San Francisco Chronicle
Mouse helped Sendak free ‘Wild Things’
Maurice Sendak had an interesting relationship with the world of Walt Disney. After he saw “Fantasia” at age 12, Sendak decided to become a cartoonist and sent a letter to Disney that went unanswered.
But that didn’t dim Sendak’s Disney enthusiasm. A fan of Mickey Mouse from his childhood in the 1930s — Mickey and Maurice were both born in 1928 — Sendak amassed an impressive Mickey memorabilia collection while becoming one of the world’s most famous children’s book authors and illustrators through titles like “In the Night Kitchen,” “Chicken Soup With Rice” and his most revered work, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
It’s fitting, then, that the traveling exhibition “Maurice Sendak: 50 Years, 50 Works, 50 Reasons” is landing at the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio. The show, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of “Wild Things” with original illustrations and statements from Sendak’s celebrity fans, doesn’t dwell on the Disney connection, but you can find it in the work if you know where to look.
“Disney was one of Maurice’s first storytelling loves,” says Patrick Rodgers, curator of the Maurice Sendak Collection at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library. “And his affection for Mickey Mouse wasn’t always something he could be articulate about. It was the purest image of joy he had come to understand.
“The Disney connection is more than nostalgia, though. It comes up in his work, like the boy Mickey in ‘In the Night Kitchen’ is a reference to Mickey Mouse, and when he’s in a doughy costume, he even resembles Mickey Mouse in some ways. Chasing Mickey is a theme that hasn’t been pulled out of Sendak’s work enough, but it’s always there.”
Sendak, who died a year ago at age 83, wrote in 1978: “In school, I learned to despise Walt Disney. I was told that he corrupted the fairy tale and that he was the personification of poor taste. I began to suspect my own instinctual response to Mickey. It took me nearly 20 years to rediscover the pleasure of that first response and to fuse it with my own work as an artist. It took me just as long to forget the corrupting effect of school.”
The Disney Museum was one of the first venues Steven Brezzo called when he was organizing the Sendak exhibition, which he says came out of a desire to pay tribute to the artist-writer and his more than 60-year career.
“As a kid, Sendak would wear his sister’s white gloves so he’d look more like Mickey Mouse,” Brezzo says on the phone from his Manhattan office. “Of course I’d call the Disney Museum. The Disney work Sendak saw as a kid was the beginning of his relationship with art.”
In addition to the 50 illustrations and drawings, mostly pulled from private collections and relating to “Wild Things,” Brezzo collected quotes from other artists and illustrators as well as from celebrities like Stephen Colbert, who says that Sendak’s art “gave us a fantastical but unromanticized reminder of what childhood truly felt like. We are all honored to have been briefly invited into his world.”
Other contributors include Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), Tom Hanks, President Obama and Spike Jonze, who directed the 2009 movie adaptation of “Wild Things.”
But not everybody Brezzo contacted about Sendak had warm and fuzzy things to say.
“Maurice could be quite the curmudgeon,” Brezzo says. “He could be cantankerous and grouchy and a challenge to work with, so more than once I had to back away from the phone when I heard the explosion at the other end. Just about everybody loved and admired his work, but not everybody would give me a nice quote. I’d say 75 percent of the people we contacted were more than generous.”
Sense of childhood
Regardless of his interpersonal skills, Sendak’s legacy is remarkable.
“He would not speak down to children and was rapidly furious if anyone did that,” Brezzo says. “He had a private, intuitive sense of childhood filled with longing and loss. You really feel that in ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ There’s nothing cartoony in the lithe style of his illustrations depicting a prodigal son’s sense of loss, abandon and wildness.”
The Rosenbach’s Rodgers says experiencing Sendak’s work outside of the books — like on the walls of a museum — offers a new way to experience a complex artist.
“Sendak’s work makes great exhibitions because there are so many allusions and hidden references and aha moments,” Rodgers says. “A good exhibition gives you a new way of understanding the work outside of its original context. Seeing a drawing from ‘Wild Things’ takes you immediately back to the book, but then you then go someplace new. It’s sort of a reunion of the child self and the curious adult self. It’s fun in a museum to see kids and adults seeing work they know as if for the first time because they’re seeing it from a different angle.”