Art review by Amy Cavanaugh
His macabre pen and ink drawings of ballerinas, cats, people bedecked in fur coats, invented animals and strange deaths feel straight out of the Victorian or Edwardian era, which is why it’s so surprising that Edward Gorey hails from Chicago, where he was born in 1925.
Two new shows at the Loyola University Museum of Art, "Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey" and "G is for Gorey - C is for Chicago,” offer an overview of the artist and writer’s creative output, from book jackets to the introduction for the PBS television series MYSTERY! The two shows run together seamlessly, and they chronologically explore Gorey’s work and personal life, from his Wilmette Public Schools report cards to playbills for theatrical projects he was involved with on Cape Cod, where he lived for years before he died in 2000.
Despite his rather dark subject matter—his books include “The Lost Lions; or, Having Opened the Wrong Envelope” and “The Iron Tonic; or, a Winter Afternoon in a Lonely Valley,” which includes the line “the people at the grey hotel are either aged or unwell”—the show opens with juvenile ephemera, including a rather cheerful letter from a young Ted Gorey and a card admitting him to the Dinner Dance Club of Chicago. He was interested in art early on and briefly attended the Art Institute, before leaving to join the Army.
From there, the show primarily focuses on his work, and any biographical details are entwined with his art. There’s work from his days at Doubleday, where he designed book covers, and freelance assignments, such as illustrating calendars and designing costumes. But it’s the books and poems he did on his own that are his best work. There are panels from “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” an alphabet book about children who died terrible deaths—"A is for Amy who fell down the stairs" and "N is for Neville who died of ennui,"—as well as “The Doubtful Guest” and “The Object-Lesson,” in which “on the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella/disengaged from the shrubbery/causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood,” which perfectly encapsulate his grim wit and characteristic drawing style.
These are interesting shows for LUMA, and the wall text notes that the subject is “seemingly at odds” with the museum’s mission is to explore the spirituality in art. But the “G is for Gorey” portion of the show draws almost entirely from the collection of Thomas Michalak, a Loyola alum who’s on the board of the Edward Gorey House, and it’s an impressive collection.
I’ve always been surprised that Chicago hasn’t played up its Gorey connections more. While he lived in the Northeast after leaving the Army, he was in Chicago for a significant amount of time; his maternal grandmother, Helen St. John Garvey, designed greeting cards, and he showed his art while he attended Francis W. Parker School. A 2005 Chicago Reader story talks about his formative years in the city and provides far more details than the LUMA show, which I left feeling like I hadn’t learned much about Chicago’s impact on Gorey or his art.
That aside, though, the two shows are an in-depth primer on the artist-writer, while for Goreyphiles, getting to glimpse his yearbooks and childhood photos provides a rare thrill.
"Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey" and "G is for Gorey - C is for Chicago” are on view until June 15.