Editor's note: The following essay concerning the exhibition Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, on view at the Brandywine River Museum March 21 to May 17, 2009, was reprinted in Resource Library on April 3, 2009 with permission of the Brandywine River Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Brandywine River Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey

A Special Exhibition on display from March 21 to May 17, 2009

by Lee Wierenga


Carnivorous plants, falling masonry, and uninvited guests fill the unique, imaginary world of the famous artist and author Edward Gorey (1925 - 2000). Once described by critic Edmund Wilson as "poisonous and poetic," Gorey is best known for his imaginative and quirky books that celebrate a wide array of subjects from ballet to haunted tea-cozies. His numerous publications, frequently written in limerick form or as abecedaria, are as oblique as they are entertaining. Those familiar with Gorey's literary work speak about his wry, biting sense of humor and his finely detailed pen and ink drawings.

The Brandywine River Museum's special exhibition, Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, explores the diversity of Gorey's illustrations, preparatory sketches, unpublished drawings, and ephemera. Drawn from private collections, including the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, the exhibition will feature approximately 180 works, many never before exhibited. Selections from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Unstrung Harp, The Gilded Bat, and other well-known publications that appeal to both children and adults are included.

Gorey's books are filled with images of genteel ladies, men in smoking-jackets, children in pinafores and sailor suits, and maids in uniform. These illustrations, which often suggest scenes from Edwardian England, foster the erroneous but widespread assumption that Gorey was English and of that bygone era. So it is surprising to some that Gorey was their contemporary. He was born in Chicago, studied at Harvard, and worked in New York City. He rarely traveled and went abroad only once as an adult, sojourning in the Scottish isles, not in England.

Many wonder where Gorey found inspiration for his enigmatic tales. During an interview with Steven Schiff for a November 9, 1992 article in The New Yorker, Gorey remarked, "God knows my influences are eclectic. There's hardly anything I haven't filched some time or another. . . .silent films. . . .Japanese literature. . . .nineteenth century book illustrations." Schiff wrote that Gorey "embraced the highest of high art and the most popular of popular culture." Gorey obviously absorbed the world around him, assimilating books, newspapers, television and movies; everything was potential fodder for his imagination.

Gorey's resulting stories are an amalgamation of the ordinary and the ominous. They are composed of brief statements and non sequiturs that often leave as much to the imagination as they reveal. Readers are left to decipher meaning or to complete narratives for themselves. Karen Wilkin, Gorey scholar and author of the illustrated catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, writes that the successful "decoding [of] any of his references can simultaneously confer a sense of having been admitted to an inner sanctum and an awareness of how much else you are undoubtedly missing."

While, the images that accompany Gorey's minimalist text appear spare, the pen work is often complex. His eloquent images sometimes complement his text and often raise puzzling questions. Despite a reputation for the macabre, Gorey rarely depicts murder or mayhem. Instead, he portrays the actions that precede an event or shows the immediate aftermath. His manner of presentation and lack of emotion in his cast of characters contribute to an air of indifference that allows the viewer to detach from the slightly disturbing narrative. When asked about the effect of his work on readers he replied, "In a way I hope it is mildly unsettling." The merging of elliptical texts and mysterious images results in sardonic and witty books that maintain a delicate balance between the hilarious and the horrific.

This exhibition was organized by the Brandywine River Museum and will travel to other institutions throughout the country. Please join us on March 21 from 1 to 3 p.m. when renowned art historian Karen Wilkin will sign copies of the exhibition catalogue, Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey.


About the author

Lee Wierenga is Assistant Curator at the Brandywine River Museum


Resource Library editor's note:

The following essay concerning the exhibition Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, on view at the Brandywine River Museum March 21 to May 17, 2009, was reprinted in Resource Library on April 3, 2009 with permission of the Brandywine River Museum, which was granted to TFAO on April 2, 2009.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lora B. Englehart, Public Relations Coordinator at the Brandywine River Museum, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text

To view Resource Library's article for the exhibition please click here.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Brandywine River Museum in Resource Library.

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