There’s a work that so defines the sensibility of renowned illustrator Edward Gorey that the artist himself would essentially copy it six years later. In 1962’s “The Willowdale Handcar,” three pedestrians in winter coats rubberneck at a pair of feet tied to some railroad tracks. The frame cuts off the helpless victim at those feet, leaving us to ponder the rest of her.
It’s remarkably similar to a more fatal drawing in Gorey’s 1968 book “The Secrets: Volume One, the Other Statue,” seen below:
This time, the frame still ends at a victim’s feet, with seven people taking in the tragedy with sad eyes and comforting gestures. As usual, Gorey is less interested in the corpse – “crushed beneath a statue blown down from the parapet,” the caption tells us – than the handful of visitors staring mournfully at it. Death may be the ostensible subject of much of Gorey’s oeuvre, but he really celebrates life.
These drawings and many others are available for view at the Norton Museum of Art’s laudable new exhibition, “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey.” The American artist-writer, known for his more than 100 pint-sized books from 1953 to 1999, is known for a morbid, macabre sensibility, a reputation that belies the tact and restraint that went into his drawings. Gorey’s works were far from gory; as with the above example, the dark stuff is mostly left to our own imaginations.
“One of the things we hoped to dispel was the notion that he is only macabre,” says Karen Wilkin, the Gorey scholar who curated the touring exhibition. “Terrible things happen, but they always happen with a kind of detachment. It’s like Greek tragedy, where you don’t actually see Oedipus putting his eyes out. Somebody describes it. It happens offstage. You may feel it, but you don’t actually see it.”
Gorey’s worldview is as comic as it is dark. It is humorous in both its imagery – four postcards depict grassy lawn sculptures of animals devouring or embracing a residence’s human inhabitants – and the words that accompany them. “I am here to diffuse the interests of didacticism,” claims a Kafkaesque insect in 1997’s “The Haunted Tea-Cosy,” a line that is more Woody Allen than Tim Burton. And there’s no denying the comic potency of Gorey’s most famous work, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” a catalog of the deaths of a number of children from A to Z. Amazingly, the result is not morbid at all; poor little Neville, for instance, dies of “ennui.”
But just when Gorey’s status as a literary humorist seems to define him, it falls away just as quickly as his designation as a macabre master. I was taken with just how moving many of his drawings are. In 1969’s “The Iron Tonic,” he deals with death and its inevitable fade from the memories of the living in an ambitious and poignant tableau, and 1970’s “The Osbick bird” explores the love between an avian companion and the human it outlived – drawings supplemented, as always, by succinct and minimal text.
“One of the great influences on Gorey is silent film,” Wilkin says. “He was a passionate admirer of the French silent film pioneer Louis Feuillade, who essentially invented the serial, with ‘Fantomas’ and ‘Irma Vep.’ You spend enough time with Feuillade and you start recognizing some of Gorey’s characters and settings. Also, the notion of the intertitle in silent films is very related to the way he tells stories. It is the image, and then there’s this little bit of information, which doesn’t quite tell you what’s happening.”
The Norton’s mounting of the show, which Wilkin called “the most effective installation” from all the places it’s been, spreads across three galleries and includes magnifying glasses near most of the pieces, so that patrons can bask in the intricacy and detail of Gorey’s small-scale visions.
Because only one or two stills from his major books could be displayed as art, the Norton has even included a collection of books by and about Gorey, taking up space on two mustard-colored walls in the exhibition. “Elegant Enigmas” is as much a resource library as an exhibit, offering endless opportunities to expand your view of this extraordinary artist.
"Elegant Enigmas" is at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., through Sept. 2. For information, call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.