Wild magination

One man, two museums and three books comprise a wonderful set of cooperative exhibitions being displayed at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford and the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Center City.

The man is Maurice Sendak, a genius wonderfully mad enough to appeal to the young, and the exhibitions are Monsters, Mickey and Mozart at the Brandywine and Let the Wild Rumpus Start at the Rosenbach.

For more than 40 years, Sendak has produced illustrated books rich in fantasy and imagery that captivate children rather than capture them and, in so doing, has delighted millions by expanding and redefining what children’s literature can be.

These two collaborative exhibits focus on the famous Sendak trilogy of Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There, and commemorate the 40th anniversary of the publication of Where the Wild Things Are, as well as Sendak’s 75th birthday.

At the Brandywine, more than 60 original drawings created for Night Kitchen and Over There will be displayed through May 18. The Rosenbach is featuring all of the original drawings for Wild Things and the show runs through June 29.

Sendak is the youngest of three children, born in 1928 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. He was a sickly child who spent much of his time in his Brooklyn home, where he amused himself with careful observations from his window. When he did go out, his mother kept constant watch on him from the window — today represented in most of his illustrations as the moon, peering down on the fantasy below.

Sendak got his start as a children’s book illustrator while still in high school. His artwork helped transfer a popular cartoon, Mutt and Jeff, into a comic book. Sendak studied at the Art Students League and at the age of 19, co-authored his first book. And while his illustration work alone would have earned him high honors, he is best known as the author and illustrator of his own books. The trilogy represented in these two shows is the most famous of his works.

Interviews with Sendak make note of his great interest in opera, Herman Melville and Mozart. With such a mixture of interests, Sendak’s wild, fantastic creatures — at once highly stylized and imaginative — don’t, for some reason, bother children at all. Adults looking at some of the monsters might worry about their dreams that night but, according to Sendak, "it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things."

Where the Wild Things Are tells Max’s story. He is a rebellious boy who wanders into a strange world created by his imagination after having been sent to his room without dinner for misbehaving. All ends well for Max when he returns from his journey to his own bed and supper.

In the Night Kitchen is a fantasy about Mickey, a boy who saves the day for adults by coming up with a missing ingredient for the morning cake.

Outside Over There features Ida, a heroine who learns from her past and saves her sister from kidnappers. This was conceived as a "visual opera" inspired by the music of Mozart.

As with all his work, Sendak uses his own past and emotions about things that are important to children. Part of his technique — using heavy outlines, flat surfaces, strong forms and mild pastels — is to provide a lure for adults to interpret for children the often sophisticated messages being depicted.

Much of the Sendak oeuvre has a somewhat foreign look to it that might be associated with the early days of cartoons, comic books and comic strips. Those, of course, are the inspirations for Sendak, who still owns his first book, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Other Sendak influences read like a list of all-American culture producers: Typee and Moby Dick, Walt Disney’s Fantasia and Robert Louis Stevenson.

As a mature artist, Sendak has done countless stage designs and three operas — The Magic Flute, The Love for Three Oranges and The Cunning Little Vixen. He has designed toys, written lyrics for an animated television film, completed an opera based on his own work and designed theatrical costumes. For his body of work, Sendak has been awarded the National Medal of Art, and for his book illustration, he has won the Caldecott Award.

Monsters, Mickey and Mozart
Brandywine River Museum
Routes 1 and 100, Chadds Ford
Through May 18
Museum admission: $5 adults, $2.50 seniors and students, free for children under 6

Let the Wild Rumpus Start
Rosenbach Museum and Library
2008 Delancey Place

Museum admission: $8 adults, $5 seniors and students, free for children under 5