CHADDS FORD, Pa., September 28, 2012 — Even if Edgar Allan Poe weren’t my distant cousin, I’d have profound admiration for his original, sophisticated and, yes, perverse works. That’s what led me to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a picturesque hamlet set amid the rolling fields, stands of forests and the meandering river that defines the Brandywine Valley.
Nestled at the heart of the village is the Brandywine River Museum, a temple to the trio of Wyeths: N.C.’s classic illustrations (i.e. Treasure Island), Andrew’s egg tempera (Christina’s World), Jamie’s pop-saturated portraits (Nureyev).
But on a recent crisp fall day I came to view the work of artists who over the past 150 years have been inspired to interpret Poe stories. The collection has been assembled by the museum for Picturing Poe: Illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories and Poems, an exhibit which runs until November 8.
A barista at a nearby market, a young woman who’d studied Poe in eighth grade, told me, “No other writer we studied in school made such an impact on me. His stories and his life, well, you know, were really, really different.”
You can say that again. And perhaps Poe’s life, as much as his haunting stories, is what inspires so many artists.
Walking though this small, well-curated exhibit, you are reminded of the complexity of Poe’s pathos-inducing stories of human beings trapped in a world that reflects the yawning horror of being alive.
Poe’s tales tug at the core of reason and score at the heart of the reader, delivering a visceral impression. It is no wonder then that so many artists have been inspired to translate Poe’s words into visual images.
Perhaps the most rewarding way to approach the exhibit is to start with Felix O.C. Darley, an artist chosen by Poe himself to illustrate his work in 1843. Here, a singular image of an opened trunk with treasure and horror strewn about the ground is rendered in two ways: the original simple — almost cartoonish — sketch and a more complex and detailed woodcut.
Other pieces worth noting include:
Edouard Manet took a stark, almost existential, approach to “The Raven.” His austere black and white sketches were created to accompany the French translation by Stephane Mallarme that was published in 1875 and were responsible, at least partially, for Poe’s popularity in France.
Paul Gauguin’s interpretation of Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom” depicts a calm sea beneath which crouches a frightened, pitiful sailor who has been cast into oblivion. This piece, with its fanlike depiction of the subconscious inspired by Gauguin’s love of Japanese culture, was shown at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889.
In 1975 Robert Motherwell created a violent riot to capture the turmoil of Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom.” This lithograph is noteworthy because it so fully reflects the modern world’s obsession with feeling over reason. In typical Motherwell fashion, the sailor’s angst and the storm’s chaos are expressed as a cloudy ink explosion that confuses and repels the viewer.
Finally, two young Croatian artists deliver the freshest approach. Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac incorporate Poe’s stories and life into four images that conjure an unsettlingly cheerful derangement reminiscent of “A Clockwork Orange.” The pieces with their giddy color, iconic images and playful gears reveal more about Poe’s mind than they of his work.
The Brandywine River Museum has complemented the exhibit with contextual events, like an evening of Spanish wine tasting in honor of Poe’s short story “The Cask Of Amontillado,” a children’s program which includes a bird-themed craft and a wildlife rehab presentation, a POE’try Slam and Contest for teens, and a costumed ball.
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