The art of Edward Gorey is full of unidentifiable creatures, gloomy adults and children doing who-knows-what, inexplicable shadows, buildings that very well may be haunted. But he was not alone in his artistic exploration of the macabre. In fact, he surrounded himself with it.
In his homes in New York City and later on Cape Cod, the celebrated author and illustrator displayed artworks of a vague, gloomy, surreal or weird nature. Sitting among these pieces as inspiration and backdrop, Gorey (1925-2000) created his own humorous Gothic worlds.
When Gorey died, he left his 73-piece art collection to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford. The Atheneum has just mounted an exhibit of Gorey’s own artworks hung side-by-side with the Atheneum’s pieces that fired his imagination.
“He must have envisioned these places he created through these works of art because Gorey didn’t travel,” says Erin Monroe, the Atheneum’s associate curator of American paintings and sculpture. “He spent more time traveling in his mind than leaving the United States.” (When asked by Vanity Fair magazine to name his favorite journey, Gorey responded “Looking out the window.”)
One of Goreys favorite places to “visit” was the Paris of printmaker Charles Meryon. Meryon’s 1866 etching, “The Admiralty, Paris” shows a common-looking French governmental building, but with tiny equestrians and flying fish descending on it from the sky. In his characteristically meticulous pen and ink, Gorey imagined a flock of giant bugs making off with a baby.
Gorey got another view of Paris from Eugene Atget, who wandered the city early in the mornings to see the parks and streets devoid of people and take dark, shadowy photographs. Gorey, while placing people in his artworks, seemed to crib from Atget’s imagery for his backgrounds.
A crayon sketch by Charles Burchfield of bats in flight was reimagined by Gorey for his set design for the 1977 Broadway adaptation of “Dracula.” Another Burchfield, a 1916 watercolor, depicts mysterious creatures assembled on a mountaintop, while the sun – or maybe it’s the moon – glows overhead, obscured by a floating, ghostly presence. The shape of the creatures call to mind the figure of one of Gorey’s most famous imaginary creature, the penguin-like Doubtful Guest.
Gorey’s collecting instinct were all about the imagery. He didn’t care who created the artworks: alongside Odilon Redon, James Thurber, Edvard Munch, Balthus, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard are works by unidentified folk artists. An unsigned charcoal drawing of a “Magic Lake,” viewed by a joyful duo is transformed by Gorey into a more somber view, of a black-clad family gazing at a twisted road.
Not all of Gorey’s artistic interests and inspirations were grim. He was obsessively fond of ballet. Men, women and children in Gorey’s works often strike balletic poses. But still the eerie is present, as many of his characters feature black-rimmed eyes, looking out in either exhaustion or confusion. The more theatrical elements of the exhibit are presented in conjunction with Hartford Stage.
Gorey was especially devoted to the the work of Balanchine. Gorey did not explain why he donated the work to the museum, but he often visited the Atheneum and was passionately devoted to the work of choreographer George Balanchine, whose immigration to the United States was sponsored by Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, who was director of the Atheneum from 1927 to 1944. Austin hoped Balanchine would set up shop in Hartford.
“He knew [the Atheneum’s] connection to the ballet,” Monroe says. “In the 1930s, Chick Austin invited Balanchine to the United States. He later moved to New York City.”
Gorey also was fond of fur coats; many men in his work wear long, heavy furs, as a stand-in for himself. Later in life, he had a change of heart, put the furs in storage and became devoted to animal rights.
The Atheneum has decided to show both sides of this aspect of Gorey. Two of his furs are included in the exhibit. However, all the Gorey items in the museum gift shop were created in collaboration with The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, whose profits benefit animal-welfare agencies.
The show also includes a video of things owned by Gorey, filmed at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Mass.
GOREY’S WORLDS is at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until May 6. thewadsworth.org.