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Art: Illustrator of the offbeat

Edward Gorey's drawings run the gamut from spooky to delightful.

"On the Road (Chair)," by Daido Moriyama. The Japanese photographer's subjects are usually mundane. Contrastsof light and dark are striking, and shadows figure prominently.
"On the Road (Chair)," by Daido Moriyama. The Japanese photographer's subjects are usually mundane. Contrastsof light and dark are striking, and shadows figure prominently.Read more"On the Road (Chair),"

As a creative personality, Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is almost impossible to classify. For a museum audience, he is either an illustrator who writes or a writer who draws.

For good measure, we can throw in costume designer - he won a Tony award in 1977 for the Broadway production of Dracula. He also created "theater pieces," sometimes performed with puppets.

Gorey wrote and illustrated dozens of books, many of which seem to be directed at children, and yet his macabre, offbeat sense of humor often seems inappropriate for, or potentially incomprehensible to, little shavers.

He is perhaps most familiar to the broader public through illustrations for the New Yorker magazine and the animated introduction to the PBS Mystery! series, which features a damsel in distress and falling masonry.

One thing's certain about Gorey: He is an acquired taste, and not necessarily one easily acquired, at that. Everything about his work is arcane - his panoply of Victorian-Edwardian characters rendered in an appropriately 19th-century visual idiom; his complex and nonsensical wordplay, and the fact that his narratives are absurdly fantastical.

If you want to take a crack at Gorey - and he's well worth the effort - the exhibition of his drawings at the Brandywine River Museum is the place to begin. The aptly titled "Elegant Enigmas" features about 180 original drawings, most of them book-scale (Gorey drew every image at the size it was to be reproduced).

All but a handful of the drawings and related materials are lent by the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, which operates the artist's former residence in Yarmouth Port, on Cape Cod, as a house museum. The show, complete with catalog, was organized by Brandywine, which specializes in American illustration; it will travel to several museums.

Although he studied briefly at the School of the Art Institute in his native Chicago, Gorey was self-taught as an illustrator. (He majored in French at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1950.)

During most of the 1950s, he worked for Doubleday Anchor books in New York, creating book covers and sometimes text illustrations for works by authors such as H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, and Edward Lear.

He produced his first independent book, The Unstrung Harp, in 1953. The exhibition includes drawings for this and many subsequent books, including The Hapless Child, The Gashlycrumb Tinies (which begins, "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs"), The Object Lesson, and The Gilded Bat. The titles alone convey the spirit of the texts.

Gorey not only composed his own narratives, he also hand-lettered each one. The most beautiful and poetic book, and one of the most affecting, is The West Wing, which lacks text. It was Gorey's riposte to the critic Edmund Wilson, who had made disparaging comments about his writing.

The West Wing drawings, of spooky, empty rooms - one is bisected by a large, ominous crack - are perhaps the richest and most evocative he ever made. Text not only would have been superfluous, it would have spoiled the mood.

Drawings and text provide complementary pathways into Gorey's art. They represent the two sides of his quirky intelligence, which suggests P.G. Wodehouse with a slightly satanic chuckle. But where Wodehouse is frothy parody, Gorey is darker and more ominous, although always with the sense that he is, after all, just kidding.

The texts are clever, witty, and delightfully nonsensical; Gorey is enamored of puns, silly names (sometimes his own, anagramized), and outrageous coinages. At the core, he is first of all a writer.

Yet for me the drawings deliver more of the essential Gorey, especially his parodies of Victorian and Edwardian dress and social conventions, his ability to suggest menace in even the most mundane situations, and the implication that subliminal violence is a routine part of everyday life.

Drawing with pen and ink, Gorey was able to achieve an impressive variety of textures, tonal contrasts, and decorative flourishes. These are most effectively appreciated in the drawings for The West Wing, in which people do not appear. He generates mood with richly articulated walls, floors, and carpets.

You might find Gorey's art puzzling, ridiculous, irritating, or, when you see tiny Basil being "assaulted by bears," even distasteful. But if you don't take him too seriously - and I suspect he wouldn't approve of that - then you might also find him delightful.

Photographing Tokyo. During the 1980s, Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama (b. 1938) aimed his camera at the streets of Tokyo, looking to capture images that would illuminate, in subtle ways, the impact of modernization on a centuries-old culture.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art owns a number of these striking black-and-white images, which elevate visual ambiguity to high art. Often a viewer can identify Moriyama's subjects, but sometimes one cannot because his point of view, which often involves disorienting close-ups, precludes certainty.

Curator Peter Barberie has assembled about 45 photographs into an exhibition in the Julien Levy Gallery in the museum's Perelman building. The prints are relatively small, and most are in horizontal formats, which imposes a strong uniformity on the installation.

The distinctiveness of Moriyama's vision and its exceptional conceptual and visual acuity are apparent from the first images one encounters. Contrasts of light and dark are striking, and shadows figure prominently.

Moriyama's method of photographing objects that he encountered while walking city streets doesn't describe reality, but rather disrupts, fragments, and obscures it. Through his eye, we see details and odd perspectives that might otherwise escape notice.

The end result, in this series, is continual tension between eye and brain as we attempt to decode images that are tantalizingly familiar.

Subjects themselves are usually mundane - tire treads, knives on display in a shop, cigarette packages, a motorcycle headlamp (or is it a taillight?), a single bottle lying in grass, a shaved head seen from the rear, a broken drain in a deserted garden, straps and buckles on a leather bag, mottled highlights on the side of an automobile.

Each picture tests one's ability to look intensely, and to focus on the intrinsic character of objects. This can be a demanding experience, but also a rewarding and memorable one.

Art: Elegant Enigmas