Writing Archive

Exhibition Note: On "Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey" at the Boston Athenæum

The New Criterion, April 2011 (read there)

One can usually identify Edward Gorey to those not familiar with his name by reminding them of the opening credits for PBS's Mystery!. But this represents a single item in an oeuvre that includes over one hundred books of his own authorship, illustrations for fifty more written by others, designs for the stage, and stuffed animals that he sewed himself. Nearly 200 works are featured in an exhibition entitled Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, which originated at the Brandywine Museum and now appears at the Boston Athenæum, accompanied by a catalogue written beautifully by The New Criterion's own Karen Wilkin. The show attests to the pictorial genius of a man with outsize erudition, a maudlin yet gleeful sense of humor, and an infectious love of language.

Gorey may not have been the first to mark off the territory between death and light entertainment—credit for that probably goes to Charles Addams—but he remains its key denizen. He created a universe in which the course of human civilization marooned in 1925, sometime around Halloween, in the dreariest hamlet that one could dream up. Misfortune pervaded the very atmosphere, and its maker, using chiseled English mined from the edges of common usage and a relentless cross-hatching technique in steel pen, inflicted catastrophes upon its hapless inhabitants with palpable delight.

Elegant Enigmas shows panels from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an abecedary in which a child expires for each letter, which gives you an idea of the physics of this realm. M is for Maud who was swept out to sea, says the caption for a drawing of a girl standing on a plank that bobs in a dark ocean as she waves her arms to no avail. The next drawing, N is for Neville who died of ennui, shows the top of the young boy's head as it peeks out a window of a stone-walled edifice, his eyes reduced to empty black dots. In Gorey's world, life is cheap, but the gags never are.

The techniques by which he built this world bear literal close examination. Most illustrators working at his level of detail do so at a scale intended for reproduction, one-and-a-half or two times the printed size. This lends cohesion to the final print, but it's unnecessary if the artist can draw cohesively at actual size. Despite the fact that his formal training consisted of just one semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he is one of the pen's greatest practitioners of the last fifty years. You can lose yourself in the fur coats, lovingly hatched to a hair, that his characters often donned. (The artist himself wore them, with sneakers.) One all but enshrouds a man with a notepad in He wrote it all down Zealously, drawn for the letter Z in his 1975 alphabet book entitled, for no discernible reason, The Glorious Nosebleed. Because it allows tiny points of white paper to show through, the cross-hatching vibrates in a way that is not attainable in other monochrome techniques. A clergyman staying at the Upturned Pig, the Rev. O. MacAbloo, wandered in a remote corner of the shrubbery, reports the caption for a drawing from The Other Statue (1968). The foliage, as rendered by Gorey, surrounds MacAbloo like a cloud of insects.

It is an act of high wit to produce nonsense that is just plausible enough for comedy. Gorey's ancestor in this is Edward Lear, and his illustrations for Lear's The Jumblies and The Dong with the Luminous Nose are in Elegant Enigmas as well. It would be hard to find an artist better suited in temperament to illustrate Lear, whose Jumblies went to sea in a sieve. The same power to suspend order caused the scene from a 1989 series of postcards by Gorey in which a man appears to have been struck down by a topiary automobile. I hazard a cautious guess as to what it really addresses: that the sources of dread in one's troubled head, through humor, surmount life's duresses. Maybe this is what we needed, more than anything offered by contemporaneous fine art, as we exited the old century and entered the new millennium: an inoculation against horror in the form a little dose of it rendered droll.

Word count: 708

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