Saturday, February 19, 2011

Edward Gorey: Elegant Enigmas

 Edward Gorey needs no introduction. I won't trivialize his massive talents or contributions by trying to come up with a witty line about how influential he has been and continues to be to countless artists of all media for the past 50+ years. So instead, I will just share my observations with you about a show of his work that I was lucky enough to attend today at the Boston Athenaeum!

The show features Edward Gorey's original pen and ink work in the forms of finished illustrations, loose sketchbook art/writing, book covers (rejected and accepted), writings, and incredible lettering. There are also a few lovely illustrated envelopes, stuffed toys made by Gorey himself, original-edition miniature books, and some early editions of some of his books. Most of the art is original art, except for a few reproductions.

The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

I was unable to take photos since they were prohibited, but for all you art geeks like me, I took notes on some of my observations on his process and the like. (Please note that all of the observations made below are based only on what I know of Gorey going into the show, and on the show itself.)

• Writing: I knew he was a writer of course and an excellent one, but after seeing some of his rejects it hit home how truly imaginative and innovative he was with words and with creating his own words. I was able to wrap myself a little bit in his process with some of the papers here and got to get a feel for his process. From what I can tell, it's a lot like the rest of us, which I liked a lot! I also noted that his poetic and rhyming verse is in general extremely technically sound. It's clear that he took pains to make sure that his work was technically correct and that he had respect for a good education in language, grammar and creative writing.

• Line work: Some of the line work is done with an impossibly fine and delicate line, and his control and consistency to his style is remarkable, especially given the fact that he likely was using pen nibs and an inkwell and not continuous-flow ink pen such as Rapidograph. Being a Rapidograph fanatic myself, I found this fascinating and really impressive. I have also used nib pens extensively and I have to wonder where the renegade ink drops are in Gorey's work that sometimes wind up in my ink and  nib-pen art! I think he was so precise and controlled and possibly trained himself to work with an immediate emergency blotter (likely of his own creation) immediately at the ready, in case any ink blobs came on quickly.

•Textures: He was able to integrate an amazing number of textures into a given piece. Well-executed, well-designed, unrushed, deliberate designs and textures. It's great to see this level of craftsmanship and 100% quality-to-the-finish execution especially in something so small and detailed. You could not sense what portion he started on, and which portion was his last to complete. No piece of the illustration looked hurried or rushed. You do not see that dedication from top to bottom all the time, and when you do see the care in something as intricate and intense as one of these illustrations, it is really remarkable. Also, it is clear he had a great love of ornamental pattern and design. This was one of my favorite aspects of his work in the show. I loved seeing a beautiful ornate damask-style pattern on a coat or curtain, and his design sense was in full throttle mode often, when you would see an illustration with several ornate, well crafted textures and patterns working close together in harmony.

• Ornamental design, book cover art, and lettering:
I loved seeing E.G.'s book cover originals. We all know how outstanding his hand-lettering is, but when you see the original art up close, it is really surprising how skilled he was at crafting letter forms so consistently while still making them feel loose and original. You don't always think of design mastery when you think of an illustrator, but Gorey was just outstanding. Design informed EVERYTHING he did. When you are looking at an illustration, the most obvious thing that comes to mind might not be "how well-designed is this?"for some. But when you see one of his earlier book covers (above) it really exhibits his early skills and innate talent for pure design. His lettering skills were phenomenal and his ability to design a cover, art and typography top to bottom, at such an earlyish point in his career is quite notable. (I don't remember what the date on this cover was, but it was early.) All of Gorey's book covers are great. But I specifically wanted to point out the earlier one that displayed such mastery because design skills take time and experience to develop and looking at an early book cover done so well leads me to believe he had very advanced  design sense from earlier in life than is average.

> See more Gorey book covers here - a Flickr set

Another thing I found interesting is that some of his book cover (among other) hand lettering was really tiny— so tiny that no matter how well-crafted it might be, the pulp of paper often can cause a problem when you are lettering so small. But I did not see any feathering or other seepage mishaps in the tiny lettering on book cover art. It makes me wonder if he coated the paper with some sort of sizing first. I personally don't like the feel of sizing because it can create a slick and uncomfortable pen surface and I imagine Gorey was so particular that he eschewed sizing. Still, it is a mystery.

• Corrective fluid: ...That is *not* to say that I did not see any "corrections" made in any of his work. I did! There were relatively few, but there they were, for everyone to see, and it actually helped humanize the man from the myth for me (not that he needed more humanizing; there was plenty of other humanizing in this show, with original sketchbook pages, a typed page full of invented words with writing in the margins, etc.) It was cool to see that he made mistakes, too, like everyone does. Whether it was the fault of a tired thumb (which I honestly kind of doubt) or a wily, loose fiber in the particular sheet of paper he was using for a final, there was corrective fluid used to cover up tiny bits here and again. I found myself looking for them after awhile. But apparently he was almost as masterful with the corrective fluid as he was with the pen and ink, because for 50 or 60 years ago, the teeny dab or three I saw are holding up really well, and I am betting that many viewers would not even notice it at all.

More charming (and welcome!) evidence of days gone by showed up in the book cover art for "The Broken Spoke". I was delighted to see two places where the art had been carefully overlaid with a very small, sharply and expertly cut piece of identical art. Not a stray fiber on these overlaid pieces of art, which I imagine covered up an errant ink blob or an accidental paper scrape.

• Use of color: One thing that sort of took me a little by surprise is that I found Gorey's use of color to be less sophisticated than I imagined it would be. To be honest, I had no idea if there would be any color works at all, and color is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of him. I enjoyed much of his colored works and the way he used his brush when he used paint. I was just not always nuts about the palette. In some pieces, He would marry one bright or deep, stand-alone color with just the black ink on white paper. This classic device is tried and true, makes a deliberate statement and has it's own brand of effectiveness that never goes out of style. Besides that use of color, there were ink drawings with muted watercolor washes. I generally love muted color washes over ink work in general, and I love that type of work (Maurice Sendak is one example). But when it comes to Gorey's work selected for this show, I felt that Gorey's masterful ink line work was, more often than not, a little trampled on by some comparatively, slightly clunky color choices. (I am not saying that it wasn't OKAY, it just didn't knock my socks off.) My favorite pieces were among those untouched by color. I would love to see some other later Gorey painted works to see how they stand up against the ones I saw in the show, and also to see the evolution of his color aesthetic.

•Sketch-to-ink: One piece on display showed a partly inked, never finished piece. I do not know if this was a good overall example of Gorey's process but I was really blown away by this window into his steps. The looseness of the pencil sketch that was partially inked was very surprising, given the level of intense technical detail evident in his finished works. When I'm doing pen and ink myself, I like to work with a little bit tighter pencil sketch than this, but I work fairly organically in my finish (leaving room for some experimentation in the ink). So to see E.G. have both sides of the coin— the true, authentic looseness in his pencil sketch left tons of room for whimsy and flights of fancy in the ink stage. But yet, the ink finished work is usually so deliberate, controlled, thoughtfully designed yet also still so fresh and animated and natural. It's amazing to imagine how he works.

•Evolution: It was interesting to see how Gorey's art evolved from 1940's through the 70's and 80's. I know it may seem imperceptible (I read a review in the Globe which stated basically that he had no stylistic change, which I disagree with) but the change is there. That is not to say that his work was not always unequivocally his own Edward Gorey style. To the contrary, that is part of what makes a great artist (and makes him one of the greats). An artist cannot help but be influenced by the ages they live in, artists are observers of life and culture, and the art evolves as well. But when you have developed a unique, original style all your own, the core of your work will always remain, like a fingerprint. The 50's heralded an ornate, fascinatingly detailed variety of textured line work, with scenes of a party or family dinner, for instance, that I can only describe as grandiose. This sense/aesthetic continued to inform Gorey's work throughout the 60's. But I saw a definite change in the 70's toward a more simple style (see pic above from The Osbick Bird, 1970). the line work was just as deliberate and well-planned but not lacking in spontinaety, but in was, by and large, quite scaled back in terms of texture, number of lines put to paper, and general amount of ink meeting paper (see pic above). Lots of white space which earlier may have been filled with a minimal texture; letter forms just as controlled but less ornate.

One thing I noticed in particular that speaks to the times was an illustrated book cover from the early 80's ('81, I think). There was a cat prominent in the design (above pic), and I noticed the cat was different from other Gorey cats I have previously seen. To my eye, this cat had a little in common aesthetically with the cats of Bernard Kliban that came of commercial prominence in the 70's and 80's. It did not look just like a Kliban cat, I am not saying that at all. I just noticed that it also reminded me of a Kliban cat. The times they do change. It's refreshing to me because it is easy to get too tied into drawing specific animals or other characters in a specific style. So though I prefered Gorey's cats of old* over this newer '80's cat, I did appreciate his courage to branch out and experiment with his character design especially at a time in his career when he was so established.
* I am searching google for one of these old E G. cats I'm talking about. I'm not having much luck, but if I find one, I'll post a link of it here. (Maybe I am imagining it? )

Overall, the show was extraordinary and so inspiring. I'm so blown away by Gorey's line art, imagination and execution, and my eyeballs and brain gobbled up each and every piece of work on display!! It's so incredible to see this collection of work up close and in person— almost all originals. If you are near Boston, the show closes the first week of June 2011.

Boston Athenaeum

Edward Gorey House in Massachusetts. (Plan a visit!)

Show reviews:

South Coast Today review

Boston Globe review


Gina Perry said...

What a wonderful review Kathy! I'm heading down there in March, I can't wait.

monica lee said...

Kathy, this was great! I am making it a "must see!" I am a pen and ink girl at heart too.

the_real_pod said...

That was a fantastic review. I felt the energy and excitement as if I, myself was at the showing. Gorey is among my favorite artists.