Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory

rosie blog

Rosie (Prismacolour Indigo Blue pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook page 14 cms x 21.6 cms) 2019

Mark Dery has bravely published the first full-length biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, who died in 2000. It runs to over 500 pages which, bearing in mind Gorey did little except go to the New York City Ballet and draw, is probably too long. Dery is an astute interpreter of Gorey’s art and writing, but spends far too long speculating on Gorey’s sexuality and his shortcomings as a fully-rounded human being (show me a great artist who is).

I used to be mildly obsessed with Edward Gorey, ever since a good friend showed me a copy of The Doubtful Guest, which had been given to her by a New York gay couple who were friends of her father. I started buying his intriguing little books in the pre-internet days when one had to write letters to the Gotham Book Mart in NYC and send them international money orders as payment. I’ve no idea how many hours I spent in my twenties just cross-hatching like the Master.

Mark Dery is also insightful on his friendship with author Peter Neumeyer which was largely conducted by letter, and has since been published as a beautifully-illustrated book. He reminds us of Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory of Art, which is basically:

Anything that is art…is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other because if you just have the something it’s boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.

He continues that things ‘that on the surface…are so obviously’ about one thing make it ‘very difficult to see that they are really about something else entirely’ (unfortunately Mark Dery then goes on to say that this demonstrates Gorey’s ‘Derridean-Beckettian awareness of the limits of language’ and ‘his Asian-Barthesian belief in the importance of ambiguity and paradoxes as spaces where readers can play with a text, making their own meanings’).

I’ve spent a long time on this blog trying to pin down the ‘something else’. I think we can agree that whatever we are inspired to draw or paint, that object or landscape is more than just that picture on the paper. Take the drawing of Rosie, the retriever-samoyed cross, above. On one level it’s a drawing of a dog using a Prismacolor indigo pencil on Stillman and Birn gamma paper. The ‘something else’ might well be my affection for Rosie and her owners, my enjoyment of my time with them all, my drawing Rosie as an expression of my feelings about being welcomed into someone’s home and family life over Christmas, how much I miss my own departed greyhound, and so on. What it isn’t, ultimately, is just a drawing of a dog.

Gorey has it spot on that ‘if you just have the something it’s boring’. Have you ever started drawing or painting something and you feel you’re just going through the motions, that what you’re doing is so superficial that you simply can’t face taking it any further? You might be surprised to learn that I’ve occasionally started drawing a piece of fruit and have abandoned it because it simply bores me to death, and if I don’t like drawing it why should you like looking at it? I believe that’s just having the ‘something’ in Gorey’s Great Simple Theory.

I once met a painter who gave his landscapes titles like ‘Heartbreak is the end of all of love’s journeys’. That might well be true but it had the effect of not letting you see his paintings of nature as anything other than symbols of his inner turmoil. This is, perhaps, an example of when you ‘just have the something else [that’s] irritating’. It’s frustrating seeing or hearing something that you think is simple and its creator telling you it’s actually incredibly profound. Van Gogh did inner turmoil to a tee, but he called his paintings “Starry Night” or “Crows Over a Cornfield” not “I’m so wired up I’m going to punch Gauguin in the face any minute”, allowing us to form our own interpretation.

That, at least, is my take on Gorey’s Great Simple Theory. You might see it very differently, which is fine with me. And with Edward Gorey, I’m sure.

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34 thoughts on “Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory

  1. Michael, I always enjoy your posts and works–but this one really hit me between the eyes this morning–so much so that I am printing it out and putting it where I can see it everyday. I love Gorey’s Simple Theory of Art–so simple, but not easy by any stretch of the imagination. And maybe because you have featured a picture of Rosie (and I remember the ones of Gerald that you have shown in the past too) am I reminded that nothing is as simple as it looks-that almost always there is an intent waiting to be discovered-Thank you so much for this!

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  2. I too find Gorey’s words to be apt. And they apply not only to art, but writing as well. As his books demonstrate. They are what they are but they are also something else entirely.
    I love your comment about Van Gogh and titles too–just right. (K)

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  3. Ha! Another thought-provoking post that forces me to think (again) about what the heck I am actually doing or saying with my art, whether I’m really saying anything at all, and whether art titles add value to the artwork by giving a clue as to the “something else,” so long as they don’t clobber the viewer over the head. And what if Gorey is off the mark– what’s wrong with art just being about something and leave it be.

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    • Thanks Jean. I wonder if you’re compelled to draw or paint something – as many of us are – whether the result can just be the something? I might paint a quince because I like painting quinces and be happy with the result, but then aren’t all the reasons why I like painting quinces, and painting them instead of (say) bananas, the ‘something else’? I don’t think it has to be hidden meaning, such as I paint quinces because they’re shaped like breasts and I hated my mother (I didn’t, by the way!), but perhaps just that something drives us to do this. Your art is full of that, I think. Your work seems to have that quality of needing to be there, which is one of the reasons why it’s so attractive. In other words, it’s produced with a passion to create.

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  4. You have just encapsulated what I feel about making art. I was chatting to Husb the other day about why is it that I always agonise over every piece of art that I do, even a simple sketch, almost to the point where sometimes I feel like I can hardly bear to do it because it’s so hard, while other artists I know don’t go through this at all, turning out lovely artwork quickly and efficiently. And this post today helps me to understand why everything I draw, print etc… must have a meaning, a resonance for me. Crikey, Hark at me lol 😀

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  5. Ah, the titles of artworks. I’m with you on not wanting to see something like “I’m so wired up I’m going to punch Gauguin in the face any minute”. At the other extreme, for four decades I’ve noticed in the world of academic photography how often a photographer calls a picture “Untitled,” as if to identify or even hint at anything specific would be to venture outside the cerebral realm of “Art”. Similarly, it has long struck me as pretentious when art museums identify a black and white photograph as a “gelatin silver print” rather than as a plain-old photograph. (Yes, there are other kinds of black and white photographs, but the huge majority are gelatin silver prints, so only the small minority of other types need to be specified.)

    In any case, thanks for the introduction to Gorey’s Great Simple Theory.

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  6. Ah, Michael, this post really resonated with me. I am at a point in my visual art journey where I need to stop and ask myself why I am painting this painting or drawing this drawing; where is the ‘something else’? Gorey’s theory reminds me of the mantra to ‘write the book you want to read’. This post was an inspiration that I needed right now. BTW, my drawing class has started up again and I am having such a great time with it.

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    • I’m so pleased that you’re still enjoying drawing and I’m certain, given the depth of feeling and astute observation that you have in your writing, your art will have plenty of “something else”! Truly. Do continue, and do post some alongside your writing. Looking forward to it!

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      • I’m working on one now. A neighbor moved away and I took the opportunity to try to draw her house. My angles are all off so it looks like a house from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I’ll keep working though. 🙂

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  7. Interesting…thanks for communicating Gorey’s ideas here. Your aside about Dery’s unfortunate comment is funny, as is your idea for a Van Gogh title. I think of straight botanical illustration as a good example of “just the thing” and am always pleased to see someone produce botanical illustration that does more, and includes feeling. It’s a balance, isn’t it? There’s lots of room in the middle for that balance to sway to one side or the other, but when it tips all the way, the work just doesn’t sing. Rosie’s portrait is a nice example of achieving the balance.

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    • Thank you so much for your comment about the Rosie drawing. I’m glad you found the post interesting too. Of course Edward Gorey has no greater insight than you or I at the end of the day, but I think his view is nice and ‘simple’, as he says.

      Botanical (and medical) illustrations are interesting – in some ways they are supposed to be just the ‘something’ by definition. Yet Audubon’s paintings of birds are both accurate and seem to have the ‘something else’ – hmm, food for thought!

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  8. Very interesting. I too like Gorey’s theory. But I also like what you alluded to about the limits of language and the importance of ambiguity, etc., That kind of “play” for me has always been the “something else” that draws me into a painting or drawing, something we can’t quite put our finger on, although we keep trying. And that “thing,” that “something else” is what draws us beyond the obviously known. For me it is expressed as a kind of spirit or connectivity that underlies all things, that Asian influence, I suppose. It’s all so simple on the surface and at its deepest part too, but the space in-between comprises a delicious complexity, wild and rich.

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    • That’s interesting, Deborah. Certainly that ‘something else’ is very elusive sometimes.

      You’re saying that the something else that lies beyond the image is there in everything, if I understand you correctly? That’s an interesting idea. I love the idea of “a delicious complexity, wild and rich” lying beneath the surface of all experience. I’ll have to give that more thought.

      I’m getting some fascinating reactions to Gorey’s Simple Theory, I must say! Thank you so much for your contribution.

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  9. Tim Rudman – my favourite landscape photographer – says good photographs are both of something and about something. The same is true of your drawing of Rosie.

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  10. Dear Vivie,

    I am very pleased to hear news of Humphrey; please give him my best wishes when next you meet.

    My sincere congratulations on the completion of your degree; I do hope you graduation day is very special for you.

    I very much liked your painting in the Adelaide Review; intriguing – in that it is painted on linen, but also calm and soothing. I could look at it for a long while, and am sorry I missed the exhibition.

    Kind regards, Yvonne

    >

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    • Thank you so much. I couldn’t see where to comment on your blog so let me do so here. Someone once said to me that it looked as if the pictures on this blog were painted and drawn by a number of different people. For me the medium dictates the style, so I’m much looser in charcoal and acrylics than I am in pencil or ink. I don’t think it’s necessary to cut back to a single style, although galleries like that if that’s your ambition. I truly believe a style will evolve out of experimentation, and that experimentation is at the heart of creativity. Just my view, of course!

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