Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Maurice Sendak’

03 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Maurice Sendak’s Little-Known and Lovely Posters Celebrating Books and the Joy of Reading

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A heartening transaction of literary pleasure.

Given my well-documented soft spot for all things Maurice Sendak and for rare vintage out-of-print gems, imagine my extreme delight over this recent discovery: As if to have any surviving copy of the 1986 gem Posters By Maurice Sendak (public library) weren’t already joyous enough, to have no ordinary copy but a first edition signed by Sendak himself is absolute exaltation. Collected in this magnificent large-format tome are Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters for plays, book fairs, art events, operas, Broadway shows, and other cultural happenings. But, given Sendak’s love of classical literature and the literary greats who became his lifelong influences, most enchanting of all are his posters celebrating the love of books and the joy of reading, many featuring his iconic Wild Things, which I’ve digitized below for our shared enjoyment.

Sendak writes in the introduction:

Posters and other occasional pieces make up a very small part of my picture-making, but, paradoxically, I have a disproportionate affection for these easy images. Why “easy”? They came easy. They were painted in rare moments of relaxation. Often, they were the happy summing up of conglomerate emotions and ideas that had previously been distilled into picture books and theatrical productions. Simply, they were fun to do.

[…]

All of the pictures collected here were done for pleasure, and they are offered up now with the hope that they will give pleasure.

And give they do:

In the altogether wonderful Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — which also gave us this beautiful personal reflection on Sendak’s lesser-known but exceptional gift as an educator, and which features on its cover none other than the above Sendak poster — design critic extraordinaire Steven Heller writes:

Maurice Sendak is not a poster designer. Well, not one per se, but he made some beautiful posters. . . . The poster is a distinctive genre with its own conventions; it is not simply a blown-up image that is larger than a book or illustration. . . . Posters require forethought and attention to typographic and imagistic details.

[…]

Sendak’s posters were rarely occasions to experiment with entirely new methods. Many poster designers do, as a rule, use the genre to try new vocabularies and styles. On the contrary, Sendak used the extra space to stretch out with his favored characters and allow them a chance to breathe more than they could on a book page.

[…]

Posters are a distinct genre, but after perusing this “small part” of Sendak’s picture making, it is easy to see that in whatever he created, he had the heart of a poster maker, the eye of a book illustrator, and the soul of an artist.

Posters By Maurice Sendak, if you’re able to get a hold of the few used copies floating around, is an irrepressible joy from cover to cover, brimming with Sendak’s heart and soul.

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25 JULY, 2013

Open House for Butterflies: Ruth Krauss’s Final and Loveliest Collaboration with Maurice Sendak

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“Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child.”

Beloved children’s author Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993) penned more than thirty books for little ones over the course of her forty-year career, but remains best-known as half of one of the most celebrated author-illustrator duos of all time, the other half being none other than Maurice Sendak. Their eight-year partnership, masterminded by the great Ursula Nordstrom who also nursed Sendak into genius, produced such soul-stirring, heart-warming delights as the hopelessly wonderful ode to friendship I’ll Be You and You Be Me. But Krauss’s eighth and final* collaboration with Sendak, Open House for Butterflies (public library), was arguably their loveliest. Originally published in 1960 and thankfully, unlike what happens to a tragic many out-of-print gems, reprinted in 2001, this tiny treasure is a timeless smile-inducer for children and grown-ups alike.

Open House for Butterflies is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, an epitome of the Krauss-Sendak magic that nurtured generations of children to blossom into creative, thoughtful, just-the-right-amount-of-irreverent adults.

But no one captured the spirit of the Krauss kid more wonderfully than Nordstrom herself: In a letter from January 29, 1952, found in the altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library), Nordstrom writes to her author months before the first Krauss-Sendak book was released:

Last week-end I saw a television program (yes, I have a tv set and the other children’s book editors think I’m horrible to have one but I just toss my lovely head and act defiant) and on it was the most attractive 4 year old boy I’ve ever seen. very close, manly hair cut, and a darling face with dimples. The repulsive master of ceremonies said to him: “Tell me, Craig, when did you get those dimples?” and the m.c. grinned a baby-talk sort of grin, and the audience of adults giggled lovingly. And the kid looked at him and said: “When I got my face.” His tone of voice was reasonable and courteous and trying not to indicate what a silly question that one was. . . . Doesn’t look so wonderful written down, but it was wonderful. A Krauss Kid, I thought happily to myself.

In another letter from February of 1954, Nordstrom tells one of Harper & Row’s West Coast representatives:

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit he doesn’t know the answer to everything. Krauss books will not charm those sinful adults who sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy adult maladjustments. That is a sin and I meet it all the time. But there are some adults who don’t sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy adult maladjustments and I guess those are the ones who will love and buy Krauss.

* In 2005, Sendak re-illustrated a new edition of Krauss’s 1948 gem Bears, originally illustrated by Phyllis Rowand, thus producing a sort of posthumous ninth collaboration.

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18 JULY, 2013

Maurice Sendak, Teacher: Lessons on Art, Storytelling & Life from the Iconic Illustrator’s 1971 Yale Course

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“Maurice’s pleasures were his obsessions, and every one of them was contagious.”

In the fall of 1971, Paul O. Zelinsky, who would go on to become a celebrated children’s book writer and illustrator, signed up for a picture-book class at Yale taught by none other than Maurice Sendak. The course was the brainchild of an aspiring writer named Helen Kivnick. In 1970, while a junior at Yale’s Ezra Stile College, she had found herself writing increasingly long poems reminiscent of children’s stories, so she fancied what a dream come true it would be for the college to offer a course in children’s books, taught by Sendak. She shared the idea with A. Bartlett Giamatti, Kivnick’s writing instructor and the master of Stiles College, who told her that if she contacted Sendak and convinced him to teach the course, the college would allow it to happen. So she leafed through the New York City phone book — a moment of pause for appreciating that noble middleman of communication made long obsolete by today’s technology — and gave him a nervous call. To Kivnick’s surprise and delight, Sendak agreed to teach the course — but on the condition that the school provide another teacher for him to help with the class, which they gladly did: Dr. Elizabeth Francis, a young assistant professor specializing in Victorian literature.

The rest, as they say, is history — and Zelinsky tells it with absorbing affection in his essay “Maurice Sendak as Teacher, Educator, and Mentor” from the altogether fantastic Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library), the companion volume to the wonderful recent exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators.

Zelinsky writes of Sendak’s singular enchantment as an educator:

Maurice came overflowing with historical information and critical commentary that, in its concentrated delivery, defied note-taking. He spoke seriously, with energy and conviction, displaying an Anglophilia that his Brooklyn accent threw into interesting relief. Maurice’s pleasures were his obsessions, and every one of them was contagious. He drew us into his admiration for Randolph Caldecott and for Samuel Palmer and William Blake, whose Songs for Innocence and of Experience he saw as proto-picture books.

Maurice Sendak at a lectern

Zelinksy notes that while Sendak made his students feel as if they were “sharing in his life” as he recounted anecdotes of friends and colleagues like Edward Gorey and his magnificent editor and champion Ursula Nordstrom, “only later did the limits of his openness become clear”: Sendak didn’t once mention the love of his life and his partner of many years, Eugene Glynn, to whom Sendak’s moving posthumous love letter is largely dedicated.

As an educator, however, Sendak practiced a kind of radical, though kind-spirited, candor:

Maurice was generally protective and kind, but he could not praise what he didn’t like. … With us, as with his own writing, he did not condescend.

[…]

It was with the greatest passion that Maurice approached his art. He reserved his greatest contempt for those who, in his view, didn’t share that seriousness.

Sendak's unreleased drawings and intaglio prints. Click image for details.

Though Sendak did away with the conventions of art education, his appreciation for art history profoundly permeated his work:

In the art department, formalism ruled. Art was abstract, and its tools, its terms, its raison d’être were visual. All subject matter was irrelevant. … Formalism wasn’t remotely Maurice’s approach. But as I learned more, I started to see that on a formal plane, Maurice’s pictures have great strength. He looked at the old masters and grasped the abstract essence of their images. You can tell it from his pictures. His illustrations for chapter books by Meindert DeJong weren’t ersatz Rembrandts; they conjured, without copying, the way Rembrandt’s drawings function, the vivacity of his line, and the judiciously placed accents. … My other teachers used the word “illustration” to mean an image that falls flat as form, whose only interest is on the level of subject matter. Sendak was quite the counterexample.

Yet despite his disdain for formalism, Sendak’s work exuded a distinct structure, the secret of which was a revelation in the art of storytelling:

If Maurice didn’t talk about the abstract choices he made as a draftsman, he did speak about the formal structure of his books, and this was an eye-opener for me. He talked about a book having rhythm, much the way a piece of music has rhythm from beginning to end. The word “rhythm” alone opened a world of understanding to me. Looking at Randolph Caldecott’s idiosyncratic layouts, where words of a nursery rhyme aren’t regularly placed through the book, stanza by stanza, but are interrupted by a wordless vignette here, or a free-standing line — Maurice showed us how it became music: the pauses and repetitions, loudness and softness, all with a big overall shape that carries you from the first page to the last.

Drawing from Sendak's little-known illustrations of Tolstoy. Click image for details.

Sendak’s streak of lovable curmudgeonliness came through in the classroom as well:

He also liked to bemoan. How hard it was to do the work, how little respect the world had for it. … But the bemoaning never grew burdensome because he kept his sense of humor and wouldn’t let himself get too carried away. Over the years, our conversations on the phone may have tended to drift into grand statements about the sad, downhill state of things, but then Maurice would stop himself. I remember once, in the middle of such a pronouncement, he said: “Why am I saying this? I’m just being fatuous.”

[…]

He had no patience for people whose hearts, as he saw it, weren’t in the right place. But for the others, his attention and patience and concern were manifest.

Sendak illustration from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for details.

But Sendak’s greatest legacy, both as an artist and an educator, was one of optimism and unflinching faith in children’s intelligence. Zelinsky puts it beautifully:

He believed that art can be for children, that it mustn’t be treacly or pandering, and that it should be as rich and good as the art that adults want for themselves.

Indeed, nearly two decades after his Yale class, Sendak famously told The New York Times:

I have this idiot name tag which says “controversial.” I’ve had it since 1965, with Where the Wild Things Are. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs: Every time I do a book, they all carry on. It may be good for business, but it’s tiresome for me. … Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something, not didactic things, but passionate things.

Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work is magnificent from cover to cover, a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.

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