Published: August 14, 2012
Édouard Manet, Gustave Doré, Paul Gauguin, James Ensor, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Barry Moser and Robert Motherwell are among the more than two dozen artists featured in “Picturing Poe: Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories and Poems.” From the seemingly straightforward to the abstract, each artist’s work reflects his or her own time and personal interpretation of Poe’s work. The exhibition will be on view at the Brandywine River Museum September 8⁎ovember 15.
More than 150 years after his death, Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809‱849) macabre writings continue to appeal to a broad audience, and his troubled life and mysterious death have launched him into the pantheon of popular culture. His vivid writing and ability to suggest imagery in the mind of the reader have helped make him one of the most widely illustrated authors in the world.
Poe believed that illustrations should evoke or suggest rather than describe in detail, and he personally selected F.O.C. Darley, the greatest illustrator of the day, to illustrate his story The Gold-Bug . Darley’s simple, uncluttered ink wash drawings appeared as woodcuts alongside Poe’s prizewinning tale in The Dollar Newspaper in 1843.
Poe’s popularity soared in France shortly after his death, especially with avant-garde French writers and artists who appreciated his emphasis on the psychologically dark, perverse and strange. Édouard Manet’s approach to The Raven was groundbreakingly modern in its style and departure from literal interpretation. As the narrator †in contemporary dress †flings open the shutters to admit the raven, a view of a modern city is seen, a take on the story that is very different from the Victorian clutter and melodrama in Gustave Doré’s rendering of the same scene.
Manet’s dramatic use of black opposing white, his bold simplification, vigorous handling of line and lack of finish brought him critical praise and have been cited as an important turning point in book illustration. In particular, Manet’s final plate is remarkable for its starkness. It illustrates the last lines of Poe’s poem: “And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor / And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted †Nevermore!” Manet’s removal of the narrator’s physical presence from the scene is unique. He opts instead to evoke the presence of the narrator’s soul †or spiritual self †now overcome by the looming shadow of the raven. Both of these illustrations are on view in the exhibition.
Some illustrators capture the theatricality in Poe’s stories of violence and revenge, including Arthur Rackham, whose interpretation of The Tell-Tale Heart is full of exaggerated, dramatic gestures and expressions. He incorporates an explicit view under the floorboards (not part of Poe’s text) that more or less summarizes the whole story with its inclusion of the bloody knife, dismembered corpse and focus on the victim’s “vulture eye” †the very cause of the heinous crime, according to the narrator/murderer.
Poe’s exploration of all aspects of the human psyche has appealed to modern artists through the present day, including those associated with the Symbolist movement, German Expressionism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Robert Motherwell created a series of Poe-inspired Abstract Expressionist collages and lithographs during the 1970s. One of the lithographs, titled “Poe’s Abyss,” references Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom , in which a fisherman describes his harrowing and horrifying fight for survival when caught in a ferocious ocean whirlpool.
Motherwell uses bold brushstrokes and overlays of subtle color to suggest the darkness and swirling of the sea and its inherent chaos. Like Poe’s story, Motherwell’s lithograph symbolizes the descent into the turmoil of the subconscious, a theme resonant with Abstract Expressionists such as Motherwell, who saw Poe as one of the originators of modern art.
The Brandywine River Museum is on US Route 1. For information, 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org .
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