An Artist Remembers: Hanukkah Lamps Selected by Maurice Sendak

December 2, 2011 - January 29, 2012

Renowned author and illustrator Maurice Sendak selects a group of Hanukkah lamps from the museum’s spectacular collection. As the son of Polish immigrants, Sendak could feel at home among the many Eastern European lamps that feature elaborate Torah arks, exuberant floral ornament, and fantastic animals. Yet Sendak surprised himself with his choices.

Maurice Sendak (b. United States, 1928), final illustration for In Grandpa’s House (1985) by Philip Sendak, 1982, pencil on paper. Maurice Sendak Collection, Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.

For this exhibition, the museum invited renowned artist and illustrator Maurice Sendak to choose a group of Hanukkah lamps from the collection. Sendak’s work is characterized by a push and pull between beauty and sorrow, light and darkness. His art is triggered by memories and is also their repository. The world he creates is both dangerous and healing, as he tries to deal with the trauma of the Holocaust, in which many members of his family perished.

When going through the Museum’s collection, the sheer number and variety of lamps struck a nerve, underscoring Sendak’s deep, lifelong sense of loss at the destruction of the prewar world of his Eastern European Jewish parents. Having movingly evoked that world in his drawings for Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories (1966) and In Grandpa’s House (1985), he surprised himself by mostly avoiding its rich visual language when choosing lamps for this presentation. “I stayed away from everything elaborate. I kept looking for very plain, square ones, very severe looking,” he explained. “Their very simplicity reminded me of the Holocaust. And I thought it was inappropriate for me to be thinking of elaboration.”

The lamps Sendak finds most compelling and poignant are those that “go right to the heart,” whose “beauty is contained.” Yet his sense of humor is never far from the surface: as he made his choices he often free-associated, whimsically recalling old movies and Catskills family vacations. Above all, he is guided by his sensibility as an artist and author. He is drawn to simplicity of line, to a design “subservient to the basic idea of the piece,” and responds to the depth of emotion that emanates from a work itself or from the stories behind it. Concerned lest the past be forgotten, he hopes that young visitors to this exhibition will keep alive the memory of a vanished world.

Susan L. Braunstein and Claudia J. Nahson