Gorey exhibit opens eyes

(Chris McNulty)
By Hayley Kaufman
Globe Staff / March 12, 2011

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Lately, I’ve taken to reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the kids. Not the Disney versions, all scrubbed and prettily packaged, but the originals, in which characters often meet gruesome ends. Naturally, I edit out the scariest bits and skip some stories altogether. Afterward, we talk about them a little (“Mommy, how did the prince get turned into a bear?’’), but sometimes the plot twists are inexplicable, and not every question has a good answer.

So too with Edward Gorey, whose curious and deliciously macabre drawings and writings are now on display at the Boston Athenaeum. At 7 and 4, my children are too young to grasp Gorey’s work, but they eyeballed it for a while, if only to figure out why their parents seemed so excited by it all. Nate, being older, peered at illustrations from “The Gashlycrumb Tinies’’ with a look that approached real interest. I’d told him it was one of my favorites.

“It’s an alphabet book,’’ I explained, “and each letter tells the story of a kid who died. Isn’t that nutty?’’ I pointed to a panel and read aloud: “V is for Victor squashed under a train.’’

Nate squinted. “Why’d they all die?’’

I paused. “I don’t really know.’’

He was less troubled by the envelopes. While a student at Harvard in the late 1940s, Gorey sent missives to his mother in gorgeously decorated envelopes. In addition to his signature ink line figures, the young Gorey illuminated the scenes with delicate colors. “I want to get a letter like that,’’ Nate said.

We soon wandered out of the show and began to explore the rest of the Athenaeum. (Much of the first floor is open to Gorey visitors.) It is a magnificent space, filled with books and art and a soothing hush. In the back is the children’s library, rooms so welcoming the kids didn’t want to leave. We sat down in a nook next to a window overlooking the Granary Burying Ground, its rows of gravestones bright in the cold afternoon sun. For a minute, everyone was quiet.

Show open through June 4. Suggested donation of $5 per person. Hayley Kaufman can be reached at hkaufman@globe.come

WHO: “G’’ editor Hayley Kaufman, husband Chris McNulty,

and their kids Devin, 16, Nate, 7, and Rachel, 4

WHAT: Seeing “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey’’

WHERE: The Boston Athenaeum

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