When he died in 2000 at the age of seventy-five Edward Gorey was well known and widely treasured as a draftsman, a storyteller, an illustrator, a balletomane of long standing, a master of the educated book-jacket, and an inventor of images that were peculiar to himself. Among image-makers, who but he would have made us look with lasting enjoyment at a skeleton that lies reading in a hammock, center front, while a few feet behind him a garden party goes on as if nothing unusual was happening? That particular image was the star in his recent show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York. Among the other implausible fancies that he at one time or another brought into the circus of the everyday was that of a prodigiously long-haired dog on whose back the words “What Might Have Been” stood out in big letters. This caused many a sensitive observer to pause and reflect, half in grief and half in terror.
The point of many of his drawings and stories is that he didn’t want them to “make sense.” “I have a dumb theory,” he once said, “that a creative piece of art is only interesting if it purports to be about something and is really about something else.” When he works with text and images concurrently, as he does in many of his eighty and more illustrated books, they don’t have to be in step with one another. If we come running after them and manage to catch up, we find ourselves in a place in which nothing is explained but a great deal happens.
When Gorey began the story of the famous ballerina whom he called Maudie Splaytoe, we could not foresee that she would “get lost over the Camargue” when “a great dark bird” flew into her aeroplane. But it did, and she did, and we believed it. Everyone “gets” Gorey to a certain extent, even if they have only watched his logos for Mystery on public television. But to have all of him in focus? That is another matter.
When he wanted to, Gorey could moralize in an immediately legible way. His last show in New York included a large drawing of a young woman bicycling on a tightrope over a rock-strewn abyss. With one hand she was holding on to a very large urn that was perched high on the handlebars. For Gorey, the image was unusually straightforward. But so was the point of it, which he defined as “Innocence, on the Bicycle of Propriety, carrying the Urn of Reputation safely across the Abyss of Indiscretion.”
This could have been hung in a sophisticated schoolroom as a guide to good behavior in adult life. But it helps to know that funerary urns (often shaped like turnips) turn up all over the place in Gorey’s work. As Richard Dyer pointed out in The Boston Globe in 1984, Gorey once published a whole book of them, called Les Urnes Utiles. There had …