November 25, 2009


Edward Gorey: The New Poster Book. Pomegranate. $19.95.

Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey. Text by Karen Wilkin. Pomegranate. $29.95.

The Blue Aspic. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

Sierra Club Holiday Cards: Backyard Birds in Winter. Pomegranate. $15.

Dard Hunter Design Holiday Cards. Pomegranate. $15.

Dard Hunter Folio Notecards. Pomegranate. $9.95.

Gustav Klimt Thank You Notes. Pomegranate. $8.95.

     The winter holidays are a wonderful time to immerse yourself in art, from the stolid to the offbeat to the commercial. In the “offbeat” arena is the art of Edward Gorey (1925-2000), which remains difficult to categorize nearly a decade after Gorey’s death. Gorey was a master of what may be called the amusingly macabre, although even that description does not quite fit everything he created. Gorey fans who hope to make other Gorey fans – not always easy to do, since his highly detailed art is at the service of some very strange storytelling indeed – might want to consider giving Edward Gorey: The New Poster Book as a seasonal gift. This wonderful oversize collection of 30 Gorey illustrations, 18 of them in color, includes such delights as “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” a group of adorable (if sober-faced) youngsters standing beneath a huge umbrella held by Death (or a reasonable facsimile thereof); a Gorey version of a “Little Nemo in Slumberland” scene, captioned “Donald imagined things,” showing a small boy sitting up in bed, gazing quizzically at a gigantic green prehistoric-looking dragon-and-eel-like thing that is staring at him; a crow (or raven?) warning “Beware of this and that” as two children perch, facing in opposite directions, on a very angular bicycle that looks like a Salvador Dali creation; and much more. Gently weird and gently amusing, these posters make a wonderful introduction to Gorey’s visual delights.

     For something more in-depth, read Karen Wilkin’s text in the very handsome Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey, a book packed both with Gorey’s crosshatched-ink art and with understanding of it. Wilkin, a friend of Gorey and an expert in his work, offers insights into the artist’s life and times as well as a sampling of illustrations that Gorey made for other writers, for theatrical productions and even as costume designs. Some material here has not been published before (the book originated as an accompaniment to the first retrospective of Gorey’s work, held this year at the Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania). The sketches, doodles, typewritten manuscripts and other offbeat features neatly complement the many finished drawings (more than 175 of them), and the book as a whole makes a marvelous tribute to an artist whose work always smelled faintly of Edwardian drawing rooms, with a whiff of the macabre throughout – but without ever reveling in horror or gore. How Gorey managed to make tragedy somehow amusing remains an unanswered question even after a cover-to-cover perusal of Elegant Enigmas (whose title, by the way, is a wonderfully apt description of Gorey’s works).

     For a full if not-quite-fatal plunge into Gorey’s world, nothing beats immersion directly into one of his books, and The Blue Aspic, originally released in 1968, is a gem of its kind (incidentally showing, on the cover, what certainly seems to be a severed head immersed in blue aspic). As so often in Gorey’s work, the title has nothing to do with the story (well, except for that cover picture): this is a tale straight out of the overdramatized world of opera, and it is about opera, starting with a mysterious murder that elevates a singer to world-class status and ending with a murder-suicide and having a variety of deaths and other unpleasantnesses in between. Yet none of this is frightening and none of it wallows in grotesquerie – Gorey’s illustrations here, perhaps inevitably, are reminiscent of the work he did in creating the animated opening for the PBS series, Mystery. The tremendous attention to detail in the drawings, and the apparent inattention to writing and plot (there are many implications but no solutions here), combine in Gorey’s inimitable manner and will delight those willing to submit themselves to his oddly skewed and oddly endearing work.

     But even though Christmas and other winter holidays occur at the darkest time of the year, Gorey may be too dark for many people – and there are plenty of more-cheerful ways to mark the season. Cards are one of the delightful traditions that do just that, and there are some truly merry and bright ones available this year. One standout among the many beautifully made ones from Pomegranate is Backyard Birds in Winter, a Sierra Club offering of 20 cards printed with soy-based ink on recycled paper, with each of the four designs showing a bird whose plumage is set off beautifully against a winter scene: Eastern bluebird, Northern cardinal (two different views) and black-capped chickadee. The cardinal is a tradition of its own on winter-holiday cards, but the star of this show is the Eastern bluebird, whose white, gold and blue feathers look simply gorgeous against the red of highbush cranberries touched by a coating of ice. Each card has the entirely appropriate “Season’s Greetings” message inside.

     For holiday art with the same printed message but of a different visual type, the Dard Hunter Design Holiday Cards offer four lovely studies in seasonal reds and greens, coupled with intricate black-and-white designs. William Joseph “Dard” Hunter (1883-1966) created stained-glass and other windows, title pages for books, and more, and the simplicity and elegance of these 20 cards (five each of four designs) clearly reflect the Arts and Crafts movement of which Hunter was a part. Although far from the best-known name among the many artists whose work graces Pomegranate’s holiday cards, Hunter offers great charm and highly attractive designs that are overtly secular but also hint at the sacred messages that permeate the season. In fact, Hunter’s designs transcend any specific season (although their floral components speak always of spring) – witness the lovely Dard Hunter Folio Notecards, which are blank inside and make a beautiful gift anytime. Pomegranate’s folio of 10 cards includes five each of two 1906 Hunter designs for stained-glass windows. In one, purple is the predominant color, along with a closely related blue and some green; in the other, red, green and yellow splashes of color appear in an attractive open-work black-and-white design. These cards are for any occasion, and make any occasion a little more special.

     And for an occasion where the main message is “thanks,” gift-givers should consider the set of 10 thank-you cards featuring a design from a frieze created by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). These cards are just the right size for a quick thank-you message (3½ x 5 inches), and their multicolored swirls and other geometric shapes nicely complement any special occasion – and compliment any recipient. Pomegranate actually offers thank-you cards for just about any artistic taste – there are even some featuring Edward Gorey’s work, specifically an illustration of a cat on a unicycle – and all Pomegranate cards are well-made and attractive. So if Klimt is not to your taste, you can surely find something that is. But do take a look at Klimt’s elegance of style and lovely color blends. You may consider these cards just the right way to say thanks, or may find the box of them just the right gift to present to someone who could well turn around and send back one of the cards to thank you for being so thoughtful!

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