It's nice, for once, to report that the unknown, private art of a great popular artist isn't all just a sad, secret stab at immortality. When Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss in the eyes of millions of children if not, in fact, in the eyes of an accredited medical school) painted at home, for his own amusement, he wasn't trying to be Picasso.
Alone in his studio, on a hilltop near La Jolla, Calif., the beloved inventor of the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat worked without any trace of greater ambitions turned sour, without any particular intention of being proclaimed, after his death, "a neglected genius" overshadowed by his popular fame.
Almost everything on display at Georgetown's P&C Fine Art Gallery, which is hosting the well-traveled "Dr. Seuss Retrospective," is pretty much of a piece with what you already know about him from "Green Eggs and Ham." Although he worked in advertising, did illustrations for the war effort in the 1940s, penned editorial cartoons and sculpted his own line of bizarre animal heads (he called them "unorthodox taxidermy"), almost everything feels certifiably Seussian.
The strange birds with distended necks and the elephants with huge ears are as much a part of "The Tower of Babel," a dark watercolor-and-ink drawing, as they are staples of his children's illustrations. The cartoon landscapes with brilliant colors where Horton heard the Who and the Butter Battle loomed are the same landscapes of his more private imagination, seen in large paintings he made throughout the 1960s. Barring the release of even more private images, it's a relief to learn that his life wasn't divided into public and private worlds, that what he sold to children also pleased him, too. His obsessions were consistent, enough so that one can pronounce him, apparently, a sane man with a deliciously twisted imagination.
The works on display in Georgetown are, unfortunately, reproductions, limited-edition prints made from originals still in the possession of Seuss's widow, Audrey Geisel. The tour is very much a commercial venture. But the people behind it have put together enough information to make it informative. The reproductions are at least very fine, and even for people who know the original books backward and forward, surprises make it worth the visit.
For instance, a scrap of doggerel in the distinctively rat-a-tat style that is billed as Seuss's "first poem":
Mrs. Van Bleck
Of the Newport van Blecks
Is so goddamn rich
She has gold-plated sex.
That's not going into a children's book, but it is every syllable unmistakably the product of Seuss's pen. He deals himself a good hand by inventing an easily rhymed last name, but the rhyme is unexpected. Good doggerel is rather like running across a perfectly made wall of stones in the forest. Of course, you know human hands made it, but the fact that the stones all fit so neatly in place brings with it the uncanny sense that they were made to fit together in just that way. Rhyme such as Seuss practiced does the same thing to language, making his verses seem inevitable and giving his ideas an extra aura of truth -- because it seems that these words were always meant to be put in just this order.
Also in the category of not-for-kiddie-eyes are pages from Seuss's failed effort to write an adult book, 1939's "The Seven Lady Godivas," which features naked ladies who end up learning "horse sense." Each section leads to a kind of visual play on expressions such as "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth" and "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink." There's nothing particularly shocking or salacious about it. It's just filled with naked cartoon ladies, emblematic of the thousand small twists he gave to ordinary things, adding up to a world that was both innocent and mischievous, harmless yet delightfully cracked.
The most striking thing in a room full of his work is color. Although he published several books before World War II began, his most enduring works came out afterward (1957 saw both "The Cat in the Hat" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"). He was working at a time when color in America was undergoing a strange transformation. Grape-flavored drinks were a purple not found in nature; cherry products were preternaturally red; kitchens came in avocado shades never found on the avocado tree. Color was a lie, usually a delicious, salty or sugary lie that children drank and gobbled and craved to fattening excess.
Seuss's drawings hold their own in that world of color. As carefully notated drafts of his books demonstrate, he placed immense importance on getting every shade right in the final product. And while he could limit his palette (the Grinch is a study in red and green), he could also create a riot of hues that feel very much the product of a sun-drenched Southern California temperament.
And his creatures make more sense surrounded by these colors. They seem in some way spawned by the artificiality and excess of color all around them. If the landscapes he painted privately came to life through some rapid process of cartoon evolution, they would breed Loraxes, Frinks and Grinches. Or perhaps the weird birds that became a substitute for society women when Seuss parodied the silliness he found around him in La Jolla (one image in the exhibition shows a wealthy woman with a martini in one hand, a teddy bear in the other, and for some reason, a pair of rough lederhosen under her frilly negligee).
The other striking detail about Seuss's work is the extraordinary expressiveness of his drawing of eyes. Fatigue and alertness, mischief and innocence, youth and age, all are communicated in the eyes. The act of looking -- being engaged in a web of creatures all staring each other down -- gives his drawings an easily deciphered vivacity. In one image, an underwater fantasy of fish, a great multitude of creatures is taken in with a single glance because their eyes are all so clearly fixed on each other.
And when a Seuss character has closed eyes, it's pretty certain that there's some self-deception, smugness or narcissism going on. The Cat in the Hat has only to shut his eyes to convince the reader that he has retreated deep into a world of secret feline voluptuousness, cunning and sybaritic pleasure.
Perhaps Seuss knew his particular talent with this detail of physiognomy. In a 1970 oil painting, "A Plethora of Cats" (unfortunately not in this exhibition), the eyes have been replaced by blank yellow patches, and it is oddly one of the least Seussian images he left us. Looking is something children do with proverbially fresh eyes, and something adults often do with decreasing discernment as the world becomes familiar and predictable. It seems the essence of Seuss's magic, that he made children look, with intensity, at the world -- or at least at his world, which was more fun than the real world anyway. No surprise that the entrance of the Cat in the Hat is announced with rapid-fire iterations of looking: "We looked! And we saw him! The Cat in the Hat!"
"The Dr. Seuss Retrospective" is a small show, and it would be better if it were composed of originals. But it's hard not to be recharmed by these drawings, and it makes a very nice stop on a stroll through Georgetown.
The Dr. Seuss Retrospective, at the P & C Fine Art Gallery, 3108 M St. NW, through Dec. 31; call 202- 965-3833.