Maurice Sendak exhibition at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

This summer, visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) will encounter wondrous worlds through rarely-seen works by renowned, yet very different, book artists. The Museum’s major Maurice Sendak exhibition, “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet,” explores another side of beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), who had a second career as a set and costume designer for opera and ballet. “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” was organized by the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, and reimagined by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the exhibition’s second venue, for its Boston showing.

The Gardner Museum’s dossier exhibition, “Close Up: Bourdichon’s Painted Prayers,” reveals the miniature masterpieces of a gilded Renaissance prayer book illuminated by Jean Bourdichon (about 1457–1521), court painter to French kings. Both exhibitions will be on view at the Gardner Museum from June 16 through September 11, 2022.

To further celebrate book artists, the Museum has commissioned Oliver Jeffers to create a public work of art, Universes, for the Museum’s façade.

Audiences can be further transported from the page through the Gardner Museum’s public programs which range from weekend studio arts for families and visitors of all ages to a conversation with playwright Tony Kushner about his friendship with Sendak and book readings by Oliver Jeffers. This suite of summer happenings is in the spirit of Isabella Stewart Gardner who loved books and their ability to take us to faraway places.

“As a connoisseur who collected children’s books alongside medieval manuscripts, Isabella would be so pleased with the Museum’s lineup celebrating the extraordinary art of book illustrators,” Peggy Fogelman, Norma Jean Calderwood Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, said. “Although Maurice Sendak, Jean Bourdichon and Oliver Jeffers are distinctly different, they each have the power to capture our imaginations through their picture-making. There will be something new — and something very old — for visitors to discover at the Gardner Museum this summer.”

Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet

MLM90921. © Maurice Sendak Foundation, The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013. Photography by Graham Haber. Magic Flute: Diorama 3, 1979-1980.
MLM90921. © Maurice Sendak Foundation, The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013. Photography by Graham Haber. Magic Flute: Diorama 3, 1979-1980.

Maurice Sendak exhibition brings his magical and mysterious drawings for theater into focus. Best known as a children’s book author and illustrator, including for his 1963 picture book “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak (1928-2012) started his own successful “second act,” beginning in the late 1970s, creating set designs for opera and ballet.

Sendak was a master at inventing imaginary places for his characters to live in, and these visions come to life on stage with the same beauty, charm, wit and complexity of his picture books. “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” features more than one hundred of Sendak’s illustrations, watercolors, storyboards, dioramas and costumes for four stage productions — Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Sendak’s own “Where the Wild Things Are.”

The Maurice Sendak exhibition offers new insight into the artist’s creative process, including the influence of art historical and musical sources on his work. His signature muted color palette and whimsical yet sophisticated designs reflect his interest in Old Master paintings while also alluding to popular animation, folklore and comic and picture book art.

For the opera adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” (a story of a mischievous boy named Max who sets sail to an island inhabited by frightening creatures), Sendak’s storyboards, 3-dimensional dioramas and sketches of complex costumes — including one for a wild thing dubbed Moishe (the author’s own Yiddish name) — are on display.

For Nutcracker, Sendak sought inspiration from the darker elements of E.T.A. Hoffman’s original tale from 1816. Though perhaps less saccharine than other Nutcracker productions, Sendak’s is no less enchanting as evidenced by his awe-inspiring stages and costume for the Tiger Boy character. Visitors will be greeted by images of the wide-eyed Nutcracker character, who (like Moishe) Sendak found inspiration from within, referring to the giant, discomfiting figure as “a very good self-portrait.”

The influence of art historical sources on Sendak’s designs is clear in The Love for Three Oranges and The Magic Flute. Three Oranges’ colorful and playful costumes and sets bear a striking resemblance to the drawings of eighteenth-century Italian artist Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804). Sendak’s set illustrations and several costumes are juxtaposed with Tiepolo’s lighthearted ink drawings, like Dancing Dogs with Musicians and Bystanders, 18th century.

Sketches for The Magic Flute, an opera that blends drama and humor, like Sendak’s books, are also on view, alongside Old Master works from Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collection. These include The Virgin and Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist and Six Female Saints, (about 1497–1500) by Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506).

This Maurice Sendak exhibition, on view in the Museum’s Hostetter Gallery, will appeal to audiences young and old. The installation includes a play stage and reading nook — where visitors of all ages can express their inner thespian or get cozy with a favorite Sendak, Jeffers or other picture book. A special family guide inspired by the Sendak exhibition sets families on their own adventures in the Museum’s Tapestry Room.

Interpretive labels in “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” provide context on Sendak’s multifaceted lived experience as a Jewish gay man who came of age in the shadow of the Holocaust and in an environment of pervasive homophobia. This experience formed his mission as a children’s author and illustrator: providing young readers with stories to help them negotiate their own complicated emotions as they grow up in an inevitably flawed world. Sendak brought this complex sensibility about identity, childhood, and the role of fantastical stories to his design.

“Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet,” the first exhibition dedicated to Sendak’s set and costume design, was organized by the Morgan Library & Museum (New York) from its collection of 900 works bequeathed by the author. The exhibition has been re-envisaged by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to focus on four productions and incorporate additional biographical and interpretive material as well as opportunities for interactive experiences for families. The exhibition will travel to the Memphis Brooks Art Museum in Tennessee, where it will be on view from October 2022 – January 2023.

Isabella Stewart Gardner and Maurice Sendak

Although they lived very different lives at different times, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840 – 1924) and Maurice Sendak shared much in common, including their love of art, art history, literature, music and performance. Both native New Yorkers, each had a deep appreciation for music, especially opera, and its capacity to inspire creativity and complement the visual arts. In fact, at the Gardner Museum’s opening night in 1903, Gardner’s carefully selected program included members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra performing the overture to The Magic Flute by Mozart, Sendak’s favorite composer and one of his first theater sets. Additionally, Sendak’s spirited design frequently references Old Master paintings from collections of historic art like the ISGM (where he lectured in 1991).

 Like Gardner, Sendak conjured enchanting multidisciplinary environments combining visual art, music and performance. Both of these creative spirits were avid book collectors with a passion for literature.

No Comments Yet.