Wild things, I think I love you: Jonathan Jones pays tribute to Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak is widely recognised as an outstanding children's author, but he is more than that. He is an artist whose flair for visual storytelling is almost unmatched today. Jonathan Jones pays tribute

A girl is cocooned in a yellow cloak - the draperies form a mysterious, magical vehicle in which she floats, the cloth swirling around her in the dark blue sky. Swags of cloud are silvered by the moon's glowing eye. It's an amazing sight, that moon. It is only a circle of whiteness on a page, yet gives the illusion of glowing: a little miracle of artistic illusion. Below, in a cave by the sea, a baby struggles in the arms of two purple-clad creatures with black spaces where their faces should be.

Is it the uncomfortable resemblance between these villains and the monsters in some of the nastiest horror films that makes you uneasy about sharing Maurice Sendak's picture book, Outside Over There, with a small child? Or is it the sheer pleasure the book gives you, as an adult?

In Sendak's most famous and bestselling picture book, Where The Wild Things Are, first published in 1963, the moon peers into the sulking hero Max's bedroom like a giant intrusive eye. He closes his eyes and his room turns into a forest. Sailing to a savage island, he meets fantastical monsters and tames them "by staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once". He sails home with eyes closed ... sometimes you see best with your eyes closed.

For more than half a century Sendak, the 79-year-old Brooklyn-born illustrator and author, has been making picture books that are not just wildly imaginative and beautiful entertainments for the young but something else besides: a sustained inquiry into the nature of telling and showing. He has not so much raised the picture book into high art as revealed that it always could be that.

Because Sendak's art is funny - his Wild Things are hilarious beasts, massive and toothy and hairy, but drawn with a warmth that makes them lovable - it's easy to miss its intensity. So though he is recognised, especially in America, as an outstanding children's author, his spectacular achievement as a visual artist has not had the credit it deserves. The fact is, there are very few artists at work today who have a comparable flair for visual storytelling. David Hockney's opera designs for Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, or Paula Rego's enigmatic fairytale-like scenes, or masters of the graphic novel such as Art Spiegelman or Alan Moore, are the comparisons that spring to mind. But to get a grasp of what Sendak is doing, it helps to cast your net wider, deeper, darker.

Pictures begin in the dark. The first pictures lie deep inside caves where stone age hunters painted mammoths and horses on rock faces. The oldest cave paintings that have been discovered are 30,000 years old; the earliest writing dates from just 5,000 years ago. For a timespan that dwarfs recorded history, human beings could make and look at and interpret pictures, but could not read or write. This put them in a position analagous with the small child looking at a picture book. Is the reason adults love art becauses we remember that some things cannot be told, only shown?

The picture book as we know it today - a simple illustrated book for the young - originates in the 18th century and expresses the empirical philosophy of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, who held that what we can see and demonstrate is more real than what we are told. Language is a set of signs that denote the things we see - and in the first alphabet primers and Mother Goose nursery rhyme books, with their woodcut illustrations, you find this common sense world view being translated into books that span the gap between pictures and words, babyhood and literacy.

Maurice Sendak's art is a rich fabric of references; it is very consciously rooted in these early children's books, and the tradition of Hogarth and Blake. William Hogarth's pictorial narratives are contemporary with the first Mother Goose collections and fairytale chapbooks. There's a childlike simplicity (but harsh adult content) to his graphic novels The Rake's Progress and The Harlot's Progress. His achievement was an inspiration to the young William Blake, who trained as an engraver and printmaker in late 18th century London; but where Hogarth's narratives play comically on the difference between telling and showing, Blake sees the matter in an infinitely more cosmic way. His Songs Of Innocence, published in 1789, a collection of his own poems illuminated by his hand, is a strange, ethereal transfiguration of the early child's picture book, at once more lavish and self-conscious than a Mother Goose anthology.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn in 1928, the son of Jewish immigrants who came from rural Poland. "Mine was a childhood coloured with memories of village life in Poland, never actually experienced but passed on to me as persuasive reality by my immigrant parents. On the one hand, I lived snugly in their old country world, a world far from urban society, where the laws and customs of a small Jewish village were scrupulously and lovingly obeyed. And on the other hand, I was bombarded with the intoxicating gush of America ..." He was a fan of Mickey Mouse (Mickey until the mid-30s, that is, when his design changed, becoming cosier). Sendak hated school but loved books. He attended the Art Students' League in New York in the early 50s (where many abstract artists taught and were trained) at the exact moment when New York's great generation of abstract painters - Joseph Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman - were coming into their own. Although his works show deep awareness of what was happening in American art, he does not seem to have been attracted to abstraction. But then he wanted to make books, the antithesis of the grand scale of abstract expressionist painting.

He has more in common with New York surrealist Joseph Cornell, or even Andy Warhol. In the 1950s Sendak was illustrating books such as Else Holmelund Minarik's Little Bear while Warhol was drawing shoes for fashion magazines. There is some similarity between Sendak's early graphic style - spiky in a 1950s manner - and Warhol's fashion drawings. In the early 1960s, both burst out of their shells. While Warhol and the pop artists were bringing the raw American materials of soup cans, Coke bottles, Mickey Mouse and hotdogs into the art gallery, Sendak started to do something comparable with the picture book - most explicitly in In The Night Kitchen, which I'll come to later.

The Nutshell Library is his subversive travesty of the origins of his chosen form in 18th century Britain. This collection of slim, pocket-sized books, which appeared in 1962, turns the didactic, empirical philosophy of 18th century primers on its head, with an alphabet primer called Alligators All Around, featuring a family of alligators who illustrate the letter B by "bursting balloons" and P by "pushing people"; elsewhere it parodies the moral tone of early children's books with the "cautionary tale" of Pierre, a little boy who keeps barking, "I DON'T CARE!" ("Am I bovvered?") and includes the nonsense masterpiece Chicken Soup With Rice, a primer of the months of the year conducted by a slightly deranged boy who tells us about the different months and what he likes about them - namely the opportunity each one affords him to eat chicken soup with rice:

I told you once
I told you twice
all seasons
of the year
are nice
for eating
chicken soup
with rice!

The following year, Where The Wild Things Are was published. At first sight it might seem Max, the hero, is a bad boy pure and simple. We first meet him wearing a white wolf suit, banging a nail in a wall with a hammer almost as big as he is; on the next page he's chasing a dog with a fork. But the style reveals something else. Sendak deploys deep perspectives and immaculate hand-drawn cross-hatching recognisably derived from Hogarth, whose art also happens to be full of joyous, naughty, boisterous children - children of nature in the language of the 18th century.

Max is a child of nature. Sent to bed by his mother, he imagines that a forest grows in his room, and a forest really does grow in his room. Sendak's delineation of a room changing into a forest in a sequence of just three pictures is a graphic triumph. And then Max sets sail to the land of the Wild Things, still wearing his wolf suit, and leads a gang of gigantic beasts in howling at the moon, swinging in the trees and having a tumultuous parade. It's Rousseau meets Rousseau - that is, the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who praised naturalness and spontaneity, meets the naive modern artist of jungles Henri Rousseau. But the influence of Picasso is also undeniable. Sendak's monsters resemble the minotaur in Picasso's 1937 print Minotauromachy. In that work, Picasso, too, stresses the courage and innocence of children: a girl stands undauntedly holding up a candle to illuminate the Minotaur's horror while a grown man runs away.

The style of Where The Wild Things Are is very precise and firm - boldly drawn hair and leaves, almost dry in its refusal of whimsy. The story is about adventure and heroism and dreaming - Max can dream a thing so forcefully, it is real. Sendak finds a way to express this visually as graphic robustness.

There are just over 300 words in the text; in one sequence there are no words at all as Max dances with the Wild Things. Could the entire book be wordless? Certainly you can miss a lot if you concentrate too much on the words. Where The Wild Things Are was made into an opera in 1980 by Oliver Knussen and Sendak has often compared his art to music - he has designed productions of The Nutcracker and The Magic Flute. In Where The Wild Things Are, he creates a visual motion as exquisite as a lullaby, and it is this musical quality - a harmony and rhythm carrying you from picture to picture - that makes it so vividly resemble a beautiful dream. A real dream.

One of the things a visual narrative can do, perhaps more truly than words, is to replicate the logic of dreams. The surrealist Max Ernst with his collage novel knew this, Alfred Hitchcock knew this, and so does Sendak. It will be fascinating to see how Spike Jonze's film - currently in production - of Where The Wild Things Are, with a screenplay by Dave Eggers and starring James Gandolfini, will translate Sendak's work to the screen.

Wild Things is the first part of what Sendak himself has described as a "trilogy". Each book is wildly different in style and theme, with different characters - what they share is the fact that they are all fantastical dream narratives.

Did you ever hear of Mickey,
How he heard a racket in the night
and shouted

Mickey, the protagonist of Sendak's second part of the trilogy, his 1970 book In The Night Kitchen, falls through the dark, through solid floors, down into the night kitchen where giant bakers, who all look exactly like Oliver Hardy - an uncanny monstrous touch - mix him into a bowl of batter before he escapes and moulds an airplane out of dough. He flies to the top of a giant milk bottle - the Milky Way - and gets the bakers the milk they crave. Only then is he free to return to bed. It is the story of a dream: this is what happens to Mickey when he's asleep in bed. And once again the harmonies and toughness of the drawing make this dream utterly real and beguiling. It's a dream you could eat.

In The Night Kitchen is a great piece of pop art. Sendak wasn't just looking at 18th century prints now but at Claes Oldenburg's New York pop sculptures of everyday objects, especially food - the wondrous floppy, gooey dough in Sendak's story is as messy as Oldenburg's outsized, soft sculptures of hamburgers. And just as Oldenburg and Warhol tended to dwell on traditional American food products - Oldenburg made sculptures of deli treats such as knickerbocker glories and apple pie à la mode - the world of the Night Kitchen is a dream cityscape made entirely of packets of old-fashioned foods, kitchen products and utensils.

It is one of the most captivating attempts in all American art to convey the dream that is Manhattan. Growing up across the river in Brooklyn, Sendak has recalled that when he went into Manhattan as a child to go to the movies with his older sister, they'd always eat there, and the city's skyscrapers for him merged with food.

The nocturnal adventurer Mickey is based directly on the hero of a 1900s New York comic strip called Little Nemo In Slumberland (in his dreams Little Nemo, like Mickey, wanders through a colossal Manhattan skyscraper landscape). While the original is a congested, chaotic comic strip, what Sendak does is to give the images more air to breathe, allowing them to dominate his terse, witty text. Once again he's wondering what pictures can show that words can't tell.

There's something visionary about this book that reveals the secret world of bakers hidden from the daytime metropolis. And that sense of visionary experience finally becomes dominant in Sendak's 1981 book Outside Over There.

Sendak has said this story of a girl called Ida whose baby sister is kidnapped by goblins is his attempt to "exorcise" the story of the kidnap of the baby of aviator Charles Lindbergh, a news story that transfixed early 1930s America. When he was small, Sendak says, "I was a very sickly child, and very worried about it, mainly because my parents were indiscreet enough to bewail my sickliness and carry on about how long I'd be around. I learned early on that it was a very chancy business, being alive. Then this disaster occurred: an immaculate, rich baby, living on an estate... this precious baby is taken away. I lived in terror and dread of what might happen to him."

Outside Over There is a very scary book. It systematically quotes the desolate landscapes and grotesque portraits of the early 19th century German artists Caspar David Friedrich and Philip Otto Runge. These Romantic painters are odd and disturbing when you encounter them as an adult, let alone when you're three. Outside Over There actually includes a seascape based closely on Friedrich's most dreadfully empty and lonely painting The Monk By the Sea (c 1809). Colossal sunflowers burst in seemingly straight from the paintings of Runge, who also gave Sendak the faces of the babies in the story. Runge was a friend of the fairytale collectors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, in fact the source of their tale The Fisherman And His Wife - so in adopting his aesthetic, Sendak has found a visual echo of the great fairytales.

There's no denying the deep and dark personal feelings he is dealing with in this, his greatest work of art. Sendak had a nervous breakdown while creating it. And I have to admit that what makes it an artistic masterpiece is also what might make some people nervous about showing it to children.

The Lindbergh story ended tragically. Outside Over There ends happily. Yet its image of goblins with black voids for faces coming in the window and leaving a substitute child "all made of ice" won't quite go away. A greater darkness, a deeper void, might be felt to haunt it.

Why does a Polish Jewish American want to revisit German culture, anyway? All this becomes clearer in Sendak's 1988 book Dear Mili, in which he uses the style of Outside Over There to illustrate a story by Wilhelm Grimm. The story is about a girl who is sent into the woods to hide from an approaching war - Germany's Thirty Years War. She survives at strange and terrible cost. Or does she survive at all?

Sendak's forests are a speciality, this one a marvellous tangle through which you glimpse grey-faced people parading in front of what it suddenly hits you is the silhouette of Auschwitz. In another scene a ghostly group of children haunt the forest, their faces copied from a photograph of Holocaust victims.

More recently Sendak illustrated a picture book of the opera Brundibar, with libretto by Tony Kushner. It's a Czech work that was performed 55 times by Jewish children in Terezin camp. In Sendak's pictures, the ghetto teems with human richness and children defy and defeat a monstrous bully called Brundibar. It's a paradox: a story with a happy ending whose context makes the happy ending meaningless.

So is the art of Maurice Sendak really not at all about the American side of his childhood, but about what was happening to relatives in Poland in the 30s and 40s? To see Where The Wild Things Are as fundamentally about the Holocaust would be as ludicrous as interpreting Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint that way; in fact Sendak, like Roth, has a drive to transgress, an identification with outlaws, that can be seen as a rebellion against melancholy and history.

The point is, his children do survive. They always survive. They look horror in the face and walk by with a sniff. If I have to define the art of Sendak, I'd use one word: heroic.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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