vintage gem is also a rarity, but some libraries do have it.

BONUS: MAURICE SENDAK (UNITED STATES, 1967)

In 1967, six years after legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom had nurtured his creative direction and four years after his iconic Where the Wild Things Are, 39-year-old Maurice Sendak was commissioned to illustrate a 30th anniversary edition of The Hobbit. But the project fell through, leaving behind only a single surviving drawing, which Open Culture unearthed.

A realized edition would’ve been unimaginably wonderful, judging by Sendak’s artistic interpretations of literary classics like William Blake’s Song of Innocence, which he illustrated the same year as the failed Tolkien project, and Tolstoy’s Nikolenka’s Childhood, completed four years earlier.

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10 JUNE, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Rarest Art: His Vintage Illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”

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“On a cloud I saw a child, and he laughing said to me…”

J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children”. Decades later, Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) would come to echo this belief — and yet he remains one of the best-loved and most influential children’s book authors and illustrators of all time, a patron saint of storytelling for young minds. From his heartwarming early collaborations to his most famous stories to his lesser-known and lovely posters, Sendak’s style is decidedly, unmistakably his own — but like that of any creative artist, it is also an assemblage of his influences. Chief among them is the art and poetry of William Blake, whose sensibility reverberated through Sendak’s work, beginning in his dawning days as an insecure young artist and crescendoing in his final posthumous love letter to the world.

In 1967, when Sendak was thirty-nine and at the peak of his career, he received an unusual assignment that moved his heart unlike any other — a chance to finally pay homage to his great creative hero. It was small and noncommercial, but he took it: The London publisher The Bodley Head wanted to publish a Christmas keepsake commemorating the company’s 80th anniversary, featuring seven poems from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. For each of them, Sendak was asked to create a single, exquisite line drawing. The slim booklet, simply titled Poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (public library), was published in a limited edition of 275 copies, none of which were for sale — instead, they were given away as holiday gifts to the authors and artists The Bodley Head represented, and to a handful of other friends of the press.

The book is considered the rarest of Sendak’s published work — so rare that it’s practically impossible for even art historians to get their eyes on a copy for scholarly work. Only a handful are known to survive today, a couple of which signed by Sendak.

As a great admirer and nascent collector of Sendak’s work, and a generally stubborn person, I knew I had to track down a copy after I first heard about this rare masterpiece. After a dogged hunt, I finally struck gold — not just any old copy, but one of those ultra-rare signed ones, with a small, infinitely delightful original drawing alongside the inscription on the front free endpaper.

In the interest of cultural preservation and scholarship, I am delighted to share a glimpse of this treasure — my great hero paying homage to his great hero. Although the feeble digital screen does absolutely no justice to the vibrant analog humanity of this masterpiece, to know that it reaches the eyes and souls of others in even a small way, that it isn’t being sucked try of its aliveness by archival death, is good enough for me. Please enjoy.

Complement with Sendak’s final gift, My Brother’s Book, where Blake’s influence is at its most pronounced — at once his farewell to the world and his last love letter to his deceased partner, Eugene Glynn. Then, dive into the Sendak archive.

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