Review: Gorey at the Athenæum, animation at MassArt

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By GREG COOK  |  February 18, 2011

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THE EXPERIMENT (CAVE) Nathalie Djurberg’s claymation videos alternate between cartoony cute takes on the gruesome cycle of life and stomach-churning horror.

In Edward Gorey's old-timey illustrated books, parents leave on an excursion and never return, friends enter a tunnel and never come out, a mother falls ill and dies, a man driving around searching for his lost daughter runs over her with his car, a peculiar bird appears at a house and stays for 17 years.

"He has been working quite perversely to please himself," Edmund Wilson wrote in the New Yorker in 1959, "and has created a whole little personal world, equally amusing and somber, nostalgic at the same time as claustrophobic, at the same time poetic and poisoned."

It was a greeting at the beginning of a great cult career. Gorey wrote and illustrated more than 100 of his own wickedly funny books before his death on Cape Cod in 2000, and he illustrated dozens more by the likes of Dickens, Updike, and Virginia Woolf. "I'm hardly what you would call a serious museum-type artist," he told the New York Times in 1994. But his drawings look just right in his exquisite retrospective exhibit "Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey" at the Boston Athenæum.

Gorey was born in Chicago in 1925. Perhaps all his orphans and broken homes and the itching suspicion that everything might suddenly be dashed by a falling piece of masonry have something to do with his parents' divorce when he was 11. (They remarried 16 years later.) "The things that happen to you are usually the things that you haven't thought of or that come absolutely out of nowhere," he told the New Yorker in 1992. "And all you can do is cope with them when they turn up."

After a stateside stint in the Army during World War II, he studied French literature and hung around with poets at Harvard (Frank O'Hara was his roommate) before moving to New York in 1953 to design covers for Doubleday of reprints of out-of-print classics like Herman Melville's Redburn. He often stayed at the publisher's office late into the night crafting his own books — the first of which, a melodrama about the difficulties of the writing life, was published that same year.

The Unstrung Harp displays what we now recognize as Gorey's identifying characteristics: Edwardian gentlemen in long fur coats driving early motorcars and inhabiting dark mansions lushly appointed with wood paneling, leafy wallpaper, bookcases, and balustrades. Soon flappers and topiary gardens would join them. He penned it all with fine, dense crosshatching drawn at the size it would be printed - most illustrators and cartoonists work larger and have their art reduced. Perhaps this scale explains some of his work's intimate intensity.

In New York, Gorey religiously attended George Balanchine's New York City Ballet; he called Balanchine "the greatest living genius in any of the arts." The cartoonist was the tall fellow with the beard, floor-length fur coat, scarf, blue jeans, earrings, rings on most fingers, and sneakers. He often summered on Cape Cod, and he sometimes said it was Balanchine's death in 1983 that prompted him to move to Yarmouth Port full time in 1983 (some say '86), accompanied by a half-dozen cats.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , torture, Edward Gorey, gruesome,  More more >
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