• The American Contortion Artist

    Date posted: August 29, 2012 Author: jolanta

    Robert Hughes called Crumb the Brueghal of the 20th Century, an incessant revelator of man’s follies. A bit of a stretch that—Crumb makes me think of Doré (who illustrated Grimm, Rabelais and Cervantes, among others), Daumier’s caricatures, the English cartoonists of the 18th and 19th centuries (Gillray for one) —all of whom he probably knew nothing about when he started. Influence is a tricky business; one stumbles on one’s tribe as one goes along. Crumb in the late fifties was reading Harvey Kurtzman at Mad Magazine, looking at cartoons and trying to make sense of America—and life. He and his brothers were teenage proto-Beatniks, tortured souls; the real thing, not poseurs.

    “The show at Paris’s Musee de Art Moderne covers all bases and gives a large room to Crumb’s version of Genesis.”


    Robert Crumb, Crazy Horse, 1996. Encre et fluide correcteur sur papier 31.4 x 53 cm Publié dans Art & Beauty Magazine (Fantagraphics Books), no 1, 2003.  Photo Credit: Paul Morris and David Zwirner, New York © Robert Crumb

    The American Contortion Artist
    By Iddhis Bing

     

    Robert Hughes called Crumb the Brueghal of the 20th Century, an incessant revelator of man’s follies. A bit of a stretch that—Crumb makes me think of Doré (who illustrated Grimm, Rabelais and Cervantes, among others), Daumier’s caricatures, the English cartoonists of the 18th and 19th centuries (Gillray for one) —all of whom he probably knew nothing about when he started. Influence is a tricky business; one stumbles on one’s tribe as one goes along. Crumb in the late fifties was reading Harvey Kurtzman at Mad Magazine, looking at cartoons and trying to make sense of America—and life. He and his brothers were teenage proto-Beatniks, tortured souls; the real thing, not poseurs.

    Crumb’s work has duende, that Spanish word for the house sprite who is forever upsetting teacups and apple-carts. Has any other visual artist of his generation offered such a rapacious criticism of society, with himself in center stage? The center of gravity in Crumb is not the flora and fauna Americana but the terrible weight of the obsessions he cannot escape, the arcane Catholic mythos he carries on his back and cannot unload no matter how many times he hurls it to the ground in cross-hatched lines. His imagination is full of crawling worms, Jews and Blacks and the Emancipated Woman who strides by without giving him the time of day—not to mention the Snoid from Sheboygen. (In America, one must mention the Snoid. He is everywhere.) In other words, the demonic paranoia that infests Joe Blow’s everyday, working intelligence. The laughter it provokes is a kind of polite agreement between artist and audience so that neither party goes insane. Crumb is a raver standing outside the church of American Life shouting blasphemies, a beserk enthusiast on his way to being enshrined as a National Treasure. And we all know how Americans treat their Treasures, they ignore them.

    The show at Paris’s Musee de Art Moderne covers all bases and gives a large room to Crumb’s version of Genesis. He has already illustrated Sartre’s Nausea among other texts, so why not go for the Motherload? No one will ever accuse the Bible of making sense, so it’s perfect meat for Crumb’s appetite. The stories in Genesis read an awful lot like Pre-Crumbian Shambolism, tribal tellings of the Disaster known as Mankind as he wanders from Egypt to Sinai to Canaan and back again.

    Robert Crumb, dans son atelier, 2011. © Sébastien Gokalp
    Unfortunately I can’t join the Hosannah Chorus on this one. Satire and invective depend on variety and far too many of Crumb’s characters here are straight out of Central Casting. (Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Very Crumbian.) On a deeper level, by sticking to the most conservative version of the Bible—and mixing text from translations five hundred years apart, a really terrible idea—Crumb missed an opportunity to produce a real book of revelations. Is he the only person unaware of 200 years of digging into the literary origins of the Bible, the resurrection of material the so-called Babylonian editors cut out? They were, in fact, censors in green eyeshades, God’s first bureaucrats. They never died, they just moved to Hollywood… What we get is a sanitary version of Genesis. Faced with the Bible, Crumb’s Catholic upbringing finally got to him.

    The “lavishly illustrated,” coffee-table Genesis sits in the bookshops next to Mr. Sixties – his gimlet-eyed version of a pivotal decade – and Adventures with Crumb, on whose cover he is flying across the sky while penetrating an Amazonian female from behind. Never afraid to shock, to go for outrage or excess, in Genesis Crumb plays coy and respectful. The book is selling well, even here in agnostic France.       

    A French critic called Joel Peter Witkin “the master of disagreeable beauty.” A well-turned phrase. It may be hard to look at but it is beauty and therefore bears inspection.

    The curators at the Biblioteque Nationale have in fact mounted two shows: Witkin, and his predecessors. They place the American within a long, underground European tradition of the forbidden: forbidden lusts and the forbidden confrontation with mortality. So Witkin does not lack for forebears: Durer’s Armoire de la Morte, Heinrich Goltzius’s Dragon, Agosto Veneziano’s Le Stegozzo, to select a few examples from the Renaissance. Felicien Rops’s drawings share Witkin’s concern with a lonely, tortured eroticism, but it’s Jacque Lequeue who really turns things on their heads with his malevolent, chesty nuns and mad architecture. Someone ought to wade deep into the archives and give us a definitive Lequeue exposition. Witkin enjoys a comfortable success in comparison.

    So it isn’t pleasure we get out of Witkin. His eye is too distanced for that. Shock? Yes, but then we’ve all been shocked before. This is more subtle. The thing about Witkin is the initial, “Well, I really don’t need to see it” attitude. And then there is a first viewing and before you know it, there is a second, a third. 

    A fair number of his subjects are not being tortured but are torturing themselves, and a large number are dead and beyond torture. The images are riveting in a way that photographs of devastation and atrocity no longer are. And yet it is hard to make out what Witkin, the architect of these ensembles mortes, feels about them; hard to know what we should feel. One thinks of the armless Mexican amputee, a stationary Pan abandoned on a tree stump, the dog next to him staring at the camera… There is a terrible silence to this image of desolation. This is a cold and chilly art.

    The Swiss photographer Otto Muehlethaler said this about straight portraits: “It is impossible to show the person—only a type or a kind of person. I don’t make portraits because I don’t want to make types.” Both Crumb and Witkin would agree with that. The only way to truth is to distort, to get inside the human animal by flesh or fantasy. Unlike some European artists who, faced with the impossibility of defining reality, retreat to the dry shores of conceptualism, the American becomes carnal. Skin! Flesh! Alive or dead! Natur morte! Are they just carny acts on a vast shimmering plain abounding with ears of corn and no ideas? Hardly. Both artists argue that life is perverse—by nature—and all our rules and regulations so much humbug. Beauty is the collision between one of those bent rules and truth; the bigger the impact the more lasting the result. And to paraphrase Norman Mailer, neither of these artists is afraid to make life difficult for the viewer to get there. 

    Our (European) sensibility concerning the tradition is always complex and is never one of acceptance but of altering, reconfiguring—whaling away like Ahab on the old masters. Americans North and South are in that sense the real European artists; Witkin explicitly so, Crumb by design.

     

     

     

     

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