Art: Works inspired by Poe's dark words

"Open Here I Flung the Shutter," an 1875 lithograph by Edouard Manet, one of two dozen Poe-influenced artists represented in the show.
"Open Here I Flung the Shutter," an 1875 lithograph by Edouard Manet, one of two dozen Poe-influenced artists represented in the show.

The Brandywine River Museum mounts a delightful exhibition, "Picturing Poe."

Posted: October 08, 2012

Edgar Allan Poe's troubled life, which ended 163 years ago Sunday in Baltimore, was relatively brief, just 40 years, but his macabre stories and poems earned him a celebrity that has endured for more than a century and a half.

Vividly imagined works such as "The Raven" and "The Pit and the Pendulum" made him one of the most widely illustrated authors of the 19th century. In fact, some artists who weren't primarily illustrators were inspired by his intensely gothic imagery, even into the late 20th century.

One is surprised to learn who some of them were - the abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, for one, as well as James Ensor, Edouard Manet, Odilon Redon, and Gustave Doré.

Famous illustrators who translated Poe included Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardsley, Felix O.C. Darley (the only artist that Poe himself commissioned), Edmund Dulac, and Fritz Eichenberg. All are among the two dozen artists who appear in a delightful and revealing exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum called "Picturing Poe."

It's an almost entirely black-and-white collection of prints, drawings, and posters that either address the writer's themes directly or extrapolate from them.

The Brandywine museum might seem an unexpected place to generate such a show because it doesn't own a lot of Poe material. Its contribution to the exhibition checklist consists of two film posters by the American artist Reynold Brown and a dozen or so books from the museum's library that contain Poe-related illustrations.

Museum curator Audrey Lewis assembled the impressive checklist through loans from a wide range of public and private lenders, particularly the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

One of the exhibition's more prominent themes is the strong impression that Poe's work made in Europe. Four transfer lithographs by Manet to illustrate Stéphane Mallarmé's translation of "The Raven," plus a poster advertising the book, and four ink drawings by Doré, for a London edition of the poem, constitute the most noteworthy evidence of Poe's popularity overseas, especially among the symbolist artists and writers.

Doré's misty gray drawings for "The Raven" most effectively express a symbolist interpretation of the poem; by contrast, Beardsley's boldly linear lithographs for several Poe works are more whimsical than scary, except for "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

There even are touches of humor, especially in the drawings and watercolors by Rackham, a British illustrator perhaps more famous for his visualizations of fairy tales.

Beardsley's graphic clarity and Rackham's light touch point up the broad range of styles on view. Where Alphonse Legros serves up the naturalistic horror of "The Pit and the Pendulum," Barry Moser's contemporary watercolors are reductive and suggestive.

The show concludes on a campy note, a recording of actor Vincent Price, who appeared in 11 films of Poe stories, reading "The Raven." His swooping cadences are a bit over the top, but then Poe himself was like that, wasn't he?

'Groundhog Day' at the Workshop Nearly four years ago, the Fabric Workshop and Museum celebrated its move into new quarters on Arch Street with an exhibition called "Threads of History."

It was a "family album" sort of show that highlighted some of the workshop's most innovative and popular projects since its founding in 1977.

A dazzling variety of practical and purely aesthetic objects by artists-in-residence collaborating with the workshop's artisans reminded us what a fabulous font of creativity and what a distinctively Philadelphia institution the workshop is.

If you were on extended holiday in a warm place in late 2008-early 2009 and missed "Threads," you have a second chance. The concept is back for a second run, with a new theme and a prestigious guest curator, Mark Rosenthal.

Rosenthal was in charge of 20th-century art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1983 to 1989. An independent, nationally recognized curator since the 1990s, he's the organizer of a current show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that assesses Andy Warhol's influence on contemporary art (through Dec. 31).

Rosenthal is so prominent in the workshop's promotion of "An Odyssey" that one could be excused for thinking his participation is the main point. I suppose it needs to be, because the material from the workshop's collection is pretty much the same as it was in "Threads," with the addition of several new works.

Rosenthal drew his theme for "An Odyssey," as well as the title, from the epic by the Greek poet Homer. In his narrative, Penelope waits patiently at home, weaving by day and unweaving by night, while her husband, Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans), wanders home from the Trojan war.

At 1214 Arch St., this translates into "home and away," with the domestic front represented by more or less functional objects such as garments, accessories, and custom yardage in the second-floor gallery, and art that alludes to events and situations outside the home on the eighth floor.

A few doors down at 1222 Arch, the workshop has set up a video program of 12 performances given over the years, including She Lost It by Louise Bourgeois from 1992, Laurie Anderson's Animal Stories from 2011, and Nick Cave's Let's C, also from 2011.

The theme is so loosely draped over the installation that one hardly notices it. Instead, a stroll through the galleries becomes like a homecoming as one recognizes the many important artists who have passed through the place and the many signature works they have produced.

These include a panoply of pieces by many artists - Roy Lichtenstein's boldly printed shirt, Claes Oldenburg's calico bunnies, a delicate scrim of artificial flowers by Jim Hodges, Betty Woodman's Turandot Doorway, and Yinka Shonibare's space-walking astronauts.

As if to prove that the workshop still honors its roots, the show includes a suite of painterly woven panels by Mika Tajima based on acoustic patterns and a quilted hanging by Nari Ward called Homeland Sweet Homeland that alludes to the Miranda doctrine.

The question that lingers after seeing the revival is, why did the workshop repeat this concept? To mark its 35th anniversary? To remind its audience that it's a museum and has a collection that ordinarily isn't displayed?

Or is the workshop perhaps slowing down because of budgetary constraints, or because it's running low on energy, or because the climate of art-making has shifted away from what its expertise can contribute? I hope not.


Art: 'Picturing Poe'/ 'An Odyssey'

"Picturing Poe" continues at the Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford, through Nov. 15. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $12 general, $8 for visitors 65 and older, and $6 for students and visitors 6 through 12. Free Sundays until noon. Information: 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org.

"An Odyssey" continues at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 and 1222 Arch St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission $3. Information: 215-561-8888 or www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.

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