The Musee de l’Art Modern de La Ville de Paris is hosting a retrospective of Robert Crumb. There is a lot to see. There is so much writing and drawing that one is reminded of newspapers of the 60’s and 70’s whose front pages were a gray on gray haze.
I cannot give an objective appreciation of the show. I am not sure that I like Crumb’s work. It is the first time that I have seen it in 40 years. However, I do appreciate it. He was and is enviably prolific and deft with his pen (people lived for his cross hatching). He is endlessly resourceful and found barrels of subject matter in the wells of his self loathing and his obsession with stout Alpha females. He is an ace at composing within the confines of comic strip panels. In documentaries he is affable and disarmingly honest and frank. He plays good guitar, too.
However, I have always found the morphology of his early characters too balloon like and/or too multi-jointed for comfort. His subject matter is often revolting. Fluids abound and are always kind of pestilential. Everyone and everything is trapped in an adolescent acne haze. When I looked at his comics as a kid I was stunned by the ugliness of it all. I couldn’t get beyond the drawings and reach the text. Maybe the text is enlightening?
Crumb’s work takes me back to my 60’s childhood. Often the older brothers of friends were tripping while embalmed in the strong odors of drugs and “natural” body odors — the parents were probably getting high as well. At the time I skimmed MAD magazines. But I was never really either counter culture or a huge consumer of dope. I was the oldest child in my family and a serious athlete and so could only dabble in those activities. I probably became an artist in order to maintain the status quo. At art school I yearned to go to Russia and paint propaganda . . .and then that empire collapsed.
At least Crumb wasn’t a false prophet. I especially liked a cartoon from Mr. Natural where he has to answer a young man’s question “What is it all about?” After zipping between dimensions and distortions of space with the questioner the two come back to where they started. Mr. Natural provides no answer and leaves. This is a recurring theme. There are no answers.
Crumb got his start selling his home made magazines in the streets of San Francisco. Could that happen today? Does paper register anymore? Is there a counter culture today? The theme of the 60’s was Peace and Love and encounters ended on “Peace, man” like a blessing. What’s the Word today? The word is “Money”, but we don’t say it. We ask for some ( I have always wondered why there is no Money Day in the style of Labor Day). The Word we say is “F__k”. It’s everywhere including The New Yorker. What is that vulgar word creep anyway?
If there is a counterculture today it would have to take on goverments and businesses that are bigger and stronger than ever. Maybe only governments can be counter culture. Look what Argentina did two weeks ago (nationalised a Spanish oil company). Two days ago the French elected a new president who will be trying to boss the banks around. The banks will make him and the French people pay dearly.
Drugs fueled the counter culture. Crumb created a lot of his characters while on acid. Today drugs are the object of an all out war in the West. Governments use them to create markets for weapons and militias. Doing drugs only abets the arms industry and police forces which infringe on our liberties. Getting high and sitting in are neutered. What I want to know is: Where’s the “Love”?
Underground comics may have been a social pacifier. Sure there were riots in the 60’s and 70’s, but the political system never changed and the wars continued. The goverment kept control because the underground gave voice to disenfranchized youth and hippies. They went down drawing. And the “movement” had spokespeople you could follow, for awhile, until disenchantment hit. Today everyone has to make their own stand on Facebook. It’s exhausting and weakens revolt.
In Crumb’s world cares vaporized. Questioning existence only led to temporary insanity. It was a world of sexual sweepstakes which could be painfully self conscious but not deadly. In contrast to that today are the hugely popular Japanese comic strips known as Manga. They are, for the most part, incredibly violent. The premise is that we are all in the jungle. There are only alliances and fights to the death to survive.
The grand finale to the exhibition is the complete illustration of the book of Genesis. This work has a whole new figurative style.This is because in the 80’s Crumb started concentrating on his life drawing. I was surprised that Crumb kept to the letter of whatever translation it was he was using. Why didn’t he exploit the metaphorical sides of the work or tell it from another point of view i.e.Eve’s? After all the womb separates light from darkness, right?
Does Crumb speak to our times? I doubt it, but the the power of comic strips is still alive, if only in the most repressed societies. In Tunisia the owner of a TV channel aired the Marjane Satrapi film Persepolis in which God is depicted as an old man. He was tried for blasphemy with certain prosecution lawyers asking for the death penalty. The verdict of guilty with a fine and no imprisonment was announced on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day.