Maurice Sendak Imagined More Than Wild Things

A new exhibition, the first of its kind since the artist’s death, showcases his extensive but lesser-known body of work

Maurice in his studio
Maurice Sendak at his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1990 Barbara Alper / Getty Images

You may know Maurice Sendak for his beloved children’s books like Where the Wild Things Are, but many don’t know that the renowned illustrator tried his hand at countless other artistic pursuits. Now, the Columbus Museum of Art, working with the Maurice Sendak Foundation, is aiming to expand the public’s understanding of the prolific artist. A new exhibition, “Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak,” showcases a wide range of his work. It is the first such exhibition since the artist’s death in 2012, and the largest and most comprehensive retrospective of his work to date, according to the museum.

“We wanted people to understand that Maurice was actually a serious artist,” Lynn Caponera, executive director of the Maurice Sendak Foundation, tells Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the Associated Press (AP).

Of course, the exhibition also boasts plenty of Where the Wild Things Are content for lovers of the children’s classic: Original illustrations from his books are on display, as well as some of the costumes from the 2009 Spike Jonze film adaptation.

The Obamas read Where the wild things are
Barack and Michelle Obama read Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are to children at the annual Easter Egg Roll at the White House on March 28, 2016. Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

Sendak, who was largely self-taught, worked constantly throughout his 60-plus year career, illustrating more than 150 books. In the 1970s, he started designing sets and costumes for opera and ballet—including The Magic Flute, The Nutcracker and Hansel and Gretel.

“Maurice had this unbelievable range,” Jonathan Weinberg, an artist and curator for the Maurice Sendak Foundation, tells the AP. “And if he couldn’t do something, if he didn’t have that style at that moment for what was needed, he would figure it out and learn.”

The exhibition explores Sendak’s themes and influences, including William Blake, Winsor McCay, George Stubbs, Beatrix PotterPhilipp Otto Runge and Walt Disney. The artist famously loved Disney, and he has said that seeing Fantasia inspired him to become an illustrator.

Author and illustrator Maurice Sendak
Author and illustrator Maurice Sendak standing by a scaled-up illustration from Where the Wild Things Are James Keyser / Getty Images

Born in 1928 to Jewish immigrants from Poland, Sendak grew up in the United States. But his childhood was marked by the Holocaust, to which he lost several family members, and poor health; he was often confined to bed, unable to truly join in with those outside his home. Sendak firmly believed that children could handle darkness and difficult emotions—to an extent far greater than adults gave them credit for.

“From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions—fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can,” Sendak said in his acceptance speech when he received the Caldecott Medal in 1964. “And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.”

Wild Things Are Happening: The Art of Maurice Sendak” is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through March 5, 2023. An international tour will follow.

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