Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey

New Criterion, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey


"Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey"

The Boston Athenaeum.

February 9-June 4, 2011

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 Athenaeum, 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. …

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