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There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak

Sep 9, 2010–Jan 19, 2011

Maurice Sendak has written or illustrated more than 100 picture books over his 60-year career. A number of those books, including Where the Wild Things AreIn the Night Kitchen, and Chicken Soup with Rice, inspired generations of children and changed the landscape of picture books.

Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Sendak was 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 experiences with his Jewish relatives, are currents that run through all of Sendak's work.

about the exhibition

There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak is a major retrospective that sheds light on the many mysteries of his life and art by exploring the intensely personal undercurrents in Sendak's work, and it does so using his own words, insights, and remarkable stories. Organized by the world’s only repository of Sendak’s work, The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the exhibition includes original watercolors, preliminary sketches, drawings, and dummy books from more than 40 of the artist's books—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—including his most beloved titles. It also features rare sketches, never-before-seen working materials, and exclusive interview footage.

The exhibition explores a number of different aspects of Sendak's books including his child characters, monsters, literary and artistic influences, and the settings of his stories. Visitors can delve into the hidden nuances and personal secrets within Sendak's work through exclusive interviews with the artist on digital touch screens throughout the exhibition. In the interviews, Sendak elaborates on a range of topics from his creative process to his childhood use of storytelling to gain acceptance with neighborhood kids. 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.

As Sendak himself said in one such interview, "When you hide another story in a story, that's the story I am telling the children." These hidden stories within Sendak's work form the core experience of There's a Mystery There.

gallery photos
kids: innocence & experience

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.


Maurice Sendak, Final drawing for Hector Protector, and As I Went Over the Water. Pen and ink. © Maurice Sendak, 1965. All rights reserved. 

Beasts of Burden: Monsters, Boogeymen, & Bullies

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.

Danger often takes the form of monsters and this second section of the exhibition highlights many of these from the famous monsters of Where the Wild Things Are to lesser-known creatures like a dragon Sendak drew for Frank Richard Stockton’s The Bee-Man of Orn. Sendak’s many depictions of wolves and bears also play a large role in this section of the exhibition.


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

Settings: Cityscapes, Landscapes, & Scenery

The final section of the exhibition highlights Sendak’s evocative landscapes. While his cityscapes and landscapes often echo familiar places like New York City, Sendak also conjures up fantastical environments from his imagination. In In the Night Kitchen, Sendak turned the objects in his mother’s kitchen into an extraordinary environment for a child named Mickey. Examples range from Max’s bold and graphic forested bedroom in Where the Wild Things Are to the delicate and finely detailed woodlands of stories like Dear Mili by Wilhelm Grimm. This section also sheds light on the strong influence of theater on the life and work of Sendak, evident in humorous sketches for stories like Higglety, Pigglety, Pop! and Swine Lake.


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


There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak was organized by The Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia, and was made possible thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services, as well as the Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corporation. The national tour is presented by HarperCollins Children's Books. The San Francisco presentation has been made possible by lead support from the Koret and Taube Foundations.

Education and outreach for the exhibition are generously supported by The Louise and Claude Rosenberg Jr. Family Foundation and the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund. Additional support provided by Julie and David Levine.

Media sponsorship provided by KGO-TV, KQED, and Bay Area Parent.

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Image Credit

Header image: Maurice Sendak, Final drawing for Where the Wild Things Are. Pen and ink, watercolor. © Maurice Sendak, 1963. All rights reserved. Gallery photos: Installation views and photos from the Members' Opening of There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak, on view Sep 8, 2009–Jan 19, 2010 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo credits: Ben Blackwell and Weeks Photography.