Friday, February 11, 2011

Elegant Enigmas

by Sheila Connolly

The Boston Globe reports that there is a new exhibit of Edward Gorey's works opening at the Boston Athenaeum this week, entitled "Elegant Enigmas."

Gorey lived much of his later life in a small house in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod, and the house is now a museum–it's one of my local favorites, and I've been there many times (the fact that there's an excellent restaurant and a used bookstore nearby may have something to do with that). Curiously, the Athenaeum exhibit was organized by the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania–another one of my all-time favorite small museums.

The Gorey House is an unprepossessing and shabby little house, filled with items that Gorey collected. A lot of items. They crowd the shelves and windowsills and any other surface available (I wouldn't want to be responsible for dusting there!). I hadn't realized that many of the items in the house appear in various of Gorey's books, and some visitors make a game of looking for them.

I don't know if or when I'll see the exhibit, so I can't comment on the vision that dictated the selection of the things on display. But it was at the Gorey House, surrounded by Gorey's chosen talismans, that I had an epiphany.

Most of you are probably familiar with Gorey's drawing style, which is distinctive and easily recognized. Mystery fans will know the animated introduction to the PBS series Mystery! (The animation was done by Derek Lamb.) Others my recognize his whimsical creatures in all sorts of odd places (and there's one living on my refrigerator right now!).

But my lightbulb moment was about style. It didn't happen the first time, or even the second time, I visited the house. But one sunny afternoon, as I was wandering around, making a deliberate effort to look carefully at all the "things," I realized I was looking at all the building blocks of Gorey's visual style. I'm not sure which came first–whether Gorey surrounded himself with possessions he liked, or whether he liked them because they reminded him of his art–but looking around I realized what a single-minded focus Gorey had, and how consistent he was.

I'm not talking about specific motifs or objects that he used or reused. I'm talking about a sense of line and shape and form that links all the bits and pieces together. I won't bore you with art-speak, although in another life I was an art historian, but if I had to summarize the recurring forms, I would call them "round."

Okay, that's vastly oversimplified. But stop and look at his drawings: how many sharp edges do you see? Things flow, things bend and sway. And they're all connected, as though all the people, and even the animals, belong to the same family, tribe, or species.

Which leads me (finally!) to the question, "how do we define style?" Please don't say, "I know it when I see it," even though it's often true. Individuals–visual artists or writers–have a personal style, one that is identifiably theirs. Gorey's work provides a great example: the influences are so clear and open. They flow seamlessly from the little world he created around himself into his sketches. And he take such obvious pleasure in that consistency that it's hard not to like him. You can see what and how he saw.

Artists use line, color, three-dimensional modeling, lighting, to create their work. Writers use words to define character, pacing, conflict, to create theirs. You wouldn't confuse Gorey's art with, say, a Rembrandt sketch, any more than you would confuse Robert Parker's prose with Dickens'.

Gorey didn't ignore the written word, and his delightful sense of whimsey carries over there too. Titles of his works include "The Doubtful Guest," "The Wuggly Ump," "The Epiplectic Bicycle," "The Sopping Thursday," "Dancing Cats and Neglected Murderesses," "The Unknown Vegetable"–I could go on, but I'll give you the pleasure of looking them up for yourselves. He also had a lot of fun with pseudonyms, which were often anagrams of his own name: Ogdred Weary, Raddory Gewe, Dogear Wryde, or E. G. Deadworry, to name a few.

By the way, his birthday is February 22nd. I don't think he'd mind if we celebrate a little early.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, sounds like you're talking about the visual equivalent of voice. Fascinating.

Sandra Parshall said...

I *love* Gorey! Especially his cats, which won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. A friend gave me his insouciant cat on a bicycle in the form of a pin after our beloved Simon died at the age of almost-18, and now I smile and think of Simon every time I look at it.