Maurice Sendak's Show-Stopping Art for Opera and Ballet

By malcolm.jones@thedailybeast.com (Malcolm Jones)
The Morgan Library & Museum

Oh man, but that dude could draw. Over and over as I walked through the Morgan Library and Museum’s exhibit Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet, I kept muttering that sentence under my breath. If he had been nothing else, Sendak was a fantastic draughtsman.

Of course, he was much more. Everyone knows him as perhaps the greatest author of children's books in his lifetime, although why stop with lifetime—make that of any time. I read his books to my own children when they were young, and he was always one of those authors, like Dr. Seuss, who we all liked in equal measure. The mysterious allure of In the Night Kitchen or Outside Over There is hard to pin down but impossible to ignore. Whether you are six or sixty, Sendak is someone whose work never stales and who rewards repeated readings with something new every time.

What not a lot of people know is that he had a second and equally fertile career designing sets and costumes for opera and ballet. This is the focus of the Morgan show—and its accompanying catalog, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet by Rachel Federman. The coffee-table-sized book is excellent, but if you have any chance at all, do visit the exhibit, which is up through Oct. 6. The maquettes alone, those little models of stage sets, are worth the trip, because they really have to be seen up close to transmit their weird magic.

The drawings benefit from equally close scrutiny, but they can also be seen to good advantage in the catalog. Sendak’s ability to know where he’s going, even in a preliminary sketch, is jawdropping. Like his hero Mozart, he seemed able to produce, almost fully formed from the start, a complete artistic vision, whether rendering the set of Max’s room, the costumes for wild things, or the most beguiling foxes for The Clever Little Vixen. Not saying he never blotted a line or never started over—it’s more a matter of confidence in his own vision, and the joy he took in creation, a joy that now and forever jumps off the page. Even his marginal doodles look like finished works of art.

The Morgan Library & Museum

Study for Wild Thingscostume, with notes (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979,watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on paper.

The Morgan Library & Museum

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Design for show curtain(Nutcracker), 1983, gouache and graphite pencil on paper.

The Morgan Library & Museum

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), 5 Playing cards (The Love for Three Oranges), 1982, watercolor and pen and ink on laminated paperboard.

The Morgan Library & Museum

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Design for show curtain(The Love for Three Oranges), 1981, watercolor and graphite pencil on paper

The Morgan Library & Museum

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), The Edge of the Forest,interlude between Act II, scenes 2 and 3, for PBSbroadcast (The Cunning Little Vixen), 1983, watercolorand graphite pencil on paper.

The Morgan Library & Museum

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Design for show scrim (TheMagic Flute), 1979-1980, watercolor and graphite pencil on paper on board.

The Morgan Library & Museum

Study for stage set #10(Where the Wild Things Are), 1979-1983, watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on paper.

The Morgan Library & Museum

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