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Sendak sketches a life in children's art

Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak, creator of widely loved children's books including "Where the Wild Things Are," takes childhood seriously. Those early years of bliss and terror are not kid stuff, the prize-winning author and illustrator declared during a witty and moving presentation in Kresge Auditorium at MIT on April 5.

Sendak's 90-minute talk, "Descent into Limbo" (this year's May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture) was sponsored by the Cambridge Public Library and Children's Literature New England Inc.

As he spoke, Sendak, 74, gestured occasionally with a "magic walking stick" that had belonged to Beatrix Potter.

"I am obsessed with childhood and no good for anything else. Childhood is the armature of all my work," Sendak said, characterizing children as "exciting, excitable monsters with their odd touching support for us language-bankrupt grown-ups."

Hardly "language-bankrupt," Sendak precisely and colorfully discussed the changes he led in children's book publishing. "Great giant ladies" were the powers behind publishing in the 1950s, while "bottom-liners and suits from conglomerate-land" have taken over since the 1980s, leaving "dinosaurs like me to huddle and hiss in the corner," he said.

He sketched his own career in swift strokes, from Brooklyn through "Oz," his years in Manhattan as a window-dresser for FAO Schwarz, the toy boutique, and later as an illustrator for books including "The Wonderful Farm" (1951), "A Hole is to Dig" (1952) and "Little Bear" (1957).
"Where the Wild Things Are," published in 1963, introduced the feisty Max, who tames the wild things within. Max's fury and longing marked the beginning of a new intensity in the way children's inner lives are portrayed.

Sendak, who described his work as an "intense spiritual mission," noted that working in children's book publishing in the early 1950s brought him into the "jumping" art world as well as "close enough to peer into the abyss--only the diary of one young girl to remind us of all the stilled voices." Many of Sendak's relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

His talk often returned to the theme of stilled voices, and it was out of this image that he drew his central theme. "Descent into Limbo" refers to his favorite painting, a small oil by Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna that depicts Christ preparing to liberate the souls of the righteous who have died.

Sendak said he has suffered from deep states of depression in his life but these were part of artistic work, not to be feared or avoided. Creativity contains an element of despair, and the artist must dive into limbo, he said.

His creative life took a surprising new direction in 1978, when, at 50, he turned to stage design for Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute."

"Since I was 16, Mozart had been my savior and 'The Magic Flute' was my life preserver. Music had been my first passion: I've got no musical talent but I can whistle a good chunk of the classical repertoire," he said. "I was elated and that turned into despair. It was limbo: Who would I steal from?"

He returned to Mantegna, and his favorite writers: Shakespeare, John Keats, William Blake and Herman Melville. "Melville said, 'I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface. It takes courage to dive deep,'" Sendak said.

Diving into his own childhood, Sendak recalled turning 16 in 1944 and filling 20 sketchpads with drawings of Rosie, the girl across the street, during "the "darkest days of the Holocaust." As many audience members openly wept, he described a later visit to a dying girl in a British hospital. Limbo--looking straight at death and at life--takes guts. "Childhood is no place to hide," he said.

Sendak is now working on designs for "Brundibar," an opera composed by Hans Krasa that was sung by the children in Terezin (Theresienstadt), a Nazi concentration camp. The composer and all the performers were killed in 1944.

"The 'Brundibar' projects brought me full circle back to my uneasy childhood. Two months before my 75th birthday, I'm ready. Keats only lived until 25. I'm not complaining," said Sendak.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 9, 2003.

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