You’ve probably seen some of Edward Gorey’s work although you might not have been able to attribute it to him. He was a prolific 20th century American illustrator, writer, composer, artist, and playwright, but he liked to keep a low public profile. Perhaps you’ve seen the opening animation for the PBS series Mystery! filled with Gothic looking buildings and rooftop heroines in distress. Or maybe you’ve seen the illustrations for T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Gorey won a Tony award for costume design for the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula (he also designed the sets). Maybe you’ve read one of his quirky little books like The Unstrung Harp or The Doubtful Guest. You can even see his continuing influence on other artists like filmmaker Tim Burton.
As the Owsley museum is kitty corner across the quad from my office I took in the exhibit at lunch the other day. It’s a bit different than most. There are of course examples of Gorey’s work, but a significant portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the artist himself and his quirky lifestyle.
For a while he collected and wore about town fancy fur coats although as time went on he became interested in animal welfare and gave it up. Eventually he ended up establishing a charitable trust for the welfare “of all living creatures”. He lived with six cats saying that seven would be too many. He loved the New York City Ballet and attended hundreds of performances including every performance of every production that was choreographed by George Balanchine. At the time of his death he had a huge library with a collection of around 25,000 books.
Gorey was also an avid art collector, but of course in his own odd way. He had works by famous artists like Manet next to folk art from relatively unknown artists next to found objects that he picked up here and there. He didn’t collect for investment or prestige. He truly collected what ever art he liked no matter the time period or the artist.
Many of the works in his collection are by French photographer Eugène Atget. Atget specialized in photographs of “old Paris” at the start of the 20th century preserving what was disappearing as the city was in the midst of a modernizing campaign. Gorey found inspiration for his illustrations in Atget’s photos of old stone buildings, shop windows, and early morning street life. I found this very fitting since Atget began his career with the idea of selling his prints to artists as models for their paintings and sculptures.
So often we go to exhibitions and we see an artist’s works and maybe pick up a few tidbits about them from reading the placards, but rarely do we get to see and learn so much about an artist’s lifestyle, inspirations, and thought processes as we do with this exhibition. Nice.