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Sendak's Legacy Lives On at Rosenbach

May 10, 2012 By:
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Maurice Sendak

Anyone who has ever been entranced by Max's wild rumpus with the titular characters from Where the Wild Things Are, Mickey's dough-fueled flight out of In the Night Kitchen's pie, or any one of the number of indelible creations that sprang from the imagination of Maurice Sendak, will no doubt find the pages of their favorite books harder to turn for a spell.

The author/illustrator, who died at his Connecticut home at the age of 83 on Tuesday, has left a lasting impact on generations of readers. Perhaps nowhere is that impact seen more tangibly than in Philadelphia.

Sendak's connection to the city began in the 1960s, when he developed a relationship with the Rosenbach Museum based on a shared interest in many of the same things as museum co-founder A.S.W. Rosenbach, a relationship that ultimately led Sendak to designate the Rosenbach as the sole repository of his life's work. The museum's collection encompasses some 10,000 pieces of Sendakiana, from original art to opera costumes.

This has made the Center City museum a natural gathering place this week for those wishing to pay their respects and to immerse themselves once more in his imagination.

Whether Sendak's fans are gazing at his full-size original paintings or leafing through a dog-eared family copy of one of his creations, they won't have to look very hard to see how his Jewish life informed his works.

As Judith M. Guston, the Rosenbach's curator and director of collections, explains, Sendak's "background -- his family life, the loss of his father's relatives in the Holocaust -- made an extreme impact on his life, and it showed in his artwork."

Indeed, Sendak himself, while famously private about most details of his personal life until the last few years, mentioned on a number of occasions how being Jewish influenced his art.

He told Terry Gross, in an interview on the radio program, "Fresh Air," that the Hitler-mustachioed cooks in In the Night Kitchen and their efforts to cook Mickey in their oven, were direct references to the Holocaust.

And in an interview with Bill Moyers for the PBS television series, "Now With Bill Moyers," he explained how he came up with the Wild Things. "My brother, sister and I were sitting shiva. I remember our relatives used to come from the old country, those few who got in before the gate closed, all on my mother's side. And how we detested them. The cruelty that children -- you know, kids are hard. And these people didn't speak English. And they were unkempt. Their teeth were horrifying. And they'd pick you up and hug you and kiss you, 'Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up.'

"And when I remember them, the discussion with my brother and sister, how we laughed about these people who we, of course, grew up to love very much, I decided to render them as the Wild Things."

Guston of the Rosenbach has a similarly complex view of the man she collaborated with for so many years.

"There was a lot of ink spent on calling him a curmudgeon. And he was, but he was also always a kind, warm person. I was very privileged to have known him. It's been a long time since my grandparents died, but he enabled me to access a very warm feeling for the Old World and enabled me to bring forth memories of my own family, and for that I will be forever thankful."

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