Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wild things

The Morgan Library offers a fascinating juxtaposition of exhibitions at the moment. One offers some early sketches from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (tie-in to Spike Jonze's live action movie of it, which just opened). It's in the very imposing library, but bests the library's terrors. In the center as you enter, where one of the Morgan's Gutenberg Bibles usually greets visitors (!), you now find a glass case with a copy of Where the Wild Things Are. It's open to the page where the young protagonist says "BE STILL!" to the wild things - and they are. (I was sore tempted to call this post "Be still and know that I am Max!") The other sketches and final watercolors (none on their website, so I've had to make do with images from the book which others have posted) are great fun to see. And there is a rightness about seeing it in that imposing room, a hothouse of old books. Just as Max can see his bedroom blur into a forest, so a library's forest of book spines can easily dissolve into worlds of poetry, history, science and even theology!

You may have a question about the wild thing at the top of my post though. Familiar, perhaps, but is it really Sendak? No - it's from the other exhibition: works from the Library by William Blake, whose high point is the complete cycle of watercolors of The Book of Job (1805-10). The happy-seeming sea serpent is in fact Leviathan, displayed to Job (and his wife, and his friends) by God, along with the lesser-known Behemoth. These images - quite different in effect than the famous engravings based on them - are fascinating to explore. Blake's Job is quite different from the one you'll find in books like Gutenberg Bible, because his God is too. I can't pretend to understand Blake's personal mythology, but he seems to me some midway point between Gnosticism and Jung. Job's growth in insight is represented as a change in God - a God who accordingly looks lot like, well, Job. And when - in a scene added in 1821 - Job's words "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee" (42:5, KJV) - are interpreted as a "Vision of Christ," this Christ, too, looks an awful lot like God, and like Job. And in the next scene, when Job makes a sacrifice for his friends, he looks like God but stretches his arms out like Christ... There's much else of interest here, of course, even if (like me) you don't really like his drawings. It's always interesting to see how someone has pictured this intensely figurative text. Blake places the story in a sort of prehistoric Britain - lots of sheep but no camels, and isn't that Stonehenge? He is drawn to the text's several dreams and visions. And Mrs. Job is a major character. She's at Job's side throughout, even - unlike the friends - when God speaks from the whirlwind saying (as it were) "BE STILL!"

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