New Perspectives on Illustration: Stop Making Sense by Sarah Jacoby

Join us for New Perspectives on Illustration, a weekly series of essays by graduate illustration students at MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Norman Rockwell Museum Curators Stephanie Plunkett and Joyce K. Schiller have the pleasure of teaching a MICA course exploring the artistic and cultural underpinnings of published imagery through history, and we are pleased to present the findings of our talented students in this weekly blog.

Sarah Jacoby’s essay, Stop Making Sense, offers a fascinating comparative analysis of The Great Panjandrum by British dramatist Samuel Foote and The Object Lesson by American artist Edward Gorey, who was noted for his illustrated books.

Sarah Jacoby Fall 2012
Critical Seminar Final Paper, Fall Semester 2012
Stop making sense-an analysis of Samuel Foote’s
The Great Panjandrum and Edward Gorey’s The Object Lesson

The Object Lesson (1958) is Edward Gorey’s fourth published work. The book is
the first to hone in on Gorey’s essential narrative style-a combination of playful verbiage
and image panels that make a story, albeit an abstract one. Gorey’s writings are obsessed
with mystery and strangeness but he counterbalances this fascination with humor and
word play. The stories he writes are sparse, they are largely image-based, and the
characters he concocts occupy strange worlds.

Despite the deep eccentricity of Gorey’s work, he has a strong following and a
large body of work. Throughout his life, he illustrated works as diverse as
Dracula by Bram Stoker, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, and Old Possum’s Book
of Practical Cats
by T. S. Eliot. In later years he produced cover illustrations and interior
artwork for many children’s books by John Bellairs.(1) Gorey became particularly
well known through his animated introduction to the PBS series Mystery! in 1980, as well
as his designs for the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula, for which he won a Tony
Award for Best Costume. Gorey was especially fond of movies, and for a time he wrote
regular reviews for the Soho Weekly under the pseudonym Wardore Edgy.(2) Clearly, his
work is widely respected and he is a highly sought after artist, but it begs the question,
why? How does such a strange figure garner so much adoration? What is it about the
American psyche that is so attracted to such oddness?

Gorey once told Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe, “Ideally, if anything were
any good, it would be indescribable.” Gorey classified his own work as literary nonsense,
the genre made most famous by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. In response to being
called gothic, he stated, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because
there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense
for children — oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy
music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense,
either.” (3) Here, Gorey points to ineffable quality of his stories. It is this indescribable-ness
that is particularly alluring to his readers. Gorey is a rare breed; he succeeds by
presenting a reader with instances of the utterly lunacy, and, by offering no resolution
becomes all the more enticing.

Gorey claims that the majority of his work is literary nonsense, but he was known
for being an especially knowledgeable person. Having gone to Harvard and roomed with
the notable American writer, poet, and art critic Frank O’Hara, he experienced culture
and education at its highest level in America. He was famous for his voracious appetite
for culture, both high and low. Much of Gorey’s work is directly influenced by outside
literary and theatrical work. His knowledge of literature and films was unusually
extensive. Wikipedia notes that “he named Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Francis
Bacon, George Balanchine, Balthus, Louis Feuillade, Ronald Firbank, Lady Murasaki
Shikibu, Robert Musil, Yasujiro Ozu,Anthony Trollope, and Johannes Vermeer as some
of his favorite artists. Apparently, Gorey was also an unashamed pop-culture junkie,
avidly following soap operas and television comedies like Petticoat Junction and Cheers,
and he had particular affection for dark genre series like Buffy the Vampire
Slayer
, Batman: The Animated Series and The X-Files; he once told an interviewer that
he so enjoyed the Batman series that it was influencing the visual style of one of his
upcoming books”.(4)

Perhaps it is the power of influence that sustains Gorey’s work through time. It is
possible that the majority of substance of his work is made available only through the
slightest suggestion and the hint at a larger context of art and history. His work may seem
whimsical or haphazard, but is truly a stylized aggregation of the many stories and
images he has consumed in his life. Gorey does not boldly site his source material in his
work, rather, his inspiration seeps out through playful mimicry. The Object Lesson is an
apt example of this point.

Bloomsbury Publishers note that The Object Lesson, for example, is directly
inspired by Samuel Foote’s poem “The Grand Panjandrum”(5). The poem reads:

So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbageleaf
to make an applepie;
and at the same time
a great shebear,
coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?
So he died,
and she very imprudently married the Barber:
and there were present
the Picninnies,
and the Joblillies,
and the Garyulies,
and the great Panjandrum himself,
with the little round button at top;
and they all fell to playing the game of catchascatchcan,
till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

This little rhyme was rumored to be a memorization game between Foote and a
fellow actor, but became a popular rhyme over time and eventually evolved into a
children’s picture book called The Great Panjandrum illustrated by Randolf
Caldecott himself (see image left). (6) It is anyone’s guess if Gorey read the rhyme as a
child and or if he discovered Samuel Foote as an adult, but it makes sense for Gorey to
have been infatuated with the verse. It features the typical characteristics of a Gorey
story: opening in medias res (7), word play, strange vocabulary, surrealist action, and
impending doom.

Take, for example, the words “Picninnies” “Joblillies” “Garyulies”. There is no
record of these words existing in the English language according to the Oxford English
Dictionary. They instead belong to the imaginary world of the Grand Panjandrum concocted by Foote. This type of alternative diagesis is typical for a dramatist, and a
logical technique for theater enthusiast like Gorey to use in his work. Gorey springs into
his own world with The Object Lesson as it begins as if in the midst of a scene:

“It was already Thursday but his lordship’s artificial limb could not be found/Therefore
having directed his servants to fill the bath, he seized the tongs and set out at once for the
edge of the lake/ where the throbblefoot specter still loitered in a distraught manner. /He
presented it with a length of string.” (pg. 1-3)

“It was already Thursday” is a dramatic vehicle for building suspense through writing.
Note how The Great Panjandrum starts, “So she went into the garden”. Gorey models
his story after this poem and, in doing so, creates a dynamic as if he is setting a stage.

Gorey does this visually as well. He often creates suspense through his
composition choices alone. Although his work often depicted violent acts, his drawings
almost always showed either the moment before the action was about to occur, or else the
action happened “off-stage,” as in a Greek tragedy. In the image here, we see a moment when “Madame O” throws herself off a parapet.

At this point in the story we have come to know her motive (the mustache of her cousin
was not his own), but Gorey leaves us here. We do not know her fate aside from this act.
In this way, Gorey distanced the reader from anything graphic, while simultaneously
heightening the tension. Gorey’s composition was as precisely controlled as his crosshatch
shading technique.

Foote ends The Great Panjandrum with “and they all fell to playing the game of
catchascatchcan, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.” The action here is
foreboding, though not altogether clear. It is unclear as to whether a trail of gunpowder
leads to the feet of the characters playing, promising death or stopping just short of it.
Such is the ending of The Object Lesson: “So the others retired to the kiosk only to
discover the cake’s ice stayed a peculiar shade of green and the tea urn empty save for a
card on which was written this single word, ‘Farewell.” Death seems imminent here, but
it is not stated outright. Thus the drama of the tale lingers.

One can see understand through a few common elements of The Grand
Panjandrum
and The Object Lesson how the one cannot exist without the other. The

Object Lesson is a continuation of a long literary history. Gorey’s appropriation of
elements of the poem help to bolster the nonsense framework of The Object Lesson. It is
not a single instance of play, but has its place in a larger context of literary history.

This observation develops when looking at Gorey’s work through the lens of the
French Surrealist movement. Gorey freely admits to being influenced by other surrealist
artists, particularly Max Ernst. He notes in an interview, “Max Ernst. Collage, frottage,
bricolage. Some of his paintings are quite wonderful. I probably would never have done
Figbash if he hadn’t done Loplop. I more or less grew up with Two Children Are
Threatened at Nightingale
at The Museum of Modern Art…”(8)

There are several instances that are particularly visually compelling. Une semaine
de bonté
(“A Week of Kindness”) is a graphic novel and artist’s book by Max Ernst, first
published in 1934. It comprises 182 images created by cutting up and reorganizing
illustrations from Victorian encyclopedias and novels. See various images
below:

Some of Ernst’s collaged characters are so close to Gorey’s that it’s remarkable. See the
penguin type character that’s featured in his work The Doubtful Guest:

Generally speaking, Gorey consistently draws figures in Victorian era dress, especially
members of the upper class, for example:

These characters are omnipresent in Ernst’s work as well. When considering Gorey’s
work alongside Ernst, the short rhymes and nonsense games assume a gravitas that could
initially be overlooked. Ernst was, after all, as surrealist. Lest we forget, “Surrealist
works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; many
Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical
movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact. Leader André Breton was
explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement.”(9).

The work of Edward Gorey can seem simplistic and strange. He himself sloughs
off deeper meaning in personal interviews. But, if one starts to peel back the layers of his
work by analyzing the sources of his influence, one can easily become steeped in a mire
of a complex set of references. Gorey’s penchant for drama and Surrealist art are just a
few ways to see his work. It is this deepness that produces such significance and sustains
the life of his work. It is this breadth of influence that supports Gorey’s eccentric nature.
Without it, he may have been another specter in a fur coat.

1 “Edward Gorey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 09 Dec.

2 “Edward Gorey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.

3 “Edward Gorey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.

4 “Edward Gorey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.

5 “Edward Gorey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

6 “The Grand Panjandrum Himself.” Gutenberg RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.

7 In medias res or medias in res (into the middle of things) is a Latin phrase for the literary and artistic narrative technique where the relating of a story begins at the midpoint, rather than at the beginning (cf. ab ovo, ab initio), establishing setting, character, and conflict via flashback or expository conversations relating the pertinent past.

8 Ross, Clifford, Karen Wilkin, and Ruth A. Peltason. The World of Edward Gorey. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996. Print.

9 “Surrealism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Print This Post Print This Post