A New Way to Look at Dr. Seuss at the Children's Museum
Photos by Jef With One F
It is impossible to overstate the impact that Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has had on the world of literature and art. Something like one in four American children have their first reading experience with one of his books, and they've sold more than 600 million copies. Add in the library of films based on his work and you see a towering figure of a man responsible for shaping more dreams than almost anyone else in the history of art.
The Children's Museum of Houston recognizes that, and recently took down its long-running Cum Yah Gullah feature to replace it with the Art of Dr. Seuss. The new exhibit is a celebration of all of Geisel's life, and even though it is heavily focused on the enduring childhood images that he was responsible for it all offers a more well-rounded look at his entire career as an artist than you might expect.
Statues of his most famous characters line the back of the main entry hall, including an amazing bronze rendition of Yertle the Turtle that should probably stand in every government building in America just to bring that all-important message about what happens when you raise yourself too high on the backs of others home. The petty king of the swamp looks both ruthless and ridiculously tiny in the statue, a perfect example of a great piece come to three-dimensional life.
All the big stars of Seuss' books appear in these bronzes. Everyone from Horton to The Cat in the Hat to a strangely massive Lorax that is actually quite intimidating. If you want to see something really out there in sculpture form, though, the wall of Seuss' unorthodox taxidermy shouldn't be missed.
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Geisel's father was the superintendent at the Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, Massachusetts. Using the beaks, horns and antlers of deceased animals from the zoo, Seuss began constructing whimsical fictional beats like the kangaroo bird and the Mulberry Street unicorn. No film or statue will ever do the multidimensional talent of Seuss justice like these mounted heads that he crafted in his New York apartment in the 1930s. They are both absurdly cartoonish and startlingly realistic, as if they were actual creatures from a world that's just sillier than this one.
Many of his early work as a political cartoonist, war propagandist and advertising artist is also on display. Even his day job work oozes with the brilliance that Geisel was full of, and in many ways these pieces are actually better than his celebrated Sneetches and Foxes in socks. These early works breathe with both the desperate energy of a man trying to make a living in the worst economic time in American history and the frustrated frenzy of someone whose real talent was fighting to get out.
It makes the drawings angrier, more cutting. It's as if Standard Oil and the U.S. Army had managed to tame a wild beast for a while, or at least hook it to their cart and went along for the ride. Most of the drawings are small, much smaller than the lighthearted images from his books. It's easy to see why people are content to let his later, more famous work speak for Seuss's legacy, but it's wicked fascinating to dive into his inception.
Even more surprising was the collection of his more adult fine art. It's weird... you know intellectually that artists like Seuss and Bill Watterson are great artists, but because you associate them so much with the flow of words, ideas, and jokes you never really think about them in that context. It's the same reason why cartoonists are rarely spoken of in the same breath as other disciplines like sculpture or poetry.
Seeing something like Geisel's "A Prayer for a Child" looming huge over the room in its soft, spacey purples and Christmas imagery is fairly shocking. It's the same style on something like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but much, much more so. It takes everything that Seuss would normally say in that distinctive rhyming style about the magic and meaning of childhood wonder, and does the exact same thing without a single word other than the title.
It's not surprising that there is a fair amount of surrealism in his paintings. After all, most of the things going on in his books don't make much sense either aside from the basic lessons. His preoccupation with cats, on display in several head-turning and colorful portraits, seems like just one more sign of his benevolent madness that finish off the tale of Seuss's artistic life.
Still, it's the beloved images from the children's books that dominate the walls of the exhibit. Bold, simple pictures blown up to massive size turn the room into an enchanted, colorful forest of characters. A full library of his works are scattered in convenient baskets next to comfortable cushions and rugs so that you can have impromptu story time. Everything that you could possibly want for the dedicated Seuss fan is included.
Granted, there are some less than amazing contributions. The room is features a cartoon castle in the middle that is neither very Seussian to speak of nor overly fun for the children playing in it since it lacks anything like slides or climbing sections. A small crawling tube is the only real amenity. If you were going to have an installation like that in celebration of Seuss, it should definitely have catered more to his unique vision rather than something that would be at home in any church play yard.
Activities are also somewhat pointless. There are drawing tables, which while appropriate seems a little pedestrian and another table where you can put together a giant plastic meal for some reason. It's nothing deal breaking, but it does speak of a big room that they ran out of ideas to fill with.
Those minor misses aside, it's a great chance to immerse yourself in the work of a man that you may not have realized was more than just the author of Green Eggs and Ham. Barring that, snuggling on the floor with the kids reading the Butter Battle Book needs no justification.
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