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Contemporary Jewish Museum is Where the Wild Things are With There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak
Maurice Sendak, Final drawing for Mommy? © Maurice Sendak, 2006. All rights reserved.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- This fall, things get wild at the Contemporary Jewish Museum as it presents There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak, a major retrospective of over 100 works by Maurice Sendak, the famed author and illustrator of over 100 picture books who changed the course of children's literature forever with his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are. On view September 8, 2009 - January 19, 2010, this is the largest and most ambitious exhibition of original watercolors and drawings from more than 40 of Sendak's books, including his most beloved titles. It also features rare sketches, never-before-seen working materials, and exclusive interview footage.

Organized by the world's only repository of Sendak's work, The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the exhibition is a fascinating and revealing journey into the artist's life and work for both children and adults. Families gain a deeper understanding of the characters and stories they love while adult audiences get an unprecedented opportunity to explore the more mature and sophisticated ideas behind many of Sendak's beloved tales, discovering how they were shaped by intensely personal stories and influences, especially the people, places, and events of Sendak's childhood.

Sendak, now 81 years old, was born in Brooklyn in 1928, 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 adventures and anxieties are currents that run through all of Sendak's work.

These hidden nuances and personal secrets, or "The Other Story" as Sendak calls it, inform much of the exhibition. "That's the best fun in all of this - the layers of meaning, the layers of storytelling," Sendak said in a 2007 interview. "When you hide another story in a story, that's the story I am telling the children."

On View
Sendak himself serves as the visitor's guide through this landscape of hidden narratives. Interspersed throughout the artworks are touch screens where visitors can activate clips of interview footage in which Sendak elaborates on a range of topics from his creative process to his childhood use of storytelling to gain acceptance with neighborhood kids.

The exhibition showcases original watercolors, drawings, sketches, dummy books, ephemera, and more -- 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.

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.

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.

Beasts of Burden: Monsters, Boogeymen, & Bullies
Mirth and mischief go hand in hand with menace however. 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.

Influences: Family, Friends, & Inspirations
The third section of the exhibition focuses on Sendak's family, the stories he grew up with and the writers who inspired him. Visitors can see early drawings for stories written by his older brother Jack (the two would often sketch stories together on men's shirt cardboards) and many of the illustrations that Sendak created for other people's books from Tolstoy to the Brothers Grimm to George Eliot. In his illustrations for the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the influence of his family is clearly felt. His father idealized the lost shtetl life of Poland and loved to tell Sendak and his siblings stories about his childhood there.

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 conjurs 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.

"This important exhibition opens a fascinating new window onto the work of now legendary author and illustrator Maurice Sendak," states Contemporary Jewish Museum director and CEO, Connie Wolf. "His stories have been read by children for over five decades and now many of these children are parents themselves. The exhibition illuminates for audiences - young and old - how his own childhood, his Jewish family, and Jewish traditions influenced his work. The Museum is thrilled to have this unique opportunity to engage audiences of all ages in a dialogue about Sendak, his beloved stories, and Jewish art, culture, history, and ideas."

Viewing the Exhibition with Children
There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak, while full of complex themes that adult audiences will find compelling, is also carefully constructed to be enjoyed by families. Kid-friendly elements include activity cards that challenge young viewers to seek out objects on display and feature Sendak characters they can use to create their own stories. Family guides offer grown-ups tools for navigating some of the themes while at the same time encouraging children to ponder age appropriate questions such as "What's the strangest dream you can remember?" Touch screens featuring Sendak's engaging and revealing interviews offer interactivity for both children and adults to hear about the characters and monsters and hidden themes from Sendak himself. The works will also be brought to life outside the gallery in the entirety of the Museum.

Fraidy Aber, Director of Education at the Contemporary Jewish Museum comments, "The personal childhood themes built into Sendak's seemingly whimsical storytelling act as a perfect entry point for young audiences. Education is at the heart of the Museum's mission, and this exhibition provides an excellent platform for us to engage children, youth, and audiences of all ages through dynamic interactive programs, tours, and activities."

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