Wild for the night
The NMA celebrates the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are
Where the Wild Things Are, a picture book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, was first published in 1963. It tells the story of Max, a boy who likes to dress and act like a wolf. After terrorizing the family dog and making “mischief,” Max gets in trouble and is sent to his room without supper. From his bedroom, presumably on waves of imagination, he sails off to an island inhabited by strange quasi-mythical beasts. Max intimidates the beast and is declared king of the wild things. Max parties with the beasts for a time—a “wild rumpus”—before heading back home, where he discovers his mother left supper for him after all.
It’s a short, simple story, bolstered by the book’s iconic, unforgettable illustrations. For the last 50 years, it has been loved by generations of children and anyone who feels a periodic need to go out and get wild, to purge themselves of their anger and other wolfish feelings, before they can return and appreciate the quiet pleasures of home.
The story has been adapted into an opera, an animated film, a video game and, in 2009, a critically acclaimed live-action film directed by recent Oscar-winner Spike Jonze.
Although Wild Things is the anchor of Sendak’s legacy, he illustrated more than a hundred other books, including Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear and Tony Kushner’s Brundibaacute;r, and he wrote a couple of dozen more, including In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. All told, as a children’s book author and illustrator, Sendak, who died in 2012, has an influential legacy that rivals Dr. Suess.Into the wild
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are, Steven Brezzo, former director of the San Diego Museum of Art and Sendak’s personal friend curated the touring exhibition Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, which is now on display at the Nevada Museum of Art. Organized from private collections and Sendak’s personal archive, the exhibition includes original illustrations from Sendak’s books and many original illustrations of Wild Things characters drawn by Sendak in response to fan letters. There are also Sendak’s concept drawings for the opera based on the story, as well as concept art by Constantine Sekeris for the 2009 film. There are also items from Sendak’s personal collection of pre-1935 Disney ephemera.
Unusually for the NMA, the exhibition is presented by the museum’s education department.
“We wanted to present an exhibition from the point of view of learning and teaching, and do so in a way that was welcoming and specifically inviting to families and kids,” says Colin Robertson, the museum’s director of education.
The exhibition has a lot of related events programming, including guest lectures by illustrators and story time readings of Sendak books in the Robert Z. Hawkins Wild Rumpus Room, featured in the gallery. Everything in the exhibition was hung seven inches lower than normal than most NMA exhibitions to better accommodate younger museum visitors.
Robertson says that it’s unusual for a fine art museum to embrace an illustration exhibition, and some of his favorite works in the show are the ones that launched Sendak’s interest in an illustration career: illustrated panels from a 10th grade school project about Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which the shy Sendak made in lieu of a stand-and-deliver class presentation. The 1943 illustrations are like a missing link between William Blake’s religious illuminations and early Marvel Comics.Wild, wild life
Perhaps the most unique thing about the NMA’s presentation of the Sendak exhibition is an original artwork: a replica of Max’s boat from the story, made by local artist Tim Conder with help from fellow artists Nick Larsen and Anthony Arevalo.
“In many art museums, the exhibitions are presented in fairly sterile, white-cube environments,” says Robertson. “Because of its content and because of the purpose it’s serving in our exhibition and programming efforts, we wanted it to be more of an environment that’s akin to the environment created in the narrative of the story.”
Conder says he was excited about the opportunity when the museum staff approached him about the project.
“I think Maurice Sendak was pretty important as a person and an author, because he changed the way that children’s literature and children’s illustration were done,” says Conder. “He gave kids a voice, made them multidimensional and layered people, which was kind of revolutionary.”
“Until Where the Wild Things Are, children’s literature, as a form and as a genre, had always been this romanticized, idealized, whitewashed, often sanitized kind of story about perfect families, perfect children and very traditional values,” says Robertson. “And when Where the Wild Things Are was published, it caused a huge uproar because it’s about a kid who’s being disciplined by his mom. He gets sent to bed without his dinner. He’s being rude. He’s being difficult. And then he is isolated in his bedroom for a time, and that’s where the imaginative force takes over the story. … The publication changed the direction of what was appropriate for children’s literature as a subject matter.”
Sendak wrote about the real emotions that children and the rest of us often feel, emotions like anger, fear and the simple desire to act out, to dance and hoot and holler, the need to get wild.