"The Cat in the Hat" is smiling over the roof of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park as the crowds begin to gather for what museum officials expect will be their biggest blockbuster since the "Muppets" exhibition some years ago.

The exhibition inside, "Dr. Seuss From Then to Now," recognizes the lifetime achievement of Theodor Seuss Geisel, creator of "The Cat in the Hat" and many other fictional characters who have appeared in more than 40 books for children.

Geisel, a 40-year resident of La Jolla, was recently named a Living Treasure of San Diego and has received numerous other awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, three Academy Awards, two Emmys and seven honorary doctorates--the earliest from Dartmouth College, his alma mater, the most recent from Princeton University.

On Wednesday, Steven Brezzo, director of the art museum, presented Geisel with a San Diego City Council proclamation of the "Summer of Dr. Seuss." A different measure of Geisel's success is that Dr. Seuss books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 20 languages and printed in Braille.

After a brief, successful career as a cartoonist in the late 1920s, Geisel began an even more successful career in advertising. His most famous work from that period is doubtless the series of fanciful bugs related to the slogan, "Quick, Henry! The Flit!" which he created for a Standard Oil insecticide.

Responding to other creative impulses, he wrote "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," which was rejected by 28 publishing houses because it was too different from other children's books then on the market. It was accepted when an old Dartmouth friend who had become a children's book publisher bumped into him on the street. Recalling that encounter, the author says, "See, everything has to do with luck."

It also has to do with imagination and talent.

The art museum exhibition, in effect a documentary history of Geisel's career using nearly 300 works, has been organized into three sections. The first includes early cartoons from Dartmouth days, magazines such as Life, and Geisel's career in advertising.

The second includes drawings from most of Geisel's books, such as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Green Eggs and Ham" and "Yertle the Turtle." It also includes original drawings from Geisel's animated television specials and a television projection of visuals with music, but without voice.

The third section focuses on Geisel's recently published book for adults, "You're Only Old Once: A Book for Obsolete Children," a satirical commentary about medical care for the physical disabilities that come with aging.

Between sections two and three is a kind of catch-all area labeled, "Along the way. In his spare moments the Doctor paints, scribbles, daubs and doodles." That area features a variety of works, the most notable of which are a Paul Klee-like drawing, "Retired Thunderbird," and two landscapes that evince Geisel's talent for abstract design.

The consistency of Geisel's vision from his earliest works to the latest, spanning 60 years of creativity, is remarkable. It is intriguing to see his recent characters evolve from his earliest works. He was indeed "lucky" to find an appropriate style for what he wanted to achieve, and he had the good sense to stick with it.

During the press preview for the exhibition, Geisel made a brief statement in mock-Latin, which he translated into regular English as, "Anyone who draws pictures is a fool. Anyone who talks about the pictures he draws is a damned fool." His work in its plenitude speaks for itself.

It also speaks for our society. Social mores, issues and concerns are amply, albeit inadvertently, illustrated in Geisel's works, which are a history of American humor in our time.

Geisel's greatest influence has been on the instruction of children. The author's wise advice is that books for children should include the same things that Shakespeare put into his plays, "tears, laughs, loves and thrills." He has also commented, "When you write a kid's book, somebody's got to win."

The installation, designed and overseen by Darcie Fohrman, is brilliant. As is appropriate for the nature of the material exhibited, she selected pure colors, the primaries plus green and white. Overhead throughout the huge exhibition are suspended large horizontal banners with appropriate quotations from Geisel that enrich the visual experience, as do frequent brief commentaries on wall labels.

A richly illustrated catalogue with a sparkling and informative text by curator Mary Stofflet accompanies the exhibition. Her extensive professional experience enabled her to accomplish a mammoth undertaking in a relatively short time after the exhibition was assigned to her by Brezzo.

Museum benefactor Joseph Hibben was responsible for suggesting that the museum organize the show and help to underwrite it. Home Federal, which was also a major underwriter of the "Muppets" exhibition, has been a major contributor to "Dr. Seuss" as well.

While the idea of the exhibition will doubtless appeal to children, this is not a children's show. The quantity of material is too extensive and often too technical to sustain children's interest. Moreover, the works are installed at adults' eye level. There will be a lot of mothers and fathers with very sore backs from lifting and carrying toddlers, who, predictably, will become exasperated and cranky.

The exhibition, costing well in excess of $250,000, is the first attempt of the museum to honor a "local artist," or even a group of artists, on such a scale. It should be encouraged to pursue this course.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World