“Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey” is one of the most interesting and entertaining exhibitions of the year.

It’s an impressively large show with about 180 drawings, objects and books featuring the work of one of America’s best loved artists, illustrators and writers — Edward Gorey (1925-2000) of Cape Cod.

It might seem a perfect fit for the Portland Public Library (it is the best show ever mounted in the Lewis Gallery), but to pigeonhole Gorey as an illustrator risks underestimating his importance to American culture.

Relying primarily on the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust’s collection, “Elegant Enigmas” features Gorey’s original pen-and-ink drawings from many of his best-known publications, such as “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” “The Doubtful Guest,” “The Unstrung Harp” and many others.

While Gorey is easy to recognize and appreciate, his works are not so easy to explain. Basically, they are enigmatically macabre cartoons with a Victorian gothic flavor — like if James Thurber and Edgar Alan Poe had collaborated to make children’s books.

Many of Gorey’s images have penetrated deep into American culture. “B is for Basil who was eaten by bears,” for example, shows a fragile little boy looking over his shoulder towards us, only to notice two giant bears behind him. The “uh-oh” moment for poor, doomed Basil becomes humorous by being both a postmortem and ironically forever pause just before his grisly demise.

I can’t read Basil’s epitaph, however, without remembering it follows “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.” (And, yes: She’s there too.)

Gorey illustrated Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales for Children” and published it with broad letters on the cover: “Rediscovered and Illustrated by Edward Gorey.” The cover and several pieces from “Cautionary Tales” are here, including the three illustrations for “Algernon/ Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister was reprimanded by his Father.”

While cautionary tales have been widespread European cultural grist since the earliest myths and fairy tales, they took on a particularly grisly form in the 19th century once they were infected with parody. Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” states that Alice had read “several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: Such as … ‘if you drink much from a bottle marked “poison,” it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.’ “

While the movie “Zombieland” (2009), for example, is all about Alice’s “Wonderland,” its cautionary tale tone and surreal landscape wouldn’t have been possible without Gorey’s influence. This is also true for the 1980s slasher movies in which teenagers who take up sex or drinking wind up meeting the likes of the hockey-masked Jason, Freddy Krueger and other morality-driven villains.

Gorey reaches back to the cautionary tale and the uptight and moralistic Victorian era (and borrows its look and flavor) because it opens the door to the world of Freud: Surrealism.

Gorey is essentially psychologized surrealism spread thick with ironical “morality” and social parody.

Surrealism is apparent in Gorey’s “Melange Funeste” (1981) — a book in which three stacked pages can be turned to mix and match heads, torsos and bodies of strange figures, i.e., the surrealist game of “exquisite corpse.”

Rather than through the arcane genre of cautionary tales, surrealism is how we can most easily understand Gorey’s enigmas. They’re not riddles but images intended to churn our subconscious energies. If driven by id as children are, suggests Gorey, we can be monsters.

Gorey was a prodigy, as his wonderfully illustrated envelopes sent home from Harvard remind us. Even early on, he developed memorable characters and drew them beautifully in a tightly wound style.

But as Gorey had his (adolescent) artistic awakening, surrealism was an international phenomenon.

In the uncanny “Gazebo,” we see an impressively rendered alligator on skates being ridden by puzzled children drawn in an easily legible modern cartoon style, while around them swirl Victorian ghosts.

Or we see a girl waking to find herself under the sea with a floating sea monster looking her in the face. In the misplaced logic of dreams, she isn’t drowning, but we feel the building tension of forthcoming gasp-breathed, bolt-upright waking.

Gorey saw our society as a “moral swamp,” but offers his readers a vision of moral agency beyond grim lesson lists. This is why he appeals to adolescents and young adults — goth culture in particular — and it is also why you should think twice before taking easily upset young children to see “Elegant Enigmas.”

Still, I think this is a great show for most kids. If they watch cartoons such as “Adventure Time” or “Courage the Cowardly Dog” (which are both brilliant), they will likely be more comfortable with it than their parents. When I took my boys (8 and 11) to “Elegant Enigmas,” I had to tear them away. It’s that kind of show.

“Elegant Enigmas” is weird and unsettling, but it’s important and wonderfully entertaining.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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