Loyola University Museum of Art presents Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey until June 15, 2014. For the first time, the artist’s work is on display in his hometown of Chicago. More than 170 works are presented including pen-and-ink illustrations, preparatory sketches and unpublished works, book cover jackets, illustrated envelopes, costume designs from the Broadway production of Dracula, and ephemera.
The American writer-illustrator, Edward St. John Gorey, is known for his eccentric and delightfully morose artwork that blended gothic-surrealism with comedy. His work has been compared to 20th century Modernists such as the Irish avant-garde novelist, Samuel Beckett, and an inspiration to artists like Tim Burton. Whereas, among Edward Gorey’s favorites are said to have been Buster Keaton and the theatrical works of Ionesco.
His enigmatic sketches brought a witty yet horrific look at the deaths of his characters. Often set in Victorian and Edwardian times, he aptly presented his elegantly formed characters with beady eyes, dressed in head-to-toe black. He expertly juxtaposed humor with bizarre death scenario, and his characters live in a heartless world.
It has been said that the prolific writer did not like certain words used to describe his work, especially the word, macabre. Gorey himself portrayed his work as “whimsically macabre,” said Karen Wilkin, curator, author and art historian. Challenging to conjure up another word that would more aptly describe his stories, considering the cautionary tales were brimming with death, mischievous children, malevolent adults and “murder most foul.” According to a 2011 NPR interview with a close friend of the late writer, Alexander Theroux, Gorey heard the adjective too frequently to describe his work, and he did not really want to speak of it to make a “paradoxical point.
In Theroux’s book, The Life of Edward Gorey, he observes that Gorey’s work was “little pen-and-ink cartoon marplots of delicate fright” that were written and illustrated by the artist, from start to finish. Within the framed borders of his imaginative world, legs protruded from ghoulish hedges and even the wallpaper intimidates. The illustrated stories were of rusty locks, doubtful guests, haunted gardens and dark, damp warehouse cellars.
Readers and viewers alike have tried to unravel the mysterious meaning of his narratives and artwork, but Gorey always chose to leave it in the eyes of the beholder to discover what they interpreted for themselves.
His books were small novels of maybe 20 to 30 pages and did not fall into a classable genre. In his lifetime, Edward Gorey published over 100 books including The Hapless Child, The Doubtful Guest, The Gashlycrumb Tinies and The Vinegar Works with the subtitle, “Three Volumes of Moral Destruction.” He also used numerous pen names that were often anagrams such as Edgar E. Wordy and Ogdred Weary’s The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work and Victorian Orgies.
Gorey also illustrated numerous books for a wide array of authors that included John Updike, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens and Edward Lear among many others. He is also remembered for his animated introduction to the PBS series, Masterpiece Mystery.
Even though Edward Gorey was a solitary soul, his gothic-surrealist work spread across all the mediums from illustrated books and Broadway to television and through his influence, in literature and film. Gorey’s work reminds readers and viewers that stories can soften one’s shadowy fears and spine-chilling thoughts without exploiting them with splendidly light “macabre.”
By: Dawn Levesque
Loyola University Museum of Art