Sendak, wild about food

Rosenbach Museum presents a fantasia of children's - and illustrator's - oral fixation.

A boy in the batter: A final drawing for "In the Night Kitchen," 1970, by Maurice Sendak, inspired by Sunshine's little bakers at the 1939 New York World's Fair, when he was 11.

With the trailers suddenly running everywhere for the new, live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak's durable children's classic Where the Wild Things Are, it seemed a fine moment to drop in at the Rosenbach Museum.

The Rosenbach, whose library and exhibits occupy two stately townhouses on Delancey Place at 20th Street, is home to the world's largest collection of "Sendakia," as it calls it, a trove of 10,000 sketches and original drafts and watercolors that made it into his books; or, more intriguingly in some cases, did not.

What drew our attention particularly was an intimate exhibition that opened last week called "Too Many Thoughts to Chew: A Sendak Stew," a visual feast of the perils (and adventures) of being sent to bed without supper, and skinny-dipping in a reservoir of creamy milk - and of how food and eating play such an outsized role in our understanding of the terrain of our young, pre-K lives.

Exhibitions, of course, are about editing, and this one is no different. Above sketches of scampish dogs tearing away with strings of sausages, and unfinished storyboards for In the Night Kitchen, the lettering quotes Sendak, now 81, on "the primal fantasy of putting things in the mouth, of chewing, or swallowing. . . . " It neglects, discreetly, to quote his further, earthy musing - on the childish fascination with food's exit strategy.

You learn here, looking at a vintage postcard, of the illustrator's Proustian inspiration for In the Night Kitchen: his unforgettable encounter with the striking Sunshine Bakers exhibition at the New York World's Fair in 1939, when he was 11 years old. His older sister and her boyfriend had left him (they'd actually split and abandoned him) mesmerized by the aroma of biscuit and cake, flour and milk, waving at the little bakers on the balcony (they were midgets) and their poster-sized crackers in front of the gleaming white building - all "salient features," as Patrick Rodgers, one of the exhibition's curators, writes of Sendak's storybook kitchen 30 years later.

Even the role of Mickey, the central character, as the bakery's emergency milkman has its roots in Sendak's sentimental memories of the lyrics in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie: "Milkman's on his way, good night baby, let's call it a day."

There is a glimpse, as well, of the revisionism that often attends creative-commercial ventures, very much including the long-delayed, $80 million-plus Spike Jonze film version of Wild Things opening Oct. 16.

Sendak's original monsters are first drawn more monsterish - animals on all fours (not the later humanistic oafs), too menacing for the publisher. Mickey's head in one draft is itself baked into a head-shaped cake. (In another panel a breast-feeding baby goes overboard, consuming its mother entirely.)

So a visitor can find himself in this modest gallery in a museum known for its collection of James Joyce's manuscripts with far too many thoughts to chew, indeed.

There are echoes of scary fairy tales and psycho-theological imagery ("I'm in the milk," Mickey cries, "and the milk's in me.").

You can conjure hints of Joyce's scenes of animalism in the mess halls of old Dublin. And feel (in the finale of Wild Things) the anticipation Andrew Wyeth evokes in the window-side place setting in Groundhog Day.

In gallery notes for an earlier talk, curatorial assistant Kathy Haas reports that Sendak started out to illustrate his favorite Mother Goose rhymes, then realized they were all about food and its indelible imprint on childhood - as a savior of children (and mothers) uprooted by war, as an opportunity to exert control (or express rebellion), as a homing beacon, sending a comforting signal that all is forgiven.

In the basement lunchroom at the Rosenbach, treats were arranged for the staff - a spicy gingerbread cake baked by gift-shop manager Candace Wilkin and, by Haas, a snack with the subtlety of a s'more: saltines glazed with a syrup of butter and brown sugar, then baked and sprinkled with chocolate chips.

Back from his bedtime sail, Max might have been pleased. But something even better was waiting in his room: It was his supper. And it was still hot.

And it was more than mere food in the moonlight - far more than a bowl of soup, a cup of milk, a slice of cake.

It was what sweet dreams are made of.


Rosenbach Museum and Library

2008 Delancey Place


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