Where the body is buried.

Yesterday I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Edgar Allen Poe exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, courtesy of Maryland Citizens for the Arts.

The exhibit’s curator, Doreen Bolger, walked us around the gallery, describing not just the significance of the art included, but explaining the motivations behind the entire construction of the exhibit. It’s a gorgeous setting, with the perfect wall colors enlivening the works of art on the walls, and curtains and furnishings that have a transporting effect on the visitor.

Poe lived all over the East Coast, attended West Point and UVA, and generally didn’t settle anywhere too long until he dropped dead in Baltimore, which sort of gives the city bragging rights over him. This year is the bicentennial of his birth and Baltimore has been celebrating him for a while. This exhibit was one of those celebrations.

The first room, Doreen explained, was dedicated to French response to Poe’s work. As with film noir, French artists were the first to celebrate and remark upon the significance of Poe’s writings, and he remains–along with jazz–one of the few American imports that is squarely absorbed into French culture. Edouard Manet’s sketches of Poe, along with portraits of Charles Baudelaire, to whom Poe was often compared, line the walls of the room. Most surprising were the line drawings of Poe’s face by Henri Matisse that had been drawn for inclusion in an anthology of the author’s work. They are simple, evocative–capturing the true essence of Poe’s strange and compelling facial features.

In the exhibit’s larger hall, Poe’s literary work is explored by three themes–Love and Loss, Fear and Terrror, and Madness and Obsession. Throughout the exhibit, illustrated books of Poe’s work are visible under glass. “The Raven,” of course, takes center stage here–Manet’s illustrations of the poems stand out, as well as do more contemporary pieces that incorporate text from the poem. To the side of that, his short stories like “The Pit and the Pendulum” come to life, while the other wing of the exhibit is dedicated to things like “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

The exhibit really sparked my curiosity about Poe. When I was a kid, I tried memorizing one of his poems for school, but honestly I just failed miserably at doing it. But he was one of the first poets I remember reading on my own, and I read many of his short stories, totally disgusted by most of them, but oddly interested as well.

I guess now all I have to do is make a visit to his grave, which I hear is a bit of a tourist destination in town…

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