Theodore Geisel’s whimsical books, penned under the pseudonym Dr. Suess, may be on many children’s first reading lists, but his attempts at starting a mail-order taxidermy business were considerably less successful.
Using actual beaks, antlers, and horns acquired through his zookeeper father, Geisel fashioned creatures called “Turtle-Necked Sea-Turtle” and the “Semi-Normal, Green-Lidded Fawn” (which, in fact, has one green and one blue eyelid). These creatures, though static sculptures, are imbued with personality and brought to life by the bright colors and goofy expressions that typify Geisel’s illustrations.
Though they were a commercial flop, these curious creatures receive due appreciation as part of the “Dr. Seuss & the Art of Invention” exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Science and Industry. The show delves into the art of the creative genius who wrote classics such as “The Cat in the Hat” and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” displaying recognizable illustrations and showcasing obscure creations.
Geisel undertook various drawing and illustrating endeavors beyond Horton and the Lorax. Witty World War II-era political cartoons are interspersed with advertisements. A pesticide promotion features a bug zooming through a hole in the small hat on the head of a large woman. A toy soldier marches to her rescue, spraying a cloud of the insecticide Flit. The drawing is stylistically typical of Geisel’s work; the woman would be right at home in the pages of one of his books, with her silly expression of exaggerated alarm.
The visitor is privy to Geisel’s illustration process–conceptual sketches and thorough plans are shown, revealing a very methodical man behind his trademark spontaneous characters. Meticulous drafts are carefully marked with color codes Geisel himself devised to ensure illustrations were rendered in precise hues. These deliberate processes seem out of keeping with the fanciful mind of the artist, who once said, “I like nonsense–it wakes up the brain cells.” However, if Geisel’s painstaking techniques seem at odds with his appreciation for the absurd, this tension only deepens the show’s focus on the many dimensions of Geisel, whose life was much more complex than the rhymes of his children’s books.
The exhibit also sheds light on Geisel’s more peculiar traits. In the entryway to his home, he displayed a mysterious painting entitled “Green Cat with Lights,” in which an elongated cat-like figure sinks into a hazy background of green, amidst strands of light. Although the painting was signed by the artist Stroogo Von M., it was actually Geisel’s own work. When guests would ask him about it, he used the opportunity to garner their honest critique of his art, without ever revealing himself as the true artist. Geisel kept hidden in his home over 40 works that he referred to as “midnight paintings,” whose existence was revealed only after his death.
The exhibit also included a display devoted to the Seussland Park in California and the making of the Hollywood version of “The Grinch.” While these ventures are a testament to Dr. Seuss’s status as a cultural icon, the fantastical quality of Geisel’s world thrives in the realm of imagination–it loses part of its vigor when in the confines of studio animation.
“Dr Seuss & the Art of Invention” provides a playground of colors, images, and words with interactive elements that allow visitors to participate in experiments and hands-on activities and book writing stations. The exhibit offers insights into the life of a man whose multi-faceted artistic career models true imaginative inquiry. After all, Geisel once said, “Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope, which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”
Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr. Through January 8. Daily, 9:30am-4pm. (773)684-1414. $10-$17. msichicago.org