There have always been creative spirits who take a seigneurial pride in standing somewhat apart from their time. The artists I’m thinking about are far too sophisticated to be described as outsiders. They are, in fact, prototypical insiders, with a deep grasp of the histories and traditions that are relevant to their art. But they delight in marshaling everything they know in the service of work that is sui generis, detached from all norms. Some seek a twilight-zone quality. Some aim to create a private parallel universe. Others make a mythology of their own jokes, quirks, dreams, obsessions, and quarrels.
Edward Gorey, whose books, theatrical designs, and sundry ephemeral productions are the subject of a brilliant exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum, is among the most recent additions to this curious company. It is a loose-knit cohort, which spans the centuries and includes literary and musical artists as well as visual ones. Two novelists who immediately come to mind are Thomas Love Peacock in the nineteenth century and Ronald Firbank in the twentieth. I would include the sixteenth-century artists Luca Cambiaso, whose geometrized figure drawings fascinated the Surrealists, and Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who painted heads composed of fruits and flowers for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Other candidates include the American painter Florine Stettheimer and the American composer Harry Partch. Each of these men and women refuses to fit easily into any tradition. They’re idiosyncratic aristocrats. When we try to press them into some tradition—perhaps to see Peacock as an embodiment of eighteenth-century conversational conventions or Arcimboldo as a prototypical Mannerist—we rob them of some of their glory. They are nonpareil.
Like the other figures in this elusive group, Edward Gorey may have felt armored in his worldliness, which became a bulwark or a mask behind which he was free to indulge in a vision that is gloriously unworldly or even otherworldly. “He has been working quite perversely to please himself,” Edmund Wilson wrote in The New Yorker in 1959, in one of the earliest appreciations of Gorey’s art. He “has created,” Wilson continued, “a whole little personal world, equally amusing and somber, nostalgic and claustrophobic, at the same time poetic and poisoned.”
The title of the Wadsworth Atheneum show, “Gorey’s Worlds,” is just right for a project that aims to lay out the genealogy of Gorey’s artistic imagination, by juxtaposing his own work with works from his collection of drawings, prints, photographs, and paintings by some of the artists who were important to him. They range from the nineteenth-century French printmaker Charles Meryon to the still too-little-known American painter Albert York, whose landscapes, still lifes, and figures hover between naturalism and symbolism (York died in 2009). Gorey owned photographs by Eugène Atget and drawings by Balthus, Pierre Bonnard, Charles Burchfield, and Édouard Vuillard. He also acquired a group of anonymous nineteenth-century American pictures done in a dramatic chiaroscuro technique with chalk or charcoal on paper covered with marble dust. Taken together, these works give us as convincing a picture as we will probably ever have of Gorey’s elective affinities—of his own private tradition.
In the half-century after Wilson wrote about Gorey, he became, if not a household name, then a familiar figure, especially through his designs for the hit Broadway show Dracula and his opening titles for the PBS series Mystery! Gorey was born in Chicago in 1925, studied at Harvard, and arrived in New York in the 1950s, where he found work in the art department at Doubleday Anchor Books. He also began producing the dozens of volumes in which he wove together his own images and texts.
By now some may see these books as precursors or relatives of the graphic novels that have achieved great popularity in recent years. But the relationship between words and pictures in Gorey’s books is calculated to confound the expectation of narrative logic and development that fuels many of the mergers of comic strip and novel now on the market. Gorey’s is an art of disjuncture. His narratives are often closer to prose poems than to short stories, much less novels. For nearly fifty years Gorey sent dispatches from a dream world where Edwardian grandees cross paths with temptresses in flapper dresses, children confront animals nobody has ever seen before, and eerily depopulated interiors and landscapes leave us feeling that calamity is just around the corner.
In a letter to Peter F. Neumeyer—a writer with whom Gorey collaborated and who has made of their correspondence a fascinating volume, Floating Worlds (2011)—Gorey comments, “I do share with Mr. [Henry] James, the imagination of disaster, or whatever the phrase was.” When disaster strikes in Gorey’s books, it more often than not strikes offstage. What we are presented with isn’t the horror but an echo of the horror. Among his beautiful cover designs for Anchor Books—just about the first series of what were then known as “quality paperbacks”—are two for James’s most elliptical studies of the grown-up world as seen by the young, What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age. Gorey, for whom nothing is ever what it first appears, must have recognized in James a kindred spirit. He would have agreed with James that the greatest discoveries are the circuitous ones. Only when we see at an angle do we have a chance of seeing the truth.
Gorey’s art is the art of elsewhere, of a there that isn’t where we expect it to be or think it ought to be. In The Willowdale Handcar, first published in 1962, an Edwardian trio—Edna, Harry, and Sam—wander down to the railroad station and discover a handcar on the siding. Harry suggests that they “take it and go for a ride.” And so they do, day after day and month after month. As they proceed they encounter all sorts of tragedies, but always at a distance: a burning house in a field, a frantic face in the window of a train, a mysterious explosion at the Crampton vinegar works. The face in the window seems to belong to Edna’s old friend Nellie Flim. A few pages later they run into Nellie’s beau, Dick Hammerclaw, who in response to their asking after Nellie seems “upset.” Then they find Nellie, who appears to be considering suicide on the railroad tracks but then rides away on a bicycle. Still later they see somebody who looks like Nellie, “walking in the grounds of the Weedhaven Laughing Academy.” In this book, Gorey, an avid Agatha Christie fan, offers bits and pieces of mysteries, which the three friends contemplate with an equanimity that is among the keynotes of his art.
Gorey is fascinated by conventions, and the multitude of troubles or conflicts they so imperfectly obscure. He delights in taking the structure of the alphabet book, with its cheerful schoolroom predictability, and standing it on its head. In The Gashlycrumb Tinies each letter stands for a child who comes to some awful end. We go from “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs” and “B is for Basil assaulted by Bears” all the way to “Y is for Yorick whose head was knocked in” and “Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin.”
But as much as Gorey likes to mock the conventions, turning adorable children into Kafkaesque victims, he is fascinated by the power of dress and behavior to order a disorderly world. Gorey may have had little or no use for Sigmund Freud. In one of his letters to Neumeyer he refers to a character in a book as “fairly ickypoo-Freudian.” One could argue that Gorey was so deep into Freud’s world that he was free to go right ahead and ignore The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The fact is that some of his protagonists, with their professorial suits and handsome bearded faces, look an awful lot like Freud.
The traditions that are woven most deeply into Gorey’s work are those of the theater. The horizontal format of most of his books and most of his pictures suggests the proscenium stage, only reduced in size and scale. Many of the books have some of the qualities of toy theaters, with each page an unfolding act or scene. It’s no accident that two of Gorey’s most remarkable achievements are devoted to the ballet and the opera. The Blue Aspic follows the parallel lives of a great singer, Ortenzia Caviglia, and an ardent fan, Jasper Ankle. While Ortenzia goes from triumph to triumph and lover to lover, Jasper’s life goes from bad to worse. He ends up in an asylum, denied the gramophone on which to play his beloved recordings. When they finally cross paths, Ortenzia is leaving the opera house in an elaborate fur coat, on the arm of the Maharajah of Eschnapur, and Jasper lunges at her with a knife and murders her.
In The Gilded Bat, Maud Splaytoe, renamed Mirella Splatova by Baron de Zabrus, the director of a legendary ballet company, becomes “the reigning ballerina of the age, and one of its symbols.” But her life, the life of the artist surrounded by lovers and admirers, does not “cease to be somewhat dreary.” Most if not all of her imperishable roles are as flying creatures, including a butterfly and a raven. So it is poetic justice that she dies when a great dark bird flies into the propeller of her plane over the Camargue; she is on her way to perform in a charity gala before royalty at Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Gorey brings a revivifying improvisatory wit to a backstage, warts-and-all view of theatrical life that has long been familiar to followers of ballet and opera. The crisp execution of his black-and-white drawings has some of the flash and fascination of a jazz artist giving old tunes new urgency. His prima donnas are essence of prima donna. Everything we know about Pavlova, Toumanova, Tebaldi, and Callas is boiled down to a comic elixir. Gorey is a close student of all the varieties of fans and hangers-on: the awkward balletomanes in their worn-out clothes waiting at the stage door for an autograph and the broad-shouldered dandies with their glasses of champagne at the grand reception. Jasper Ankle—the tormented fan standing in the rain to buy an inexpensive seat in a remote corner of a high balcony—is rendered as a shadow puppet in faded gray grisaille; he seems on the verge of disappearing into a world that’s all gray grisaille. Meanwhile, Ortenzia Caviglia and Mirella Splatova soldier on, moving among managers and fellow artists and lovers, but always alone with the secrets of their art. Their faces are often seen in profile, like those of inscrutable princesses and queens painted on the walls of Egyptian tombs.
“Gorey’s World” comes with a curious backstory. Following his death in 2000, the Wadsworth Atheneum was informed that Gorey had bequeathed his personal art collection to the museum. He hadn’t informed it of his intentions. He left no explanation. While he had visited the museum on various occasions, sometimes on trips between his apartment in New York and his house on Cape Cod, he doesn’t appear to have had a connection with anybody there, and he had no personal links with Hartford.
Gorey’s collection cannot be said to have been a major windfall for the museum. It consists mostly of smaller works, many of them on paper and most of them purchased for relatively modest sums. But the collections assembled by artists do have a particular fascination, and there are certainly some wonders worthy of a great museum among the works Gorey acquired over the years.
Erin Monroe, the curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum who organized the exhibition, channels the title of Gorey’s book The Doubtful Guest when writing about his gift to the museum. “Gorey may have thought of it as ‘The Doubtful Bequest,’” she remarks, “because its arrival was unannounced, like the peculiar visitor in one of his stories.” It was certainly like Gorey to leave his audience to grapple with questions of motive and intent. In this case, however, the answers aren’t as elusive as in some of his books.
Gorey was among many other things an ardent admirer of the choreography of George Balanchine; for decades he attended virtually every performance of the company to which Balanchine had devoted his life, the New York City Ballet. Gorey’s gift to the Wadsworth Atheneum must be closely linked with his admiration for Balanchine and the New York City Ballet, because it was the Wadsworth’s director, A. Everett Austin Jr. (known to one and all as Chick), who in 1933 gave Lincoln Kirstein the logistical support that made it possible for him to invite Balanchine to come to the United States and start a ballet company, initially in Hartford. That might be enough to explain Gorey’s bequest, but I think there is more to it. From 1927 to 1944, under Austin’s inspired directorship, the Wadsworth Atheneum presented a vision of modernism and modernity that was extraordinarily rich, nuanced, and wide-ranging—a vision that I believe is echoed in Gorey’s work.
Gorey embraced, in his utterly personal way, the vision of modernism that Austin brought into focus at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Although Austin did not have an analytical mind, he had a searching, original sensibility. He had no interest in the model of modernism as a progressive evolution toward ever-greater purity and abstraction, which has so profoundly shaped our understanding of art and aesthetics in the twentieth century. Of course Austin (and Gorey as well) embraced the engimas, asceticisms, bafflements, and disjunctures that are essential to the modernist endeavor. But Austin saw those values as existing side by side with older but still urgent values: a respect for academic discipline; an awareness of the power of tradition; a taste for Baroque or Rococo extravagance that others were dismissing at the time as essentially antimodernist. The understanding of modernism that was evolving at the Wadsworth Atheneum was pluralistic. The heterogeneity of modern art—the freedom to embrace abstraction or representation or austerity or extravagance—became a reflection of the heterogeneity of democratic experience.
The Wadsworth Atheneum can claim many American firsts: the first museum show of work by Picasso, the first museum survey of the Surrealist movement, and the first purchase by a museum of one of Mondrian’s revolutionary abstractions. But Austin was simultaneously an ardent student of the art of the past who early on embraced a revival of interest in Mannerist, Baroque, and Rococo painting. He managed to buy for the museum some extraordinary works when they were still wildly undervalued. He was also fascinated by twentieth-century realism. He bought a painting by Balthus and was a staunch supporter of Pavel Tchelitchew and the other artists who were known as the Neo-Romantics.
Although Austin may never have said it in so many words, there is no question that he saw stylistic pluralism as a core modern value. And why not? This was the view of modernity embraced by Picasso (who in a matter of months in 1921 produced the neoclassical Three Women at the Spring and the Cubist Three Musicians) and by Balanchine (who in the 1950s created both the austere Agon and the Biedermeier Nutcracker). It was a view of modernity that Gorey, within his chamber-scaled universe, embraced as well.
Many of the works that Gorey collected have a Janus-faced, something-old-something-new quality. This fits right in with Austin’s expansive vision of modern artistic experience. In a lithograph by Redon, a strange eel-like creature, which might hark back to the bizarre inventions of Bosch, floats in an indeterminate space that prefigures the art of Kandinsky. A beautiful pencil drawing by Bonnard, with a table set before a window, contrasts the gemütlich coziness of the interior with the expansive emptiness of the beyond.
There are few artists with a stronger sense of the tangled relationship between past, present, and future than Eugène Atget. A photograph owned by Gorey of the windows of a shop on the rue de l’École de Médicine selling skeletons and other objects of naturalistic interest mingles the immediacy of glimmering reflections in panes of glass with the human skeleton that bids us contemplate mortality and eternity. As for the series of anonymous American drawings that Gorey acquired in antique shops over the years, these curious compositions recapitulate nineteenth-century Romantic conventions with a blunt force that prefigures twentieth-century Expressionism.
John Ashbery, speaking in his Norton Lectures about the importance of what he referred to as minor artists, said that such works offered him “a poetic jump-start for times when the batteries have run down.” For Gorey some of the works now in the Wadsworth Atheneum might have provided that kind of jump-start. Certainly, as we look at some of those on display, we begin to see the achievements of older artists in new ways. Meryon’s Le Petit Pont, Paris, with the towers of Notre-Dame in the middle distance behind a row of buildings, might at first seem a fine study of the elegant jumble of the Parisian streetscape. So it is. But when I turn to it with eyes simultaneously trained on Gorey’s work, I find myself focusing on Meryon’s tiny figures. They become human puzzle pieces nearly lost in the great Parisian puzzle, much as in Gorey’s The Blue Aspic persons and places, realized with the same sort of pen strokes, lose their separate qualities and characteristics.
Gorey is an unsentimental sentimentalist. You find that kind of modern consciousness in Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical cityscapes, Picasso’s paintings of the Blue and Rose periods, Max Ernst’s collages, Balthus’s interiors, a Balanchine ballet such as Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, and the final scene of Strauss’s Capriccio. Gorey probably recognized this unsentimental sentimentality when he visited the Wadsworth Atheneum, which does indeed provide a welcoming setting for his own small collection. It may be a certain sentimentality that initially attracts us to Gorey’s work. We’re seduced by this lost world of gentlemen in elegant evening dress and soignée flappers with slinky scarves and kohl-outlined eyes. But ultimately it’s Gorey’s detachment, his critical distance, that holds us and returns us to books that one might imagine would pale after the first exposure.
The secret of Gorey’s art is that he is a critic of his own vision. He knows his limits. He dreams his dreams but he also scrutinizes them. After he died in 2000, the dance critic Arlene Croce wrote a brief tribute. Gorey had eagerly offered his assistance to Croce when she founded the magazine Ballet Review. He designed covers for some issues and created The Gilded Bat to be serialized in the magazine. Croce remembers Gorey as “a gentle, warmhearted, generous man who knew a lot.” She observes that when he became well known “his eccentricities—the sneakers, the jewelry, the fur coats—were invariably highlighted in articles and interviews.” There may have been a desire to turn him into one of his own characters. But Croce “never saw him as a camp personality. He was one of the most morally serious and intellectually courageous people I ever knew, and he will remain forever part of a cherished era.”
Gorey was anything but a Gorey character. He was the artist who envisioned those characters. His worldliness—everything that was morally serious and intellectually courageous—grounded him and freed him to go right ahead and indulge in the wild fantasy world of his illustrated books. The distinction between the artist and the art must be emphasized, for it is in danger of getting lost in a time such as ours, when works of art are almost invariably seen not as freestanding achievements but as Rorschach tests documenting the sexual, social, and political predilections and prejudices of the artist and the age. Gorey’s books are full of violence, nastiness, loneliness, and perversity. These disquieting forces register with such power precisely because they have been contemplated from a certain distance, from a certain angle. In the history of the visual and literary arts Gorey’s is a relatively small achievement. But it will endure. Gorey took the exact measure of his imagination. He let it rip—but with the utmost care.