Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Princeton University Press, 149 pp., $35.00
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.