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Edward Gorey's Dark and Witty World

BY MARY DEYOE

In February the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) will present two concurrent exhibitions of the work by writer and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000), Elegant Enigmas: the Art of Edward Gorey and G is for Gorey - C is for Chicago: The Collection of Thomas Michalak. Well known for his illustrations colored by dark humor and wit, Gorey has worked for decades as an artist, creating book covers, magazine illustrations, and costume and set designs. While the exhibitions will display many of these examples, they will also draw heavily on Gorey’s connection to his hometown, Chicago.

Even those unfamiliar with Edward Gorey the artist will recognize his idiosyncratic style. Tim Burton’s dark tales, particularly Coraline, and the work of Daniel Handler - more famously known as Lemony Snicket, are direct inheritors of Gorey’s dry wit and Edwardian-inspired designs. “Snicket admits to being a ‘complete rip off’ of Edward Gorey,” said LUMA Senior Curator Jonathan Canning. 

It is easy to see why Gorey’s work stays relevant and beloved. “[His] detailed drawing style draws in the eye and engages the viewer,” said Canning. His perfectly balanced compositions [also] have a cinematic quality to them. He was very influenced by film, theater, and ballet.” This love for these art forms was shared by Gorey and his college roommate, the poet Frank O’Hara. Gorey and O’Hara, who both attended Harvard on the GI Bill, were known on campus for “throwing the best parties” according to poet Donald Hall, and to essentially turning their dorm room into a literary salon.

But before attending Harvard and before serving in WWII, Gorey was a student at Chicago’s Francis Parker school and for a short while attended the School of the Art Institute. G is for Gorey - C is for Chicago: The Collection of Thomas Michalak will present several items from his days as a student in Chicago, including yearbooks from Francis Parker. The Thomas Michalak Collection was recently given to Loyola University Chicago Libraries. Thomas Michalak (BS ’63) is a retired Harvard librarian and a member of the board of directors of the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. He has been collecting Gorey materials for over 35 years. 

The companion exhibition to G is for Gorey – C is for Chicago is Elegant Enigmas: the Art of Edward Gorey, and it was organized by the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The exhibition has been traveling throughout the country and will continue on when it leaves Chicago in June. 

One of the key points in the exhibitions is that “Gorey was a very hardworking commercial artist right up to the end of his life,” said Canning. He illustrated magazines—including numerous covers for TV Guide—and had a long-time relationship with Anchor books, which was a division of Doubleday. Gorey served as the art editor, creating the overall uniform style including the lettering, typography and design layouts. Gorey is also well known for his opening animated credits of the PBS television series Mystery! 

Despite Gorey’s interest and work in popular culture, “We do not find that his work was at all influenced by it,” said Canning. Gorey maintained his own unique and idiosyncratic style. Children are common characters, and as in many original fairy tales, they do not always fair so well. It seems danger is often lurking around the corner. In one illustration, a small boy wearing a coat with a sailor collar peers over his shoulder. His expression is wary. Two bears more than twice his size are following close behind. There is a tenderness to it and yet it is, as Gorey described much of his own work, “mildly unsettling.” Perhaps this is another reason we continue to return to his mysterious images. There is always more to the story than what appears on the surface.

On February 22 LUMA is hosting the Edward Gorey Birthday Bash to benefit Loyola University Chicago Libraries and LUMA. This is one of many programs and events LUMA is planning in conjunction with the Loyola University Libraries (some of the events will take place on the Rogers Park campus). Events include lectures, performances and readings of Gorey’s most beloved stories including (among many) the macabre Gashlycrumb Tinnies – a abecedarian book that tells the story of the untimely death of 26 children all of whom represent a different letter of the alphabet – and the cautionary tale of the Wuggly Ump (What is a Wuggly Ump? You’ll have to see for yourself). In addition to these events, with what one can only imagine is a hint of irony, LUMA is also co-sponsoring a blood drive with the Law School. 

Edward Gorey’s engaging storytelling and remarkably grand characters, many of whom we see draped in fur and wearing top hats – a nod to the Edwardian details he loved, would be enough to draw visitors to the exhibition, but the personal effects from the Michalak collection – including letters from the artist to friends – offers us a much fuller look at the life of the artist, his inspiration, his lifelong dedication to the arts and the creation of his particular world full of dark-humor, wit, and playfulness.

The exhibitions are on view February 15-June 15, 2014 and are co-presented by Loyola University Chicago Libraries and LUMA with cooperation from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. Details can be found at luc.edu/gorey