Tuesday , February 27 2024
Edward Gorey is more than a man, more than an artist, he is the penultimate enigma.

Book Review: ‘Elegant Enigmas’ by Karen Wilkin

Labels are given to people all the time. Accolades like “genius,””master,” and “virtuoso” are thrown around at times like rice at a wedding, but there are occasions when the literary title rings true. It speaks out loud not only as one word, but the subtext and meaning speaks volumes about the recipient. That perfectly describes Edward Gorey and the oft attributed claim, “enigma.”

Edward GoreyElegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey is not only a wonderful volume for the Gorey fan to add to their collection, but it is also a companion catalog for the first major traveling museum exhibition of Gorey’s work. Inside is a number of reproductions covering the span and breadth of Edward Gorey’s career. Prefacing the artwork is an essay by Karen Wilkin, who is an art historian, author and Edward Gorey scholar.

The book itself should first be given credit for being a work of art in itself. Pomegranate, the publisher, pulled out the stops in creating this beautiful volume. On the front, underneath the dust jacket, you find branded into the lower right corner the image of one of Gorey’s sullen and lonely child characters, walking away and looking back over his shoulder. It immediately captures the odd mixture of cute and bleak that hovers inside much of his work.

I also feel the need to mention the binding because the first moment I held it in my hands it reminded me of those Time/Life editions that used to be sold on TV and door to door (we had the Fantasy series and Ghosts/Aliens series when I was growing up). Even the quality and weight of the paper chosen is cognizant and respectful to the cherished art being displayed inside.

The more casual fan of Edward Gorey will be thrilled to learn so many new and wonderful parts of his career. Gorey did parodies or responses of classical works, like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which through his own maudlin-tinted glasses became The Haunted Tea-Cosy (1997). Scrooge’s infamous berating phrase, “Bah Humbug!.” is playfully transformed into a real insect named “The Bahhum Bug.” Readers will also see a number of his lesser known works, of which my favorite title is The Deranged Cousins; or, Whatever (1971).

There are samples of the rhymes from each of the noted works and they often display the true peculiarity of Edward Gorey. He seamlessly wove the heart wrenching with the humorous. An example of the former is The Hapless Child (1961) where a father actually runs over his own daughter while out searching for her. She was gone for so long he didn’t even recognize her in the end. The latter is evidenced by The Listing Attic (1954) in which one panel shows two odd figures in dresses, wearing bowler hats and mustaches. The accompanying rhyme plays out nicely: (ed. note: “moustaches” is spelled that way in the original rhyme)

There’s a rather odd couple in Herts

Who are cousins (or so each asserts);

Their sex is in doubt

For they’re never without

Their moustahces and long, trailing skirts.

Also on display is Gorey’s fascination and dedication to letters and written correspondence. Today’s generation is growing up with everything living in the cloud with thoughts being sent digitally in tenths of a second, which does have a number of benefits, but there is a charm lost from the evaporation of the art of letter writing. Gorey, of course, added his own spin to that art by decorating the envelopes he sent. A handful of those sent from him to his mother while he was at school are pictured within and they are inspiring to say the least.

So Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey is a stunning and informative addition to anyone’s library. If you’re interested in seeing the exhibition itself, it is currently at Loyola University Chicago and it runs from 2/15/14 to 6/15/14. If you do check it out, leave a comment below about what you thought of it (all while imagining my skin glowing green with envy).

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About Luke Goldstein

People send me stuff. If I like it, I tell you all about it. There is always a story to be told.

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