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Thursday, March 22 Living

A peek inside the art collected by eccentric artist Edward Gorey

Here are some of the adjectives deployed over the last half century to describe the art of Edward Gorey: Gothic and poetic, nonsensical and surreal, unnerving and macabre.

Gorey, who disliked all categorization of his art or of himself, specifically rejected macabre, maybe because it was used so often.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s not that, despite all the evidence to the contrary,” Gorey once told an interviewer.

That was back in 1977, when Gorey was still known mainly for the picture storybooks he wrote and illustrated for adults. Many featured domestic scenes of elegantly dressed people in peril, often from fantastical creatures.

But that same year he gained a second audience when his Tony-award winning “Dracula,” for which he did both set and costume design, opened on Broadway. His audience expanded again after 1980, when his gowned ladies and tail-coated gentlemen made their animated debut introducing public television’s “Masterpiece Mystery” series.

In the years since, his art — fragments of it anyway — became so familiar and so unmoored from its creator that a 1992 New Yorker magazine profile opened with the observation that “many of Edward Gorey’s most fervent devotees think he’s (a) English and (b) dead.”

Contributing to the muddle was the fact that Gorey’s nonsensical sensibility was in the same vein as Edward Lear (some of whose books Gorey illustrated) and Lewis Carroll, both Englishmen who were very dead.

In fact, Gorey grew up well-to-do in Chicago, lived most of his life in New York and on Cape Cod, happily alone with cats as his main companions. He died only in 2000 at age 75. But now, the whole artist can be seen anew in an unprecedented exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford aptly titled, “Gorey’s Worlds.”

The core of the exhibit, and reason for it, is Gorey’s personal art collection. A surprise bequest, he likely chose to give it to the atheneum because its legendary director A. Everett “Chick” Austin Jr. was an early champion of George Balanchine. Gorey often said in interviews he considered the choreographer to be the greatest living artist of any sort and acknowledged him as a major influence.

Gorey’s balletomania was one of his best-known eccentricities. His art collection is equally eccentric to the extent it reflects his obsessive and disparate interests. It includes works on paper by notable French artists like the painters Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Manet and photographer Eugene Atget. On the other hand, there is a surreal landscape by the internationally known cartoonist Glen Baxter. It looks like one of Gorey’s graveyards scenes, minus the tombstones. In the center a woman kneels over a white gash in the earth that reveals nothing.

Gorey also collected American folk art , but not the pleasing Grandma Moses kind. Hung at the atheneum just as they were above the fireplace in his Cape Cod house are nine so-called “sand paper” drawings. Done in black and white, they look more like monotone paintings or wood cuts than drawings. All unsigned, they are of a type popular in the mid-1800s with amateur women artists. Most are more eerie than rustic.

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Elsewhere, there is a camel drawn by Bill Traylor, who is regarded as an important African-American folk artist. Born in 1854, the son of slaves, working most of his life as a sharecropper, the self-taught Traylor did not begin drawing until his 80s. Too poor to afford canvases, he worked on pieces of cardboard, using both sides. A horse is drawn on the back side of the camel.

The atheneum exhibit, curated by Erin Monroe, is organized in a loose chronological order, often pairing pieces from Gorey’s collection with his own work. Traylor’s humped camel, for instance, is next to a sketch of the Wuggly Ump, the title beast of the only Gorey book marketed to children. A voracious omnivore, it is depicted chewing an umbrella and spitting out what looks like nuts and bolts.

“The Wuggly Ump is actually quite menacing,” Monroe says. “He’s part cat and part brontosaurus. I would be hard-pressed to think of a better description. How Gorey may have been inspired to create these fantastic creatures (is unknown). They could have come from anywhere. But I have the wonderful job of trying to give examples to people.”

In fact, Gorey could draw from an inspirational inventory of astounding breadth that he continued to build over a lifetime. An only child, he learned to read without being taught and by age 5 is said to have read “Dracula” and “Alice in Wonderland.” He skipped the first grade and then the fifth. By then he had devoured most of Victor Hugo. During World War II, stationed at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, where weapons, including poison gas, were tested, he read constantly.

Entering Harvard in 1946, he decided to major in French literature mainly because he’d read everything in English that interested him. Somewhere along the line, he’d taught himself to draw. The envelopes of letters he sent home to his mother were adorned with anvil-headed figures who looked very much like Mr. Clavius Earbrass, the protagonist of his first book, “The Unstrung Harp.”

At Harvard, Gorey roomed with Frank O’Hara, who would become a major poet and art critic. Both stayed in Cambridge after graduation in 1950 as founding members of the Poets Theater. Its all-star membership included William Carlos Williams, Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi and Donald Hall.

Gorey apparently had writing ambitions. “The Unstrung Harp” was about a writer who didn’t know how to write. He published it in 1953, after moving to New York to take a job in the art department at Doubleday Anchor Books. Soon he would discover Balanchine and the ballet.

But in interviews he cited many oth er influences: from Jane Austen novels to reruns of television shows like “Dallas” to silent films, especially those from France. One critic noted Gorey’s short text passages — which he always wrote firs t — functioned like the scene subtitles in silent films.

Oriental art and writing were influences. Strongest was “Tale of Genji,” the 1,000-year-old work attributed to a Japanese noblewoman. Gorey often referred to it in interviews as a leading example of art that succeeds by leaving so much unsaid.

“It’s like the ballet,” he once said, attempting to convey his ideal. “You can describe the externals of a performance — everything, in fact, but what really constitutes its core. What’s important is what’s left after you’ve explained everything else. Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable.”

If that’s so, then curator Monroe is right to let the Wuggly Ump go free as half cat and half dinosaur. And Gorey can rightly claim to not have known what he was doing — whatever it was.

“Gorey’s Worlds” runs through May 6. The exhibit has many extra programs and features, including a ballet mirror and barre where visitors are invited to pose.

Joel Lang is an award-winning journalist and frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.