04 March 2011

The Gorey Enigma

Yesterday I visited the exhibit “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey,” at the Boston Athenaeum. It was at once familiar and strange, which seems appropriate.

For the familiar, I’ve written before about how I first saw Gorey’s work at a young age, and recognized his distinct style the covers of what seemed like perfectly acceptable books. As a result, I didn’t realize that he’d been a “cult figure” until years later.

One reason Gorey was so recognizable is that his drawing style was very consistent through his career. Envelopes he decorated while he was a Harvard student in 1948 are immediately recognizable as his work and no one else’s. They look very much like the drawings for The Unstrung Harp, his debut book from 1953, which in turn look quite like the illustrations in his posthumously published books four decades later. Perhaps connoisseurs know the hallmarks of “early Gorey,” “high Gorey,” and “late Gorey,” but I couldn’t have sorted the items in time without the labels.

A more surprising source of familiarity is that Gorey drew at the same size as his drawings were printed. (I measured a sketch from The Hapless Child against the images in a printed edition to be sure.) All those thin lines, that intricate hatching and cross-hatching, that hand-lettering, was done in “real space.”

I spotted only one drawing with remnant pencil lines (aside from those used for positioning). There are several examples of paste-on additions, but relatively little painting over unwanted marks with white.

The exhibit includes some sketches in a looser style as Gorey worked out ideas, experimented with layouts, or sketched for the theater. Also on display are some manuscript pages, showing him at work on his verse. “The Osbick Bird,” for instance, is typed as “The Something Bird” while Gorey tried to think of the best nonsense word, and a preliminary sketch uses the Carrollian “Jubjub Bird.”

I would have liked to see more items showing how Gorey produced his drawings: intermediary or unfinished examples, art tools, video of him at work. But what was on display was delightful enough.


aquafortis said...

Wow, I would've loved to see that. I'm a huge fan of Edward Gorey--he really influenced my drawing style, especially when I was younger. I think the first book I ever owned that was illustrated by him was a version of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot.

So great that you got to see his work in person!

J. L. Bell said...

This is a traveling exhibit, so it’s possible it might reach your neighborhood. And it’s possible that the foundation that owns the art will arrange other exhibitions in time.