|An imaginary frontispiece, with the artist in furs.|
So I wasn't too surprised when at the exhibit itself, I found little mention of the artist's sexuality either. The biography on hand from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust doesn't mention it at all, even though its four pages included references to Harvard, Chicago's "legendary St. Francis School" and Art Institute, the Poet's Theatre (where Gorey hung out with Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery . . . hmmmm), the New York City Ballet, and just about everything else prestigious that Gorey ever had a connection to. So on the one hand - his pedigree, his connections, his place in the establishment firmament - the exhibit offers copious information about Mr. Gorey; but on the other hand, about his personal life it offers absolutely nothing.
Many take Redburn as veiled autobiography; and of course these days, Melville is more and more generally believed to have been gay (I'm one of those believers, I admit). So the Gorey cover is perhaps doubly, or even triply, poignant. And at least it's in the Athenæum show. To be fair, there are a few other images where the gay coding is so explicit you'd only miss it if you were blind; in one from The West Wing, for instance, a Victorian gentleman kept warm by his fur (like Gorey himself) stares furtively at the tush of a male statue just before meeting his doom - and in it, we sense the darkly comic chuckle that Gorey became famous for. But a similar image from Wing that's not in the show is far more moving, if less marketable; in it (below right), we see Gorey's bearded factotum stripped of his fur (and facing a void) on that cold, lonely parapet. And tellingly, this time he has his hands covering his own bum.
|Alone in the deadly West Wing.|
Thus, perhaps, the vogue for pushing Gorey into what I call "the glass closet," that strange cultural zone - rather like one of Gorey's own limbos - where cultural figures simultaneously operate as both gay and straight. In the high cultural end of the closet, Peter Sellars jostles James Levine; in the low end, Michael Jackson elbows Calvin Klein and Danny Kaye. Indeed, sometimes even when an artist explicitly states that he or she is gay - this used to happen fairly often with pop stars - they're patted back into the glass closet anyway, because it allows opposed aspects of the culture at large to exploit their output at will, without any thought as to its true nature.
Of course Gorey kept perfectly mum about his true nature to the press; he only spoke about it in his art. And in a way, to be honest, the glass closet was appropriate to his artistic persona, which was itself neither here nor there, but locked in a kind of alienated stasis. And as his books and designs became more popular with the mass audience, Gorey probably found the glass closet a commercially convenient place to reside as well.
But should critics honor its crystalline walls? Somehow I don't think so. It would be strange, for instance, to never mention that El Greco was Catholic - and thus, to my mind, it's also equally strange to not wonder whether or not he might have been gay. We'd look down at a Jewish performer who concealed his or her religion, and we'd never tolerate a black performer who worked in whiteface. Why is the glass closet so different? I suppose because many people still live with the burden of internalized homophobia. But Edward Gorey has long passed on, and even if you wanted to honor the wishes of a closeted performer by never discussing his or her true identity, surely that wish becomes a bit absurd once they're dead.
Of course there are also purely commercial considerations in play - which, yes, still operate at non-profits like the Boston Athenæum, which has leaned heavily on Gorey's commercial work (albeit in its original form) for this exhibit. That work is now largely perceived as a postmodern variant on Victorian "nonsense" (and accurately enough, I think), and you can feel that the press coverage of the "Enigmas" show (was there a single enigma in it?) was designed, again consciously or unconsciously, to make the exhibit "safe" for children. (Indeed, the Globe later featured an article in which a staff member took her kids to it; meanwhile the paper's critic, Sebastian Smee, recommended that we "laugh and laugh" at Gorey's silly, "asexual" images.)
But this only begs a larger question - why do we keep Victorian nonsense in its own kind of closet? For it, too, was populated by sexual outsiders. Lewis Carroll was obsessed with little girls, and J. M. Barrie was obsessed with boys, but that doesn't really change the artistic status of the sublime Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Peter Pan. Indeed, it's hard not to miss a certain parallel between the Victorians and Gorey's supposed sexlessness: it's pretty clear that Carroll and Barrie never acted on whatever impulses or drives they may have harbored - and neither, it seems, did Gorey. He's their gay soul-mate, who poignantly enough never acted on his true nature. Actually, perhaps Gorey's celibacy is more poignant than theirs (if less heroic); for they refrained from actual crimes, while Gorey . . .
What perhaps made his name - and fortune - is that Gorey renders the end of childhood with an owlish bemusement that provides a reliable comic distance from the deadly events in question (comedy depends on some sort of distance, and "distance" is essentially what Gorey is all about). In The Gashlycrumb Tinies (at right, perhaps his signature work), Neville may be lucky enough to die of ennui, but the rest of the "tinies" meet more, well, ghastly fates, in alphabetical order: Kate is struck with an axe, for instance, while Xerxes is devoured by mice. But Gorey's pristine imagery is always frozen just before or after these horrors, and that po-faced gap renders the unseen atrocity absurd (as it has in the violent comedy of so many popular cartoons and movies).
This is what turns Gorey's illustrations into a form of high camp - that slight step back from the brink also operates as a mode of ironic control. And that control never falters - all of Gorey's commercial illustration is relentlessly rigid; even when a figure is caught mid-leap, it seems to simply hang in mid-air, unable to move - which synchs up nicely with the palindromic, illogical nature of his clever limericks, and of "nonsense" in general. That ironic grip is also what allows his art to be re-purposed by heterosexuals into a tonic for the pressures of wholesomeness; like Sebastian Smee, they can "laugh and laugh" at the images of kids headed toward disaster as a form of self-aware, but innocent, venting.
Still, I think for Gorey the death of children meant something quite different, just as I think it's wrong to try to emasculate his gayness, or deny his alienation from it. Both aspects of his personality enrich his art - which of course makes it less marketable but more moving. It's harder to "laugh and laugh" at some of his lesser-known but more personal works, for instance, like the drawing below (which is not in the Athenæum show). There's still a certain black comedy at work here, but the image isn't camp, because there's also a greater sense of personal horror. Oddly, it's difficult to chuckle knowingly at this helpless creature (with human eyes) gasping for air on its comfortable sofa, just as it's hard not to laugh at the grim ends of Kate and Neville. The Athenæum is supposed to be a place of scholarship - or so I thought. Yet it's happy to present only one side of this artist's emotional coin: an Edward Gorey largely reduced to the genesis of his calendars and bestsellers. This, of course, nicely transforms the atmospheric corridors of the Athenæum into a kind of Addams-Family artistic theme park. But I think real scholarship would have unearthed a portrait of the artist a bit more like the image below.
|Not so funny: an Edward Gorey self-portrait?|