Friday 23 July 2021

Runge and Sendak

 Born on this day in 1777 was the German Romantic painter (and colour theorist and Christian mystic) Philipp Otto Runge. His most famous, or most lasting, work is The Hülsenbeck Children, an extraordinary group portrait of the children of Friedrich August Hülsenbeck, a shipping magnate and business partner of the artist's elder brother. This is a child portrait like no other before and very few since. Painted from child's eye level, it takes you straight into the children's world. These children are not ornaments of a family group portrait but individuals living their lives, filling the frame to the edges and looking out at us with a disturbingly candid gaze. And the lives these children are living are no sentimental idyll; they do not radiate the bliss of innocence. They are playing, but they are deadly serious. There are flowers, but they are not pretty; a giant sunflower looms over them. The girl, the one child who does not stare out at us, looks back anxiously over her shoulder at the plump baby in the cart, who holds not a flower but a dark sunflower leaf. It is an altogether unsettling picture – and its artistic progeny was to be even more so.  Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There is steeped in the spirit of Runge's painting, which is explicitly quoted throughout, most obviously on the cover.

Outside Over There is, as those who have braved it will know, the strangest and most disturbing of all Sendak's works, truly the stuff of nightmares (though it does, thankfully, have a happy ending). Ida, the girl with the wunderhorn, must look after her baby sister. Their father is away at sea, their mother is lost in some reverie of her own, and even the German shepherd seems uninterested in guarding the baby. One terrible night, Ida blows her horn and summons a goblin who, all unnoticed, climbs up a ladder to the bedroom and snatches the baby, replacing her with a baby of ice, who then melts in Ida's arms... 

Sendak said that, when he was working on Outside Over There, he listened exclusively to Mozart to get the period feel (though Schubert's hair-raising Erlkönig might have been more appropriate). He drew on his memories of a real-life nightmare from his own childhood – the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's 20-month-old son – and, to brilliant effect, he drew on Philipp Otto Runge. 

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