Leonardo was a set designer. So is David Hockney, and at different times the Ballets Russes employed Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, Utrillo, and Rouault.
Likely none was as accomplished in this art as Maurice Sendak. That’s one very plausible conclusion you might draw from the Morgan Library’s current exhibition “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet,” running through October 6.
The fourth exhibition on the famed children’s book illustrator to be presented at the Morgan, it includes one hundred fifty Sendak drawings from among the more than nine hundred in the museum’s collection. Narrowly focused but also wonderfully—let us employ the word—illustrative, it leverages Sendak’s work on just four operas and one ballet to give some sense of his methods, influences, passions, and gifts.
A notorious workaholic, Sendak wrote and illustrated twenty-two books, among them classics like Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Kitchen. He illustrated at least sixty more texts, many by “adult” writers like Tolstoy, Singer, Kleist, and Melville. The range of Sendak’s subjects is indicative; an autodidact, his extraordinary level of culture was reflected in his ardent love of music (which he considered the highest art form).
So it should come as no surprise that when he initiated his career as a set designer in 1979, he did so with gusto. Over the next seventeen years, Sendak took on and completed designs for sixteen operas and one ballet, even as he continued to produce finely detailed and widely admired books. (Among these were his much-loved versions of the Mother Goose Rhymes and of Kleist’s Penthesilea.) The featured productions: The Magic Flute, from an acclaimed production by the Houston Grand Opera; a work by the British composer Oliver Knussen based on Sendak’s own Where The Wild Things Are, staged at Glyndebourne; Prokofiev’s Love For Three Oranges; Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen; and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
The figure who first drew Sendak into this world was the longtime head of the New York City Opera, Frank Corsaro—a man who knew little about Sendak’s interests and was therefore unaware that Mozart was his favorite composer and The Magic Flute his favorite opera. The exhibition points out that this wasn’t Sendak’s only reason for taking up Corsaro’s offer, though. Long established as a children’s book illustrator by the late 1970s, Sendak was looking for a new arena in which to express himself.
Skillfully organized by the curator Rachel Federman, the exhibition presents superlative Sendak drawings, sketches, and watercolors, while also exploring the many sources of his inspiration and his longtime connection to the Library (a place that he visited often). That relationship was especially important for his work on The Magic Flute: many of Sendak’s ideas for the opera were prompted by the Morgan’s display of watercolors and engravings by William Blake. The show also connects Sendak’s work on The Love For Three Oranges to the commedia dell’arte sketches of Domenico Tiepolo, skillfully pairing pictures to show how Sendak recomposed, rearranged, and altered other artists’ creations after his own manner.
Further, these five particular groups of set designs permit us to see how astonishingly adaptable Sendak was. On one side, we see his remarkably naturalistic and gentle sketches for the sets and costumes for Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen. The bugs and animals, threatened by a farmer, are limned in soft colors with flowing but remarkably precise lines. Catty-corner to these are Sendak’s sardonic and wildly exaggerated images for The Nutcracker, a style he envisaged as befitting an older, more darkly inventive Marie (the protagonist).
The exhibition also does an exceptional job of showing how Sendak’s approach to set design contrasts with the “modern” style inaugurated by early twentieth century designers like Adolphe Appia. His creations are rarely spare or simple. Rather, Sendak generally favored the creation of deliberately unrealistic sets that consciously hearken back to the tradition in theater of painted drops, creating visible background scenes that sit behind and around the performers. Sendak learned how to make artful use of such designs (while also creating effective entrances and exits from them) to suggest changes of scene and mood. Often he complemented these sets with inventive machines that winkingly reminded the audience of the pop-ups in his books or of children’s toys. But Sendak was not merely catering to juvenile taste. In the literature accompanying the exhibition, Federman rightly observes that, while Sendak was hardly a “post-modernist,” there is a real self-aware—even “meta”—element to his work. He took delight in his audience’s sophistication and knowledge, just as he did not assume that children were necessarily naïve or ignorant.
A great deal has been written about Sendak. There are multiple biographies and two relatively long monographs on his work. One covers the period up to his entrance into the world of opera and ballet, and the second most of the rest of his career. (The first, by Salma Lanes, is straightforward; the second, by the playwright Tony Kushner, is intriguing but overly digressive.) And there have been many Sendak shows. This one, in fact, is at least the third to appear in New York in the last decade. These follow a well-received career retrospective at the Jewish Museum in 2005 and a 2009 Morgan exhibition on Where The Wild Things Are. Both took place prior to Sendak’s death in 2012, and both were excellent.
In many respects, this exhibition stands above them. At its heart—and the principal reason to see it—is the great charm, whimsy, and grace of the pictures. But it also reveals the enormous facility and ease with which Sendak could adopt radically different styles of drawing in order to convey particular ideas and emotions, harnessing each to different ends while making them distinctly his own.