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ART REVIEW

Gorey fun

Show captures illustrator’s macabre humor, marvelous technique

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 18, 2011

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Some people have literary sensibilities. Others are more inclined to be visual. Edward Gorey, the magnificent illustrator who died on Cape Cod in 2000, was lucky enough to have the two faculties perfectly combined, and better yet, supplemented by a level of schadenfreude so shot through with innocent mirth as to make it seem almost magnanimous.

An example: Gorey’s 1977 book, “The Loathsome Couple,’’ included a drawing with the caption: “That year Mona Gritch was born to a pair of drunkards.’’

Like so many of Gorey’s best drawings, it is a tour de force of cross-hatching. The scene itself is egregiously dismal, calling to mind Walter Sickert’s Mornington Crescent nudes: cast-iron bed, sex gone wrong, deep-set funk.

The baby’s mother is sprawled on the bed, the father is flopped at its foot, and the poor, dear, bare-bottomed brat has fallen on the floor. Four bottles punctuate the room like dark markers of anarchy.

And yet we laugh. We laugh and laugh. It’s wonderfully funny.

Gorey’s inimitable drawings, which combine gothic deadpan with wistful Victorian nostalgia, are the subject of the most enjoyable exhibition in Boston this winter. The venue, the Boston Athenaeum, is ideal — a place where those with visual sensibilities (the Athenaeum was for a long time Boston’s preeminent art museum) and those with more literary inclinations (it is the city’s oldest independent library) feel equally at home.

In two rooms, “Elegant Enigmas: the Art of Edward Gorey’’ treats us to 180 objects, mostly original drawings for Gorey publications drawn from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. (The show was organized by the Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, Pa.)

Gorey resisted attempts to categorize him. He claimed to be asexual, saying, “I am a person before I am anything else,’’ and applied the same principle to his creative activities: “I never say I am a writer. I never say I am an artist. . . . I am a person who does those things.’’

Nonetheless, he was, as curator Karen Wilkin writes in the exhibition catalog, prone to identifying with authors rather than artists in his drawings. (A paradox? Sure.) In the alphabet rhyme “The Chinese Obelisks’’ (1970), for instance, he is “A’’ — “an Author who went for a walk.’’ The shoulders of said author are hunched forward, he’s dressed in a thick fur coat, and he leaves a crumpled piece of paper in his wake.

Similarly, for the 1973 “The Lavender Leotard; Or, Going a Lot to the New York City Ballet,’’ Gorey did a terrific drawing of a small girl and boy on either side of a similarly fur-coated, hunch-backed old man, all three seen from behind. The caption — “The author introduces two small, distant, ageless, and wholly imaginary relatives to fifty seasons of the New York City Ballet’’ — is clearly a self-portrait of sorts (Gorey loved the New York City Ballet, not to mention fur coats).

Finally, at the end of another alphabet book, “The Glorious Nosebleed’’ (1975), the final entry, for Z, is also an author: “He wrote it all down Zealously.’’

Like the entry for F (“They searched the cellars Fruitlessly’’) it’s a great line, freighted with pathos, registering gently the inherent silliness of the activity it describes. But it’s brief, casual, poetic — and to this extent quite the opposite of Gorey’s drawings, which are finely planned, beautifully worked, exquisitely controlled.

You could say, then, that if Gorey did anything zealously, it was drawing, not writing.

Gorey was born in Chicago, was educated at Harvard, and spent his later years living in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod (his home was converted after his death into the Edward Gorey House). He received scant training in art, although he did briefly attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Visually, his style did not develop much over the course of his long career. And yet his range was tremendous, and his work, though distinctive, never feels monotonous.

For the most part dense with lines, his drawings could also be remarkably spare. There are four drawings here, for example, from 1970’s “The Osbick Bird.’’ The first, captioned “The top of the zagava tree/ Was frequently where they had tea,’’ is already quite minimal. The fourth, captioned “But after several months, one day/ It changed its mind and flew away,’’ contains nothing but the osbick bird’s feet disappearing at the upper right, and the top of the abandoned man’s hat at the lower left.

Among his favorite themes were unfortunate, random, and usually mortal accidents: “After it had passed, Lord Wherewithal was found crushed beneath a statue blown down from the parapet,’’ for instance. Or: “Her only other relative, an uncle, was brained by a piece of masonry.’’

Other drawings describe circumstances that are perhaps more melancholy than macabre, but the degree of melancholy is often deliciously extreme: “By the time he was twelve Harold had caught the cold that afterwards never left him.’’

The show contains examples of Gorey’s illustrations of the work of other writers, such as Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc. As a result, at various points in the show, his distinctive sensibility seems to bleed into the imaginations of others, and we may feel briefly uncertain about where precisely his originality resides.

The question need not detain us overlong: So much of Gorey’s humor, his literary style and even his drawing was either generously collaborative or mildly parodic. Like his contemporaries, Roy Lichtenstein and Saul Steinberg, he took what was out there and reconfigured it to suit his own purposes. The only difference was that Gorey’s idea of what was “out there’’ tended to involve groping back across the decades and over the Atlantic to late-19th-century England.

“Months went by’’ is the curt caption beneath a 1964 drawing of a woman treading gingerly on the lurching deck of a ship, a mountain of water rising behind her. The drawing seems to describe something critical about Gorey’s imagination that’s nonetheless difficult to define. Loneliness, silliness, impending doom? All of those things, yes. But surely, too, the requirement that months go by and oceans be crossed (at least in the imagination) before anything truly creative — or anything convincingly disastrous — can take place.

In his penmanship, Gorey had a wonderful feeling for patterns, textures, and subtle variations in tone, and sometimes the captions he employed seemed bent on echoing these values in literary form. “The Blue Aspic,’’ from 1968, for instance, contained a number of exquisitely patterned renderings of more-or-less random scenarios with captions like: “Caviglia cruised the Adriatic with Basil Zaribaydjian, the financier, on his yacht, the Maud,’’ or the Dr. Seuss-like “A statue fell on the Duke of Whaup during the second interval of Amable Tastu.’’

But some of the best drawings here are captionless. They’re from “The West Wing,’’ an early Gorey publication, and they show, with virtuosic restraint, darkened doorways, cracks in floors, and disappearing staircases. They’re like Edward Hopper illustrations of stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

It would be perverse to prefer one side of Gorey over the other: Image and text were almost always interwoven, and mutually enriching — even when the point of a drawing was to induce radical skepticism about writing, as in a 1992 drawing from “Verse Advice,’’ for The New Yorker, that has the hopeful caption: “The helpful thought for which you look/ Is written somewhere in a book.’’ But what does the picture show? A bewildered man padding around his house, books strewn in his wake.

Pitiful. But at least he’s not yet been felled by falling masonry.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

ELEGANT ENIGMAS: The Art of Edward Gorey At: Boston Athenaeum, through June 4. 617-227-0270, www.bostonathenaeum.org